(New York: Vintage Books, 1962)
Pages 15-32


A man Of the sixteenth or the seventeenth century would be astonished at the exigencies with regard to civil status to which we submit quite naturally. As soon as our children start to talk, we teach them their name, their age and their parents' name. We are extremely proud when little Paul, asked how old he is, replies correctly that he is two and a half. We feel in fact that it is a matter of importance that little Paul should get this right: what would become of him if he forgot his age? In the African bush, age is still quite an obscure notion, something which is not so important that one cannot forget it. But in our technical civilization, how could anyone forget the exact date of his birth, when he has to remember it for almost every application he makes, every document he signs, every form lie fills in -and heaven knows there are enough of those and there will be more in the future. Little Paul will give his age at school; he will soon become Paul ---- of Form ----- and when he starts his first job he will be given, together with his Social Security card, a registration number which will double his own name. At the same time as being Paul ------ and indeed rather than being Paul. He will be a number, which will begin with his sex, the year of his birth, and the month of that year. A day will come when every citizen will have his registration number. Our civic personality is already more precisely expressed by the co-ordinates of our birth than by our surname. In time the latter might well not disappear but be reserved for private life, while a registration number in which the date of birth would be one of the elements would take its place for civic purposes. In the Middle Ages the Christian name had been considered too imprecise a description, and it had been found necessary to complete it with a surname, a place name in many cases. And now it has become advisable to add a further detail, the numerical character, the age. The Christian name belongs to the world of fancy, the surname to that of tradition. The age, a quantity legally measurable to within a few hours, comes from another world, that of precise figures. In our day our registration practices partake at the same time of all worlds. There are, however, some acts which commit us to a serious degree, which we draw up ourselves, and which do not call for the inscription of our date of birth. Belonging to very different species, some are commercial bills of exchange or cheques, and the others are wills. But they were all devised in ancient times, before the rigor of modern identification had been introduced into our way of life. The recording of births in parish registers was imposed on the priests of France by Francois I, but to be respected, this order, which had already been prescribed by the authority of the councils, had to be accepted by people who for a long time remained hostile to the rigour of abstract accounting. It is generally agreed that it was only in the eighteenth century that the parish priests began keeping their registers with the exactness, or the attempted exactness, which a modern state requires of its registrars. The personal importance of the idea of age must grow in proportion as religious and civic reformers imposed it in documentary form, beginning with the more educated social strata, that is to say, in the sixteenth century, those who had a college education.

In the fifthteenth and sixteenth-century memoirs which I have consulted in order to collect a few examples of the status of scholars, it is not uncommon to find at the beginning of the story the author's age or his date and place of birth. Sometimes indeed the age becomes an object of special attention. It is inscribed on portraits as an additional sign of individualization, exactness and authenticity. On many sixteenth-century portraits one may find inscriptions like Aetatis suae 29 in his twenty-ninth year, with the date of the painting ANDNI 1551 (portrait by Pourbus of Jan Fernaguut, Bruges). On the portraits of famous people, court portraits, this reference is rarely to be found; but it exists either on the canvas or on the old frame of family portraits, linked with family symbols. One of the oldest examples is the admitable portrait of Margaretha Van Eyck. At the top: co(n)iux meus Joha(nn)es me c(om)plevit an(n)o 1439, 17 Junii -- what meticulous accuracy: my husband painted me on June 17th, 1439; and at the bottom: Aetas mea triginta trium an(n)orum -- aged thirty-three. Very often these sixteenth-century portraits go in pairs: one for the wife, the other for the husband. Each portrait bears the same date, which is accordingly given twice over together with the age of both husband and wife: thus the two pictures by Pourbus of Jan Fernaguut and his wife Adrienne de Buc bear the same indication: Anno domini 1551, with Aetatis suae 29 in the man's case and 19 in the woman's. It sometimes happens too that the portraits of husband and wife are painted together on the same canvas, like the Van Gindertaelens attributed to Pourbus, depicted with their two little children. The husband has one hand on his hip and is resting the other on his wife's shoulder. The two children are playing at their feet. The date is 1559.

On the husband's side is his coat of arms with the inscription acta am 27, and on the wife's side, the coat of arms of her family and the inscriptions Aetatis mea, 20. The particulars sometimes take on the appearance of a real epigraphic formula, as on the portrait by Martin di Voos dates 1572, which depicts Anroon Auselme, an Antwerp magistrate his wife and their two children. The husband and wife are sitting on opposite sides of a table, one holding the boy, and the other the girl. Between their heads, at the top and in the middle of the canvas, there is a fine scroll, carefully ornamented, bearing the following inscription concordi ae antonii anselmi et johannae Hooftmans feliciq: progagine, Martin de Sov pictore, DD natus est ille ann MCXXXVI the IX febr uxor an MDLV D XVI decembr liberi a Aegidius ann MDLXXV XXI August Johanna ann MDLXVI XXVI septembr.

