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Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of…
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Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (1960)

by Philippe Ariès

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I can't remember when I first picked up this book, but it's one that made a deep impression on me because back in my teens I had little appreciation for how deeply alien the past can be. This book is a "reply to this question on the modernity of the idea of the family" and so a history of childhood, how the very conception changed over the last four centuries through examining art, diaries, letters, literature and their depictions of children, their dress, toys and games and especially education. It makes the case that the conception of "the special nature of childhood," and that a more child-centered society created the family. In Aries view, it may once have taken a village to raise a child, but it's the nuclear family that emerged from modern mores, the carving out of a private sphere, and especially modern education and that "sociability and the concept of the family are incompatible and could only develop at each other's expense."

Until the end of the middle ages, particularly before the 16th century, Western society barely distinguished between the sphere of adults and children. We early learn that in bygone ages children worked, married and even went to war before they ever hit puberty. The idea of childhood innocence is fairly new according to Aries. He provides startling evidence of that, particularly from the diary of a physician describing the childhood of the future King Louis XIII of France. Adults casually played with a child's genitals, children nonchalantly exposed themselves, and crude sexual jokes and comments were made in front of children.

Memorable and striking as that was, it also does identify one weakness I found in the work--that so much was focused on France, and in this case what has to be the most atypical of childhoods, that of royalty. Arles was also often exhaustive in his details to the point of tedium. This really isn't a popular history written to entertain. On the other hand this is an erudite and enlightening survey of the topic, based on what is obviously prodigious and meticulous original research that took in fascinating details of the history not just of childhood but dress and especially education and the nuances between not just children and adults but factors of gender and class. Published in 1960 it was a seminal work on the subject, and I still find many of the customs detailed and theories propounded thought-provoking. ( )
  LisaMaria_C | Oct 5, 2012 |
Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life by Philippe Aries (1965)
  leese | Nov 23, 2009 |
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Philippe Arièsprimary authorall editionscalculated
Baldick, RobertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The theme of this extraordinary book is the evolution of the modern conception of family life and the modern ℑ of the nature of children. Aries traces the evolution of the concept of childhood from the end of the Middle Ages, when the child was regarded as a small adult, to the present child-centered society, by means of diaries, paintings, games, and school curricula.   Ironically, he finds that individualism, far from triumphing in our time, has been held in check by the family, and that the increasing power of the tightly-knit family circle has flourished at the expense of the rich-textured communal society of earlier times. Translated from the French by Robert Baldick.… (more)

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