the invention of the invention of childhood: a rerevisionist history

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905), A Childhood Idyll (1900)The penultimate room in Bill Bryson’s historical tour of the home is the nursery. He opens the chapter by debunking a surprisingly successful bit of historical bunk — one I’ve heard repeatedly, both before and since reading Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror:



In the early 1960s, in a hugely influential book called Centuries of Childhood, a French author named Philippe Ariès made a startling claim. He declared that before the sixteenth century, at the very earliest, there was no such thing as childhood. There were small human beings, of course, but nothing in their lives made them meaningfully distinguishable from adults. “The idea of childhood did not exist,” he pronounced with a certain finality. It was essentially a Victorian invention.

A Distant Mirror

Ariès was not a specialist in the field, and his ideas were based almost entirely on indirect evidence, much of it now held to be a little doubtful, but his views struck a chord and were widely taken up. Soon other historians were declaring that children before the modern period were not just ignored but actually weren’t much liked. “In traditional society, mothers viewed the development and happiness of infants younger than two with indifference,” declared Edward Shorter in The Making of the Modern Family (1976). The reason for this was high infant mortality. “You couldn’t permit yourself to become attached to an infant that you knew death might whisk away,” he explained. These views were almost exactly echoed by Barbara Tuchman in the best-selling A Distant Mirror two years later. “Of all the characteristics in which the medieval age differs from the modern,” she wrote, “none is so striking as the comparative absence of interest in children.” Investing love in young children was so risky — “so unrewarding” was her curious phrase — that everywhere it was suppressed as a pointless waste of energy. Emotion didn’t come into it at all. Children were merely “a product,” in her chilling view. “A child was born and died and another took its place.” Or as Ariès himself explained, “The general feeling was, and for a long time remained, that one had several children in order to keep just a few.” These views became so standard among historians of childhood that twenty years would pass before anyone questioned whether they might represent a serious misreading of human nature, not to mention the known facts of history.

A History of London

There is no doubt that children once died in great numbers and that parents had to adjust their expectations accordingly. The world before the modern era was overwhelmingly a place of tiny coffins. The figures usually cited are that one-third of children died in their first year of life and half failed to reach their fifth birthdays. Even in the best homes death was a regular visitor. Stephen Inwood notes in A History of London that the future historian Edward Gibbon, growing up rich in healthy Putney, lost all six of his siblings in early childhood. But that isn’t to say that parents were any less devastated by a loss than we would be today. The diarist John Evelyn and his wife had eight children and lost six of them in childhood, and were clearly heartbroken each time. “Here ends the joy of my life,” Evelyn wrote simply after his oldest child died three days after his fifth birthday in 1658. The writer William Brownlow lost a child each year for four years, a chain of misfortune that “hast broken me asunder and shaken me to pieces,” he wrote, but in fact, he and his wife had still more to endure: the tragic pattern of annual deaths continued for three years more until they had no children left to yield.

No one expressed parental loss better (as no one expressed most things better) than William Shakespeare. These lines are from King John, written soon after Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died at the age of eleven in 1596:

Grief fills the room up of my empty child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.

These are not the words of someone for whom children are a product, and there is no reason to suppose — no evidence anywhere, including that of common sense — that parents were ever, at any point in the past, commonly indifferent to the happiness and well-being of their children. One clue lies in the name of the room in which we are now. Nursery is first recorded in English in 1330 and has been in continuous use ever since.…

I’ve had Shorter’s The Making of the Modern Family on my bookshelf for a couple of years now. I’ve not been especially quick to get to it. I may be even slower to do so now.


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