Does childhood have a history? Are the experiences of children, and the relations between children and their elders, constants of human nature, universal through time and space, or are they social constructs, radically differing from culture to culture and from age to age? At the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries William Wordsworth wrote of childhood and youth as a uniquely privileged time of innocence and insight—“Heaven lies about us in our infancy,” a paradisal state from which growing up was a progressive exile and disenchantment—“Shades of the prison- house begin to close/Upon the growing boy.” After Freud we cannot quite subscribe to so idealized an understanding of the dreaming innocence of youth. Nevertheless the distinctiveness of childhood as a state utterly different from adulthood is deeply ingrained in our culture, and encoded in icons of childhood as different as Peter Pan and Huckleberry Finn.

In 1960 the French demographic historian Philippe Ariès published a remarkable book, L’Enfant et la vie familiale sous l’Ancien Régime, translated two years later as Centuries of Childhood,* in which he advanced a dramatic hypothesis. Childhood did indeed have a history, he argued, but it was a short and comparatively recent one, for the very concept of childhood was a product of modern thought. Before the seventeenth century, though children existed, childhood did not: a child was regarded as a small and inadequate adult, and the concept of the “childish” as something distinct from adults was a creation of the modern world. Medieval children, Ariès claimed, lived in the margins of adult life, with little or no distinctive cultural identity of their own. Their clothes were miniaturized versions of adult wear, they had no special culture of play, no children’s literature, there was no Wordsworthian idealization of the innocence or carelessness of childhood.

The reasons for this absence, he thought, were complex. Many children died young, and so the bonds of affection between parents and children were of necessity looser than those in the modern West, where most children can be relied on to survive into adulthood. The consequent culture of detachment manifested itself from the very beginning of infancy, for every woman who could afford it sent her infant children to wet nurses to be breast-fed, thereby depriving them, and herself, of one of the most intimate bonding experiences between mother and child. For most people the home was also the workplace, not the center of the loving affective family, but a structure for toil, in which the immature adults we call children were part of the workforce. The children of the poor worked as soon as they were able to pick stones, glean corn, scare crows, or drive a flock of geese; the children of artisans were apprenticed and went to live with their masters long before puberty; the children of the well-to-do were sent away to school, or to other households to be fostered. And because there was little or no privacy within the pre-modern house, relationships were more public and less intimate than we are accustomed to, a situation in which individuality and affection could scarcely flourish. So, Ariès argued,

the movement of collective life carried along in a single torrent all ages and classes, leaving nobody any time for solitude and privacy…. The family fulfilled a function; it ensured the transmission of life, property and names; but it did not penetrate very far into human sensibility.

This changed decisively, Ariès believed, in the seventeenth century, with the arrival of a new and sentimentalized conception of family, in which the cultivation of the affections and the shaping of childish character now had each their privileged place. Alongside this went a new emphasis on education, and the multiplication of schools near the home so that children could be formed without separation: the age of the close-knit nuclear family had arrived. For this gain in privacy and affect, however, there was, he thought, a terrible price. The new emphasis on family and education recognized that the child was a distinctive being capable of formation, but the regimes devised to facilitate this all-important formation were oppressive in direct proportion to the importance newly invested in them. Family and school removed children from adult society, and dragooned them into conformity, even, in Ariès’s extreme and memorable formulation, “inflicted on [them] the birch, the prison cell—in a word, the punishments usually reserved for convicts.” The new quest for individuality, affection, and privacy within the family broke up the ancient solidarities of rich and poor, heightened class barriers, imprisoned children within suffocating family structures encircled by “the wall of private life.” The emergence of the concepts of childhood, therefore, reduced rather than extended freedoms, and the concept of family, like class and race, “appear as manifestations of the same intolerance towards variety, the same insistence on uniformity.”


