Aries, Philippe. (1965) “From Immodesty to Innocence”

ARGUMENT – Children were not protected from sexual and lewd comments and activities until the end of the 17th century, when modern notions of childhood began to develop.  This demonstrates how concepts of what it means to be a child changes in different time periods.  Childhood is not a natural, biological category; it is a social construct that shifts throughout time and place in an ever-changing, fluid state.


Philippe Ariès’ Centuries of Childhood (1962) is one of the most influential, and one of the most controversial, studies of childhood in the western world. While Ariès’ central claim that childhood was not “discovered” until the seventeenth century is debateable, he makes some significant observations regarding cultural notions of childhood. He demonstrates that childhood is not a natural, biological category; it is a social construct that shifts throughout time and place in an ever-changing, fluid state.

Aries uses historical primary sources to demonstrate how children, at the beginning of the 17th century, were not protected from sexual and lewd comments and activities.  He uses the biography of Louis XII and describes how parents, servants, and nannies constantly joked with him about his “cock”, openly teased him about sex, and did not shy from touching and tickling his sexual parts until he was about 5 or 6 years old.  He even shared a bed with his nanny and her husband who openly joked with him about their sexual lives.  Aries suggests that adults didn’t think children were really aware or able to understand these things until puberty.  He maintains that Muslim cultures are still like this today (in 1965).

“gestures and physical contacts were freely and publicly allowed which were forbidden as soon as the child reached the age of puberty, or in other words was practically adult. There were two reasons for this. In the first place the child under the age of puberty was believed to be unaware of or indifferent to sex. Thus gestures and allusions had no meaning for him; they became purely gratuitous and lost their sexual significance. Secondly, the idea did not yet exist that references to sexual matters, even when virtually devoid of dubious meanings, could soil childish innocence, either in fact or in the opinion people had of it: nobody thought that this innocence really existed.”

A moral reformation began in the 15th century that can be traced back to Gerson.  He wrote a manual of child sexual behaviours that was meant to serve as a guide for priests hearing confessions.  Confessors between 10-12 years old should be taught to feel guilt for their sexual behaviours.  He made rules for the school at Notre Dame that required a candle to burn all night to ensure nothing elicit was taking place in the dark.  These began to be adopted by all religious schools.

The end of the 17th century was markedly different from the beginning.  Children were primarily though of as innocent and certain principles became commonplace: (1) children must never be left alone, (2) children must be strictly disciplines and not pampered, (3) modesty, and (4) moderation in manners and language (no familiarity ex. “tu” vs. “vous”). Children were expected to be reasonable, self-controlled and serious.

Two resulting attitudes towards raising children:

  1. Children were to be protected
  2. Role of parents/educators was to ensure children developed character and reason

Aries uses the changing attitudes towards children and sex to support his argument that childhood did not exist before the end of the 17th century.


Social Constructionism – childhood is not a natural, biological category; it is a social construct that shifts throughout time and place in an ever-changing, fluid state.  Uses historical primary sources including journals, texts, art, etc.


I question if English sources would confirm Aries argument in the chapter.  All of the primary evidence he uses to describe sexual openness around children are from France.  Perhaps the French were more sexually free with their children than English, or other European, cultures?

This is one of the first cultural studies of childhood (as opposed to biological/developmental/pediatric).  Aries should appear at the beginning of lit reviews as it is foundational to the modern study of childhood.


2 thoughts on “Aries, Philippe. (1965) “From Immodesty to Innocence”

  1. Pingback: Prout, Alan. (2008) “Culture-Nature and the Construction of the Child.” | Cheryl Williams

  2. Pingback: Jenkins, Henry. (1998) “Introduction: Childhood Innocence and Other Modern Myths.” | Cheryl Williams

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