The French historical demographer and pioneering historian of collective mentalities Philippe Ariès is best known for his L'Enfant et la vie familiale sous l'Ancien Régime (1960, published in English in 1962 as Centuries of Childhood), the seminal study that launched historical scholarship on childhood and family life in the Western world. Born into a middle-class professional family with Catholic religious convictions and sentimental attachments to the traditions of old France, Ariès earned his licence in history and geography at the University of Grenoble and his diplôme d'études supérieures at the University of Paris (Sorbonne) in 1936 with a thesis on the judicial nobility of Paris in the sixteenth century. During the late 1930s, he was also a journalist for the student newspaper of the royalist Action française and was active in allied right-wing intellectual circles, notably the Cercle Fustel de Coulanges, through which he became acquainted with Daniel Halévy and other old-fashioned men of letters. During the war years, he taught briefly at a Vichy-sponsored training college, then accepted a post as director of a documentation center for international commerce in tropical fruit, where he worked for most of his adult life. But history was his passion, and he led a parallel life as a researcher and independent scholar in a new kind of cultural history.
Ariès's ideas about the history of childhood and family were inspired by the public debate under Vichy about the crisis of the French family. While initially sympathetic with the proposals of Vichy's leaders for the family's rehabilitation, he disputed their claims about its moral decline and their fears about the biological decay of the French population. He embarked on his research in historical demography to challenge such notions. His book Histoire des populationsfrançaises (1948), inquired into the secrets of family life, where he discovered what he claimed was a "hidden revolution" in the mores of conjugal life during the early modern era, made manifest in the widening use of contraceptive practices among well-born married couples, the key element of a cluster of medical and cultural "techniques of life" that encouraged calculation and planning in family life. The emerging family that Ariès identified in his demographic research was distinctly modern in its mentality and became the subject of his following study of the rise of the affectionate family, L'Enfant et la vie familiale sous l'Ancien Régime.
In this book, Ariès examined the emergence of a new kind of sentiment among well-born families of the early modern era, made manifest especially in the rising value they attached to companionate marriage, their greater concern for the well-being of their children, and their newfound sentimentality about the vanishing mores of the traditional family. The new attitudes toward children, he argued, were not so much about simple affection (which is timeless) but rather solicitude for their proper development. Once relegated to the margins of family life, children increasingly became the center of its attention, and their particular needs for nurture and direction were openly acknowledged. Schooling, institutionalized first under religious and later under secular auspices, furthered this process. Such thinking presaged the elaboration of a developmental conception of the life cycle, delineated over time in an ever more elaborate demarcation of the stages of life–first childhood, then youth, later ADOLESCENCE, and finally middle age.
L'Enfant et la vie familiale elicited widespread interest during the 1960s, especially among the helping professions in the United States, where its argument spoke to worries about the loosening ties of family life and an emerging crisis of adolescence in contemporary society. It also accorded well with the current vogue of ego psychology as epitomized in ERIK ERIKSON's theory about the lifelong psychosocial growth of the individual. Among historians Ariès's book was initially received appreciatively and stimulated much new historical research on childhood and the family, until then surprisingly neglected.
While historians in the English-speaking world, such as Lawrence Stone, eventually grew disenchanted with the broad cast and imprecision of Ariès's thesis, Ariès himself by the mid-1970s was gaining newfound respect among younger French historians for the bold new directions of his research. By then he had turned to the study of historical attitudes toward death and mourning, published what some consider his greatest work, L'Homme devant la mort (1977, published in English in 1991 as The Hour of Our Death) and participated in a much-publicized running debate on the topic with a friendly rival, the left-wing historian Michel Vovelle. In 1978 Ariès was elected to the faculty of the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales, a research center for new approaches to history. Admired as one of the most original minds in late-twentieth-century French historiography, he designed but did not live to see the publication of the five-volume Histoire de la vie privée (1985-1987, published in English in 1987-1991 as The History of Private Life), a synthesis of twenty-five years of scholarship in the history of collective mentalities.
Today, nearly a half century after its publication, Ariès's L'Enfant et la vie familiale remains a point of departure for the study of the history of childhood and family, although most often as a target for scholars who dispute his thesis about a revolution in sentiment in the early modern era (e.g., Steven Ozment), one that his earlier critics of the 1970s for the most part had accepted. It is interesting to note that late in life, Ariès returned to the topic of childhood and family, publishing articles on long-range changes in attitudes toward SEXUALITY and marriage, as well as on the crisis of adolescence and changing parent/child relationships in the contemporary age.
Ariès, Philippe. 1960. L'Enfant et la vie familiale sous l'Ancien Régime. Paris: Plon.
Hutton, Patrick H. 2001. "Late-Life Historical Reflections of Philippe Ariès on the Family in Contemporary Culture." Journal of Family History 26: 395-410.
Hutton, Patrick H. 2004. Philippe Ariès and the Politics of French Cultural History. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Ozment, Steven. 2001. Ancestors: The Loving Family in Old Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Vann, Richard T. 1982. "The Youth of Centuries of Childhood." History and Theory 21: 279-297.
PATRICK H. HUTTON