On a visit to the Holy Land in 1964, just two years after Ariès’s book was translated into English, the then pope, Paul VI, celebrated in very different tones the “austere and simple beauty,” the “sacred and inviolable character,” of the paradigmatic nuclear family—Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. In the Holy Family’s hidden life in Nazareth the Pope saw the proof of and model for the “irreplaceable” role of the family in the social order. Extracts from this speech were to become a permanent part of the worship of the Roman Catholic Church, being subsequently (and still) prescribed for reading in the liturgy of the Hours annually on the feast of the Holy Family (the Sunday after Christmas). But it was precisely this vision of the centrality of the affectionate nuclear family, a vision shared by most of the major religious traditions of the modern West, that Ariès’s work challenged. Coming at the start of the Sixties, his bold characterization of the close-knit nuclear family not as the fundamental building block of society, but as a comparatively recently evolved structure of oppression, was eagerly taken up. In France Jean-Louis Flandrin’s Families in Former Times (1976), in America Edward Shorter’s The Making of the Modern Family (1975), and, for England, Lawrence Stone’s The Family, Sex and Marriage, 1500–1800 (1977) proposed variations on Ariès’s theme of the evils of historic family structure, and its dramatic recent transformations.

The historic family was oppressive, it de-eroticized children and women; it turned wives into baby machines, children into subordinated versions of their parents; it embodied and enforced patriarchy and hideously hurtful child-rearing practices (like swaddling). For Stone in particular, nevertheless, the story had after all a happy ending. As better nutrition, hygiene, and medicine brought child mortality under control, parents could for the first time allow themselves to become truly attached to their young children; as puritanism faded, the rigors of oppressive patriarchy softened, just as the looser and more affectionate ideas of the Enlightenment abolished swaddling, flogging, and wet-nursing, and encouraged parental indulgence of children in place of coercion.

The sometimes adolescent excesses of the rebellion of the Sixties and Seventies against “bourgeois” institutions like the family were to pass, but would give way to more radical and far-reaching concerns with the deconstruction of “essentialist” views of human nature. In debates about the character and construction of social, gender, and sexual identity, some scholarship suggested that even such apparently immemorial and fundamental human institutions and life stages as the family or childhood were in fact transient cultural artifacts, profoundly shaped—and transformed—by external factors. This could have far-reaching implications. If Ariès was right, then human nature itself was entirely in our own hands, a construct, not a given.


All three of the books under review in different ways challenge or erode the central historical contentions of Ariès and his followers. All three offer surveys of historical material or themes handled by Ariès, but where he found radical change all three emphasize continuity within the institution of the family, in historical perceptions of childhood, or in the immemorial experience of being a child. The least programmatic of them is the excellent and varied collection of scholarly essays edited by David Kertzer and Marzio Barbagli. This is the first of a three-volume history that will explore the evolution of the European family from 1500 to the present day. Taking the French Revolution as their stopping point, the essays gathered here explore the impact on family structure of material conditions (such as serfdom or proto-industrialization), of law and religion, of demographic forces such as fertility and mortality. A final group of essays explores family relations—parent–child relationships, marriage, widowhood, and divorce, and ideas about kinship itself.

The essays discuss very different societies, from Italy to Russia, and they also differ in technical difficulty and readability. The editors and contributors recognize significant changes in family structure, such as the rise of patriarchy within the Reformation period, and its subsequent gradual decline. But they are united in emphasizing the vast range and variety of the historic experience of the family in the past, a variety which militates against sweeping generalizations and dramatic monocausal historical “turning points” and discontinuities of the kind discerned or alleged by Ariès and his school. There were huge social, regional, religious, and temporal variations in such matters as the age of marriage for men and women, the location of their first domicile (in or out of one or other of the parental homes), and the numbers and frequency of childbirths. The early modern family was therefore, in a phrase of E.A. Wrigley’s, a repertoire of adaptable systems rather than a single pattern.


At the same time, the essays emphasize the continuities of human experience—the affection early modern parents held for their children, the recognition of the distinctiveness of children and childhood, the desire of parents to meet the special needs of their children rather than to force them into adult experience. Many of the contributors explore the impact on the family of shifts in economic conditions, changes in law and legal thinking, the revolutionary religious upheavals that divided Europe into Catholic and Protestant camps. While recognizing and charting the impact of such factors, however, they are also realistic about the limited penetration of such forces into the deep structures of family life. Though Protestants and Catholics displayed differing attitudes toward education, toward the social role and independence of women, toward divorce, and toward bastardy and illicit sexuality, their differences on such matters were in practice less striking, and less significant for the social experience of those living under different re- gimes, than their fundamental similarities, which owed as much to social realism and human need as to ideology. The past was thus both more complicated and more recognizably humane than Ariès was prepared to allow. As Linda Pollock observes in her essay on “Parent–Child Relations,” we need now a more rounded view of child-rearing in the past, a past in which, as the recent historiography of childhood has argued, “as far back as we can tell, most parents loved their children, grieved at their deaths, and conscientiously attended to the task of child-rearing.”

