The growing perception of the family as a natural group harboring a special class of beings—children—put more comprehensive limits on public expression. The discovery that two centuries ago people discovered childhood is the work of Philippe Ariès, in his Centuries of Childhood: this book opened up a whole new field—the study of the family as a historical form, rather than as a fixed biological form in history. Ariès found, and his findings have since been expanded and refined by David Hunt and by John Demos, that by the middle of the 18th Century adults were beginning to think about themselves as fundamentally different kinds of creatures from those who were their children. The child was no longer thought a little adult. Childhood was conceived as a special and vulnerable stage; adulthood was defined in reverse terms. The evidence Ariès uses is mostly from the family records of urban people in the middle and upper reaches of society. There is a reason for this; this same articulation of life stages served these people in defining the limits of public life. What was occurring in the cosmopolitan centers was that the mature people who inhabited them began to think of the public life, with its complexities, its poses, and, above all, the routine encounters with strangers, as a life which only adults were strong enough to withstand, and to enjoy.
The limiting of public life to adults had an interesting genesis; it came in part from the gradual distinctions made between childhood and adult forms of play.
Until late in the 17th Century there were few lines between the games amusing to children and games amusing to adults; that is, there were few childhood pleasures which adults considered beneath their own interest. Dolls dressed in elaborate costumes interested people of all ages. Toy soldiers similarly amused people of all ages. The reason for this sharing of games, dolls, and toys was precisely that sharp demarcations between stages of life did not then exist. Since, in Philippe Ariès’ phrase, the young person was an “incipient adult” from a very early age, his amusements had nothing self-contained about them. At the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th Century, with lines between childhood and adulthood being drawn more sharply than they had before, certain kinds of play were reserved to children, certain kinds forbidden to them. By the middle of the 18th Century, children were prohibited from engaging in games of chance, which the authorities believed suitable only for people with a knowledge of the evil rampant in the world. In 1752 tennis and billiard masters throughout France were forbidden to give classes while children’s schools were in session, because a great deal of gambling went on during these games. Children were too naive, it was thought, to cope with this.
To understand the tandem growth of childhood and the belief in natural expression within the family, we have to start with the odds against it at the time. When one reads statements like Turgot’s that “one is ashamed of one’s children” or Vandermonde’s (in an Essay on the Means of Perfecting the Human Species) that “one blushes to think of loving one’s children,” the strength of family feeling two centuries ago appears, if anything, faint. Gibbon wrote of the accident of his own survival at the hands of indifferent parents (he was actually rescued by an aunt); Talleyrand never slept in the same house with his parents. The higher one moved up the social ladder, the more frequently would one hear that direct maternal care and expression of love for an infant was a sign of vulgarity. In both Paris and London, children from the middle-middle and upper-middle classes were often handed directly from nurse to “college”| an institution charged with the care of those from seven to eleven or twelve—“care” being usually interpreted as continual physical chastisement. The leading pediatricians of the mid-18th Century, James Nelson and George Armstrong, berated their readers for “unnatural neglect and disregard” of their offspring. There can be no doubt, in sum, that Swift’s contemporaries read A Modest Proposal with more than a little shock of recognition.
1. Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood, trans. Robert Baldick (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), pp.87-88.
2. See Bogna Lorence, “Parents and Children in 18th Century Europe”, History of Childhood Quarterly, II, No. 1 (1974), 1-30.
Sennett, Richard. The Fall of Public Man. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977.