In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Western Europe and Scandinavia

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Reference Works and Bibliographies
  • Essay Collections
  • Journals
  • England

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Childhood Studies Western Europe and Scandinavia
Laurence Brockliss
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0018


Childhood in western Europe is obviously a vast topic, and this entry will approach it historically and largely chronologically. The study of childhood is still relatively new, and historians have sometimes struggled to construct a history of childhood, with very few firsthand accounts and limited archives. So many children left very few traces of their lives, and historians have had to piece together their history, not from diaries or archives but from court reports, visual representations, and childcare manuals. They have had to struggle to recapture the world of childhood in eras prior to 1800, when sources are especially limited. They, like others interested in childhood studies, have had to address the issue of how to define a child and what childhood is. They have had to contemplate the different historical meanings of the word child prior to 1600 and to resist the temptation to believe that childhood has inevitably improved through the centuries. They have also had to become aware of the dangers of historicizing a phenomenon that has few stable parameters and, in some cultures, may not even exist at all. In several languages there is no word for child; even in English, the word has drastically shifted its meaning over the centuries. These shifts need to be historicized in order to see both the continuities and the discontinuities between the past and the present that suggest that childhood has always been a time of suffering; children have always been the victims of perilous disease, parental neglect, government policy, war, etc. Concurrently, children have also always been the hope of the future, the focus of special love and attention. A historical perspective on European childhoods brings this insight into sharp focus.

General Overviews

The modern history of Western childhood begins with Philippe Ariès’s publication of L’enfant et la vie familiale sous l’ancien régime in 1960, which was translated into English as Centuries of Childhood (Ariès 1962). Even though Ariès has been much criticized for claiming that the medieval world had no concept of childhood, his work is still the starting point for historical studies of childhood. Lloyd deMause, who claimed that childhood was a nightmare until the present, has similarly been debunked, but deMause 1974 is still much quoted, especially by policymakers and, more generally, in childhood studies, although the author’s analysis remains unpopular with historians. Both books provide a general, if polemical, overview of the story of the history of childhood across western Europe. More recent overviews, which are more deferential toward our premodern ancestors, are Heywood 2001and Cunningham 2006, which deal only with England, and Stearns 2006, which deals with the whole world from the prehistoric era. Brockliss and Montgomery 2010 also begins in the preclassical age but focuses on violence against, and abuse of, children.

  • Ariès, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1962.

    Originally published in French in 1960. Seminal work in the field that is still much cited and critiqued. Argues that the concept of childhood was unknown in the Middle Ages and that it was only from around 1500 that children were recognized as different from adults and valued for their own sake. For a detailed critique, see Adrian Wilson, “The Infancy of the History of Childhood: An Appraisal of Philippe Ariès,” History and Theory 19.2 (1980): 132–153.

  • Brockliss, Laurence, and Heather Montgomery, eds. Childhood and Violence in the Western Tradition. Oxford: Oxbow, 2010.

    A series of essays linked by an editorial narrative that looks at the role of violence and neglect in different areas of children’s lives. Covers abuse, infanticide, war, and exploitation. Useful to dip into.

  • Cunningham, Hugh. The Invention of Childhood. London: BBC Books, 2006.

    Book accompanying a BBC Radio 4 series, this sets out a clear, easy-to-read, chronological account of childhood in England from the Anglo-Saxon past to the present. A website, The Invention of Childhood, goes with it and is coproduced with the Open University.

  • deMause, Lloyd. The History of Childhood. New York: Psychohistory Press, 1974.

    Rarely taken seriously by professional historians, this book is nevertheless much cited and discussed. Argues that childhood in the past was a nightmare and that only recently have adults begun to treat children in a more humane and less abusive way. A collection of essays, the introduction sums up the main argument.

  • Heywood, Colin. A History of Childhood: Children and Childhood in the West from Medieval to Modern Times. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2001.

    Accessible text suitable for first-year undergraduates, which starts with childhood in the Middle Ages and continues until the beginning of the 20th century. Uses oral history, diaries, and autobiographies to examine how ideas about childhood, and children’s lives, have changed.

  • Stearns, Peter N. Childhood in World History. Themes in World History. New York: Routledge, 2006.

    A slim book that explores childhood around the world, from primitive agricultural societies to the present. Major part of the book is devoted to the 20th century and emphasizes the singularity of modern Western childhood. Striking chapter on the death rate of children in 20th-century conflicts. Undergraduate level.

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