Steven Ozment’s handsome short book Ancestors is an unashamed polemic, a robust if not uniformly persuasive defense of the existence of the “loving family in Old Europe,” and an assertion of its fundamental continuity with modern family experience. Ozment is MacLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History at Harvard and a first-rate religious historian, most of whose career has been devoted to various aspects of the Lutheran Reformation, not least its impact on marriage and the family. In this historical argument he contrasts the dogmatic simplicities of Ariès and his followers in the Sixties and Seventies with more recent and more nuanced historical work on the family, such as that represented by Kertzer and Barbagli’s collection. Ozment wants to show the deep continuities, from antiquity to the present, in the way the family has been written and thought about; and his book is partly an argument for a necessary complexity and nuance in the historical perception of the family. He therefore revisits much of the evidence marshaled by Ariès, Stone, and others for the absence of affection in the historic family, and he explicitly challenges their claims.

The effect is sometimes a little over-conscientious. Swaddling, he argues, seems to us a cruel and unnatural restriction of the freedom of movement of children—but a swaddled infant was easier to carry and so spent more time with its mother; swaddling made for security and calmness; even modern colicky babies benefit from light swaddling. Ozment is particularly sensitive to claims that Protestantism in particular may have contributed to the harshness of early modern family life by depressing or reducing the role and freedom of women, and by creating “the prototype of the unconditionally patriarchal and authoritarian household.” On the contrary, he argues, with its new and positive assessment of human sexuality, Protestantism was the crucial element in facilitating the emergence of “a new concept of marriage,” and a new understanding of male–female partnership, which was embodied in Luther’s own happy marriage and the extraordinary entrepreneurial career of his wife, a former nun, Katherina von Bora. Ozment’s concerns about the effects of Protetantism, however, which sometimes have just the faintest whiff of special pleading about them, are subordinated to his overall argument, that the family, rather than being an oppressive modern construct, is “the great survivor” of changing ages and cultures. Far from obstructing the modern family’s future, he asserts, in a conclusion that seems designed for the pulpit as much as the podium,

The family of the past is an eternal spring from which present generations may draw their truest knowledge of self and the courage to soldier on.

Nicholas Orme, a professor of history at Exeter University, is the least preachy of contemporary historians, and his Medieval Children is a determinedly empirical book, a meticulously organized, lavishly illustrated, and imaginatively presented cascade of evidence about every aspect of childhood, drawn from an astonishing range of sources from the end of antiquity to the early sixteenth century. But though the jacket of his book highlights the same detail from Brueghel’s Children’s Games as the English edition of Ariès’s Centuries of Childhood, Orme is as emphatic as Ozment in rejecting the French historian’s claims about the early modern “invention” of childhood. There is, he insists in his introduction,

nothing to be said for Ariès’s view of childhood in the middle ages, nor indeed of a major shift in its history during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries…. The main difference, as one proceeds through the centuries, is the survival of evidence.

All of Ariès’s central contentions about medieval children, Orme thinks, are demonstrably false, from the alleged lack of affection between medieval parents and children to the absence of a distinctive culture of childhood, with special games, literature, clothing, and toys. At one level the book is an almost overwhelming refutation of Ariès, demonstrating by the use of a very wide range of the surviving medieval material the deep continuities of the human experience of youth and growth. But though he has a clear agenda, Orme is too good a research historian to allow that agenda to distort his deeper purpose, which is to tell us more or less everything that can be known about medieval childhood.

The abiding impression of his beautiful book is of the exuberant abundance of the material, much of it visual, drawn from religious and secular paintings and manuscripts, funeral brasses, stained glass, block prints, clothing, toys, and even tableware. This visual material alone is astonishing, and demonstrates the extent to which “childhood” was manifestly present and distinctive in medieval visual culture. Orme’s book is packed with images of medieval children being born, swaddled, fed, bathed, having their diapers changed, being baptized or confirmed, learning to walk, rocking a sibling’s cradle, helping their mother in the kitchen, serving mass, playing hockey, riding hobbyhorses, leap-frogging, playing with pinwheels or bat and ball or hoop, watching puppet shows, whipping tops, walking on stilts, dancing and singing carols, and shooting arrows.

