In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Philippe Ariès

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Moving On from Ariès

Childhood Studies Philippe Ariès
Colin Heywood
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0088


It is common currency in the early 21st century that childhood is an invention of modern society, that parents during the medieval period did not love their offspring, and that during that period children were treated as “miniature adults.” Diverse sources, such as newspaper articles, museum catalogs, scientific papers even, routinely take these ideas as a given from history—despite long-standing reservations among historians. The ideas can be traced back directly to Philippe Ariès (b. 1914–d. 1984) and his book Centuries of Childhood. This is a work that was published back in 1962 (or 1960 for the original French version, L’Enfant et la vie familiale sous l’Ancien Régime), yet its startling originality evidently still casts its spell. There is no doubting that Centuries launched the history of childhood and the family in its present form. It inspired numerous historians to follow up its ideas with detailed research projects, as well as influencing scholars in other disciplines. It was a work that very much reflected the concerns of the late 20th century, as historians took a growing interest in cultural history. More specifically, Ariès himself was acknowledged as a leading practitioner of the “history of mentalities.” For much of his career, Ariès appeared unlikely ever to scale such heights. He twice failed his agrégation, the conventional route into teaching, which meant that he spent most of his working life as director of documentation for an agricultural institute. Until late in life he was an historien du dimanche—his neat way of describing his amateur status—depriving him of the institutional support available to professionals in the universities. Moreover, his firm commitment to the extreme right in politics, as a Catholic and a Royalist, distanced him from most other French historians and their identification with the Republic. Yet it may be that this position as a rank outsider encouraged his ambition and adventurousness as a researcher. Happily for him, the eventual success of Centuries paved the way for a rapprochement with his fellow historians. He remained a controversial figure, and indeed most of the hypotheses presented in the book have not stood up well to further research. This bibliography traces the long trajectory of his rise and decline as an influence on the history of childhood.

Introductory Works

When Philippe Ariès focused his attention on the history of childhood during the late 1950s, he moved into what the historian Richard T. Vann described as “an almost virgin field.” Since then, the subject has established itself as a recognized branch of the discipline, settling in among related areas such as the histories of education, social welfare, and children’s literature. There are now a number of general syntheses of the new research. These are the obvious starting points for those wishing to assess the role of Ariès in the evolution of childhood studies. Of those written by single authors, two prominent examples are Cunningham 2005 and Heywood 2001. Both take a long-run view of children and childhood in the West, and both acknowledge the impact of Centuries of Childhood on various aspects of the subject. They provide the most accessible introductions for students feeling their way into this area. Encyclopedias of childhood and similar collective works also help to place Centuries in its historiographical context. Fass 2004 is a glorious compendium, with entries ranging from, say, “Conception and Birth” to “Spears, Britney.” It has a short entry on Philippe Ariès by Patrick Hutton, and surveys of the history of childhood by Benjamin B. Roberts and N. Ray Hiner. Very different is Foyster and Marten 2010, a six-volume work that runs from classical Antiquity to the 20th century. Its distinctive feature is using the same chapter headings in all six volumes to cover childhood and the family. Perhaps not surprisingly, Ariès features most prominently as a starting point in the volume devoted to the Middle Ages. Finally, Fass 2013 declares its intention to replace Centuries as the best-known work in the history of childhood, with twenty-seven essays by leading specialists in the field. The editor’s introduction grants that Ariès told “a compelling, even a sensational, story,” but also includes an extended critique of his work.

  • Cunningham, Hugh. Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500. 2d ed. Harlow, UK, and New York: Pearson Longman, 2005.

    This work starts with a chapter on childhood in ancient and medieval society, and continues with a series of thematic chapters running from the 16th to the late 20th century. A scholarly and approachable synthesis by a leading historian in the field, engaging critically with Centuries of Childhood at numerous points.

  • Fass, Paula S., ed. Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. 3 vols. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004.

    Appropriately enough for an encyclopedia, a series of relatively short and concise entries, covering a huge range of topics and providing a quick overview on key issues for historians.

  • Fass, Paula S., ed. The Routledge History of Childhood in the Western World. London and New York: Routledge, 2013.

    Chapters cover the main topics in the history of childhood, including parent-child relations, children’s work, and children as consumers, together with more specialized topics, such as children in scouting, and childhood and youth in Nazi Germany.

  • Foyster, Elizabeth, and James Marten, eds. A Cultural History of Childhood and Family. 6 vols. Oxford: Berg, 2010.

    The ten chapters in each volume are substantial, and written by leading historians of childhood. Some of them pursue themes first raised by Ariès, notably family relationships, community, geography and environment, education, and the life cycle.

  • Hawes, Joseph M., and N. Ray Hiner, eds. Children in Historical and Comparative Perspective: An International Handbook and Research Guide. New York: Greenwood, 1991.

    The editors of an earlier handbook on American childhood moved on to produce this international version to help orientate researchers.

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

    This survey runs from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century, focusing in turn on changing conceptions of childhood, relations with parents and peers, and children in a wider world. It bounces off Ariès at various points to show how the historiography has evolved since the 1960s.

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