Philippe Aries

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Ariès, Philippe (1914-1984)

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 lifefirst 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.

See also: Comparative History of Childhood; History of Childhood.


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

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AriÈs, Philippe

Philippe Ariès (19141984) did not let a career at a French institute for tropical plant research prevent him from almost single-handedly establishing attitudes toward death as a field of historical study. After publishing a number of prize-winning books in France, Ariès came to international attention with the publication of his study of attitudes toward children, Centuries of Childhood (1962). In 1973 Johns Hopkins University invited him to America to lecture on "history, political culture, and national consciousness." Ariès readily accepted the invitation, but his ongoing research into collective mentalities had led him to conclude that death too has a historyand that was the subject he wished to address.

The lectures delivered at Johns Hopkins, published as Western Attitudes toward Death in 1974, presented an initial sketch of Ariès's findings. Surveying evidence from the Middle Ages to the present, Ariès had discovered a fundamental shift in attitude. Where death had once been familiar and "tamed" (la mort apprivoisée ) it was now strange, untamed, and "forbidden" (la mort interdite ). Medieval people accepted death as a part of lifeexpected, foreseen, and more or less controlled through ritual. At home or on the battlefield, they met death with resignation, but also with the hope of a long and peaceful sleep before a collective judgment. Simple rural folk maintained such attitudes until the early twentieth century. But for most people, Ariès argued, death has become wild and uncontrollable.

The change in Western European society occurred in identifiable stages. During the later Middle Ages, religious and secular elites progressively abandoned acceptance of the fact that "we all die" (nous mourons tous )to concentrate on their own deaths, developing an attitude Ariès dubbed la mort de soi ("the death of the self") or la mort de moi ("my death"). Anxious about the state of their souls and increasingly attached to the things their labor and ingenuity had won, they represented death as a contest in which the fate of the soul hung in the balance.

The rise of modern science led some to challenge belief in divine judgment, in heaven and hell, and in the necessity of dying in the presence of the clergy. Attention shifted to the intimate realm of the family, to la mort de toi ("thy death"), the death of a loved one. Emphasis fell on the emotional pain of separation and on keeping the dead alive in memory. In the nineteenth century, some people regarded death and even the dead as beautiful. With each new attitude, Western Europeans distanced themselves from the old ways. Finally, drained of meaning by modern science and medicine, death retreated from both public and familial experience. The dying met their end in hospitals, and the living disposed of their remains with little or no ceremony.

Ariès was particularly interested in presenting his findings in America because he noted a slightly different attitude there. While modern Americans gave no more attention to the dying than Europeans, they lavished attention on the dead. The embalmed corpse, a rarity in Europe but increasingly common in America after the U.S. Civil War, became the centerpiece of the American way of death. Although embalming attempted, in a sense, to deny death, it also kept the dead present. Thus Ariès was not surprised that signs of a reaction to "forbidden death" were appearing in the United States. He ended his lectures with the possibility that death might once more be infused with meaning and accepted as a natural part of life.

In 1977 Ariès published his definitive statement on the subject, L'Homme devant la mort, which appeared in English as The Hour of Our Death several years later. Besides its length and mass of detail, the book's chief departure from Ariès' earlier work was the inclusion of a fifth attitude, which emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Ariès dubbed this attitude la mort proche et longue, or "death near and far." As death became less familiar, its similarities to sex came to the fore, and some people found themselves as much attracted to as repelled by cadavers, public executions, and the presence of the dead. The appearance of the psychoanalytic notions of eros and thanatos at this point in Ariès's schema illuminate the deeply psychological nature of his approach, most clearly articulated in the conclusion to The Hour of Our Death. This aspect of his thinking generated criticism from historians who see the causes of change, even in collective attitudes, in more objective measures, but most have accepted his reading of the modern period. There are problems with the notion of "tamed death," however, which Ariès regarded as universal and primordial. Subsequent research has shown how peculiar the "tamed death" of the European Middle Ages was, and how great a role Christianity played in its construction. Nevertheless, his work has become a touchstone for nearly all research in the field and his contributions to death studies, and to history, are universally admired.

See also: Ars Moriendi; Christian Death Rites, History of; Good Death, The; Memento Mori


Ariès, Philippe. Images of Man and Death, translated by Janet Lloyd. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Ariès, Philippe. The Hour of Our Death, translated by Helen Weaver. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.

Ariès, Philippe. Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present, translated by Patricia M. Ranum. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

Ariès, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, translated by Robert Baldick. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.

McManners, John. "Death and the French Historians." In Joachim Whaley ed., Mirrors of Mortality: Studies in the Social History of Death. London: Europa, 1981.

Paxton, Frederick S. Liturgy and Anthropology: A Monastic Death Ritual of the Eleventh Century. Missoula, MT: St. Dunstan's, 1993.