In the first three chapters, Orme leads us through the stages of childhood, from birth (characteristically, he begins with Christmas and the ubiquitous representations of and writing about the birth of Christ, moving then to explore the theme of birth more generally), through the main features of family life, to the special dangers of childhood, particularly vulnerability to disease and mortality. A series of thematically arranged and very rich chapters then explore the culture of children—words, rhymes, and songs; play and games; children and the Church; learning to read; and (an especially ground-breaking section) what there was for children to read. In addition to instructive books on such matters as hunting and courtesy, there were, he writes,

pure stories, divisible into chansons de geste like Guy of Warwick which centre on the deeds of knights, and romances such as Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde which turn on love affairs between knights and ladies. There were also stories (often in a collected format) with a moral or message. Some of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales come into this category, and so does [John] Lydgate’s most ambitious work, The Falls of Princes. One could add The Book of the Knight of the Tower which, though educational, makes its points through a series of tales.

The book concludes with a long chapter, “Growing Up,” which ranges over many topics, from work and leaving home to sexuality, betrothal, and marriage, the end of childhood.

In a relatively short book which covers so much, the pace is necessarily fast. Orme deals crisply with most of his topics, a brisk few pages to each before he marches on to the next theme. But the clarity, pace, and economy of his treatment conceal an impressive depth of learning, and many of the individual thematic discussions are in fact ground-breaking forays into territory not adequately explored by anyone else. Orme is a distinguished historian of education, and he makes brilliant use here of medieval and Renaissance schoolbooks and student exercises to illuminate not only the content and character of medieval schooling, but the manner and matter of children’s conversation, recreation, and attitudes. He is especially good, and funny, about schoolboy scatology and sexual humor, one of his chief pieces of evidence for the fundamental continuities in human experience.

Among other unexpected things here, he offers a fascinating account of the seven surviving medieval English nursery rhymes. His discussion of naming and godparentage is similarly original, tracing the spread of Norman names among Anglo-Saxon families, as parents sought influential godparents to advance their children’s careers. But almost every page contains a fascinating detail, from the keeping of birthdays to baleful grandmothers, from the administration of medicine to suckling babes by dosing the wet nurse to the construction of sand castles in the writings of Gerald of Wales.

Orme’s book is vulnerable to the criticism that in a thematic treatment, ranging over almost a thousand years of medieval history, he eclipses or obscures real historical change. Moreover, much of the material on which he bases his generalizations is drawn from the later Middle Ages, when the evidence becomes relatively abundant, and it might be argued that this too tends to obscure or compress longer-term evolutions. But it is part of his contention that continuity is a far more dominant feature of the surviving evidence than change, and he makes his case persuasively. He does indeed acknowledge clear changes, for example in the Church’s growing emphasis on the difference between adulthood and childhood in its sacramental theology and discipline, as it came to exclude infants and young children from reception of communion, attendance at confession, and the right to or need for extreme unction at the point of death. But this shift in ecclesiastical attitudes toward childhood, he notes, comes in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and corresponds in its timing to none of the great watershed changes alleged by Ariès and others.

Orme remains suspicious of sweeping conclusions drawn from slim evidence. If his book is less grandiose in its claims than those of Ariès and his followers, it is far more solidly grounded, and more benignly conceived. His book has its share of horrors, and he does not flinch, for example, from dealing with child abuse and child mortality. As he points out, more than a quarter of children born in Tudor England died in their first year. Characteristically, here as elsewhere he fleshes out bald statistics with vivid and unexpected detail. Orme is the historian of Exeter Cathedral, and he uses the cathedral records to offer a fascinating glimpse of the landscape of death which the boys of the cathedral choir inhabited. (The churchyard in which their house stood also included a charnel house for the bones of the city’s dead: they provided music for the many burial and commemoration services held there.) But for all such occasional grotesqueries, the picture he offers is of a childhood in its essentials recognizably the same as our own, and the solid grounding of his views in an astonishing range of sources carries conviction. Orme’s unpretentious book is, quite simply, the most comprehensive, informative, and, by a long way, the most humane and delightful historical treatment of childhood in the English language. Give it to someone for Christmas.

This Issue

December 19, 2002