27 Sep

A History of Childhood, 2nd Edition

Posted By Polity Press Admin


I welcomed the opportunity to produce a second edition of A History of Childhood for Polity, given that it is now sixteen years since the original first appeared. The new edition retains the aim of writing a wide-ranging introduction to the history of childhood, going back to the early medieval period, and covering key topics such as changing ideas about this stage of life, relationships with parents and other children, infant and child health, and the shifting balance between work and school. It also remains determined to avoid getting bogged down in institutional history. Instead, it keeps in mind the perspective of the children where possible. Yet while continuing with the overall structure of the original, the revised version makes a number of changes to reflect developments in what is still a lively area of debate. These might be summarized under three headings.

Firstly, there are the various changes discernible in the theoretical approaches to the study of childhood. Most obvious is the growing retreat among historians from the influence of Philippe Ariès and his Centuries of Childhood (1962). Whereas he once set the agenda for most historical studies in this area, suggesting that the medieval period treated children as miniature adults, and that childhood was only ‘discovered’ relatively late in the West, this is no longer the case. The last few years have also brought a growing critique of the core ideas of the ‘new sociology of childhood’ that sprang to life during the 1990s. The Introduction therefore keeps the reader up to date by outlining some of the qualifications to the early theorizing in this area, with reservations from scholars on treating childhood as a cultural construction, and warnings of the dangers of exaggerating the extent of agency possible for young people.

Secondly, the years since the first appearance of the book have inevitably brought into the limelight new areas of interest for historians of childhood. These include an interest in masculinity, fatherhood and boyhood, to balance the lead taken by feminist historians in pioneering investigations of the female side in gender studies. There is also a start being made in the study of sexuality during childhood, which first came to my notice recently when researching the process of growing up in modern France. I would also draw attention to topics such as the representation of childhood in medieval Europe, the social history of slaves in the United States, child labour in industry, and the history of children’s literature, all of which have had a healthy flow of monographs to revitalize their historiography. Thirdly, recent work by historians has changed our overall perspective on childhood in the West, with a tendency to emphasize the continuities in children’s experiences in the past, at least until the twentieth century, and to place the Western version in its global context.

Colin Heywood is Emeritus Professor of Modern French History at the University of Nottingham. His new book A History of Childhood, 2nd Edition is now available from Polity.