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Philippe Ariès was born in Blois, in the Loire Valley of France, to an old Bordeaux family. He studied history and geography at the Sorbonne but did not graduate. During the pre-war years, Ariès haunted the rightist-monarchist circles of the Action Française. In 1941 he became an instructor at the École des Cadres of La Chapelle-Saint-Serval, which had just been created near Paris by the Vichy government, and in 1943 he was appointed head of the Center of Documentation of the Research Institute on Citrus Fruits. His most important book, Histoire des populations françaises et de leurs attitudes devant la vie, was published in 1948 (2nd edition, 1971). It did not provoke any reaction from academic historians, but immediately attracted the attention of demographers. From 1950 to 1975, Ariès directed a series at Plon Editions and contributed regularly to the royalist Nation française from 1955 to 1966. His second major publication, L'Enfant et la vie familialesous l'Ancien Régime (1960), translated as Centuriesof Childhood, was a bestseller among scholarly books in the United States. He was invited to lecture in the United States, and he found financial support for his research there. Ariès's other major books, Essai sur l'histoire de la mort en Occident (1975) and L'Hommedevant la mort (1977), earned him recognition at last as a prophet in his own country. He was elected Director at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in 1978, and was called to contribute to the official anthology of the "new history." When he died in 1984, shortly after the death of his wife and lifelong collaborator, he was no longer an isolated pioneer, but one of the founders of demographic history and the unquestioned master of the history of mentalities.

Although he characterized himself as a "Sunday" historian, Ariès was by no means an occasional researcher but an authentic "everyday" scholar. Paralleling the triumphant socioeconomic history launched by the Annales school, he was the herald of a new cultural history, documenting the attitudes of people in their daily existence toward life, love, and death. Demography was the key that allowed him to unlock the secrets of the private domain, and the family was the privileged axis of his history of mentalities. Ariès showed that childhood, adolescence, and the indissoluble marriage were relatively recent concepts. Following Adolphe Landry (1934), he argued that the pursuit of pleasure and happiness, added to the growing rationalization of behavior, had led to the deliberate strategy of couples to separate sexuality from procreation, opening the way to birth control and to a general liberation of sexual mores. This development coincided, too, with a changing conception of death–for Ariès, the topic where the "collective unconscious" could best manifest itself. To describe how the "tamed Death" of the Middle Ages was transformed into the "forbidden Death" of the present day, Ariès and his wife made extensive and imaginative use of iconography.

Ariès did not escape some critics who reproached this "banana seller" for the lack of representativeness of his assertions, the deficiency of his quantitative measures, and his neglect of the role played by the State. But during the 1970s and 1980s, the "new history"–that is, cultural history–prevailed over the socioeconomic history of the 1950s and 1960s (even if there was, after Ariès, a risk of fragmentation of this learning). As the chronicler of everyday life in that "world we have lost," according to Peter Laslett's book, Ariès had rightly perceived many of the symptoms of future change. But he could hardly have foreseen the scope of the upheaval that the mores in Western societies were experiencing even within one or two decades of his own passing.

See also: Culture and Population; Family: History; Historical Demography; Second Demographic Transition.


selected works by philippe ariÈs

Ariès, Philippe. 1960. L'Enfant et la vie familiale sous l'Ancien Régime, Paris: Plon. Translated as Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, 1962. New York: Vintage Books.

——. 1971. Histoire des populations françaises et de leurs attitudes devant la vie de depuis le XVIIIe siècle, 2nd edition. Paris: SELF.

——. 1975. Essai sur l'histoire de la mort en Occident du Moyen-Age à nos jours. Paris: Seuil. Translated as Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present, 1974. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

——. 1977. L'Homme devant la mort. Paris: Seuil. Translated as The Hour of Our Death, 1981. New York: Knopf.

——. 1980. "Two successive motivations for the declining birth rate in the West." Population and Development Review 6(4): 645–650.

——. 1983. Images de l'homme devant la mort. Paris: Seuil. Translated as Images of Man and Death, 1985. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ariès, Philippe, ed. 1986. Le Temps de l'histoire (1954). Paris, Seuil.

——. 1980. Un Historien du dimanche. Paris: Seuil.

Ariès, Philippe, and Georges Duby, eds. 1991. A History of Private Life. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

selected works about philippe ariÈs

Gros, Guillaume. 2002. Philippe Ariès (1914–1984). Un traditionaliste non-conformiste: de l'Action Française à l'École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. Paris: Institut d'Études Politiques.

Hutton, Patrick M. 2002. "Philippe Ariès and the Secrets of the History of Mentalities." Historical Reflections/Reflexions historiques 28(1): 1–19.

Landry, Adolphe. 1982 [1934]. La révolution démographique: Études et essais sur les problèmes de la population. Paris: Institut national d'études démographiques.

Laslett, Peter. 1984. The World We Have Lost, 3rd edition. New York: Scribner.

Jacqueline Hecht

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Philippe Ariès, 1914–84, French cultural historian, b. Paris. While at the Sorbonne, he failed a crucial exam necessary for a university career, and instead became an agronomic researcher and later the head of publications at the Institut Français de Recherches Fruitières d'Outre Mer. As an avocation, Ariès studied history's social and cultural aspects, often concentrating on life's temporal extremes—childhood and death. His first book, Centuries of Childhood (1960, tr. 1962), a landmark in the social history of youth, studied the widely divergent approaches to childhood from medieval times through the Enlightenment. His other books include Western Attitudes toward Death (1974), its monumental sequel The Hour of Our Death (1977, tr. 1981), and Images of Man and Death (1983, tr. 1985). He was also coauthor of Western Sexuality (1982, tr. 1985) and co-editor of the five-volume A History of Private Life (1985–87, tr. 1987–91).

See P. H. Hutton, Philippe Ariès and the Politics of French Cultural History (2004).