These dated family portraits were documents of family history, as photograph albums were to be three or four centuries later. The same spirit governed the family record books, in which, apart from the household accounts, domestic events were noted down, birth and death, Here a regard for accuracy and the idea of the family came together. It was not so much a question of the individual's coordinates as of those of the members of the family: people felt a need to give family life a history by dating it. This curious passion for dating appeared not only in portrait but also in personal belongings and furniture. In the seventeenth century it became a common habit to carve or paint a date on beds, coffers, chests, cupboards, spoons and ceremonial glasses. The date corresponded to a solemn moment in the family's history, generally a marriage. In certain regions - Alsace, Switzerland, Austria and Central Europe - furniture from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, and particularly painted furniture, was dated and also frequently, inscribed with the names of its joint owners. In Thun Museum I have noticed this inscription on a chest Hans Bischof --1709 -- Elizabeth Misler'. Sometimes only the initials of husband and wife were inscribed on either side of the date, the date of the marriage. This custom became very common in France, and disappeared only at the end of the nineteenth century: thus an official of the Musee de Arts et Traditions Populairs found a piece of furniture in the Upper Loire bearing the inscription: 1873 LT JV. The inscription of ages or of a date on a portrait or an object helped to answer the desire to give the family greater historical consistency.

The taste for chronological inscription, while lasting into the middle of the nineteenth century at least among people in average circumstances, rapidly disappeared in town and court, where it was obviously considered early on to be na´ve and provincial. From the middle of the seventeenth century, inscriptions tended to disappear from pictures (there were still a few to be found, but only on the pictures of painters working in or for the provinces). Fine period furniture was signed, or, if it was dated, it was dated very discreetly.

In spite of the importance which age had acquired in family epigraphy in the sixteenth century, there remained in everyday custom and usage some curious survivals of an age when it was an uncommon and difficult thing to remember one's age exactly. I pointed out earlier that our little Paul knows his age as soon as he begins to talk. Sancho Panza did not know exactly how old his own daughter was, for all that he was extremely fond of her: 'She may be fifteen, or two years older or younger, yet she is tall as a lance and as fresh as an April morning... ' This is a case of a man of the people. In the sixteenth century, even in the educated classes where habits of modern precision were observed at an earlier date, children doubtless knew their age; but an extremely curious custom forbade them in the name of good manners from openly revealing it and obliged them to answer questions about it with a certain reserve. When the Valais humanist and pedagogue Thomas Platter tells the story of his life, he states with great precision when and where he was born, yet considers himself obliged to wrap up the fact in a prudent paraphrase: 'To begin with, there is nothing I can vouch for with less assurance than the exact date of my birth. When it occurred to me to ask for the date of my birth I was told that I had come into the world in 1499, on Quinquagesima Sunday, just as the bells were ringing for Mass.' A curious mixture of uncertainty and precision. This reserve is an habitual reserve, a souvenir of a time when nobody ever knew a date for certain. What is surprising is that it should have become a part of good manners, for this was how one was supposed to give one's age in response to any inquiry. In Cordier's dialogues, two boys at school question each other during the play-hour: 'How old are you?' 'Thirteen, so I have heard my mother say."' Even when the habits of personal chronology became part of our way of life, they did not succeed in imposing themselves as a positive attainments and did not immediately dispel the old obscurity of age, and the custom of obscuring one's age lingered on for some time in the observance of good manners.


The 'ages of life' occupy a considerable place in the pseudo-scientific treatises of the Middle Ages. Their authors use a terminology which strikes us as purely verbal: childhood, puerility, adolescence, youth, senility, old age - each word signifying a different period of life. Since then we have borrowed some of these words to denote abstract ideas such as puerility or senility, but these meanings were not contained in the first acceptations. The 'ages', 'ages of life', or 'ages of man' corresponded in our ancestors' minds to positive concepts, so well known, so often repeated and so commonplace that they passed from the realm of science to that of everyday experience. It is hard for us today to appreciate the importance which the concept of the 'ages' had in ancient representations of the world. A man's 'age' was a scientific category of the same order as weight or speed for our contemporaries; it formed part of a system of physical description and explanation which went back to the Ionian philosophers of the sixth century B.C., which medieval compilers revived in the writings of the Byzantine Empire and which was still inspiring the first printed books of scientific vulgarization in the sixteenth century. We have no intention of trying to determine its exact formulation and its place in the history of science: all that matters here is that we should realize to what extent this science had become common property, how far its concepts had entered into mental habits and what it represented in everyday life.

We shall understand the problem better if we glance through the 1556 edition of Le Grand Proprietaire de toutes choses. This was a thirteenth-century Latin compilation which itself repeated all the data of the writers of the Byzantine Empire. It was thought fit to translate it into French arid to give it a greater circulation by means of printing. Le Grand Propritaire de toutes choses is an encyclopedia, a sort, of Encyclopaedia Britannica, but which is not analytical in concept and which attempts to render the essential unity of Nature arid God. A treatise on physics, metaphysics, natural history, human physiology and anatomy, medicine and hygiene, and astronomy, at the same time as theology. Twenty books deal with God, the angels, the elements, man and his body, diseases, the sky, the weather, matter, air, water, fire, birds, etc. The last book is devoted to numbers and measures. Certain practical recipes could also be found in this book. A general idea emerged from it, a scientific idea which had become extremely commonplace, the idea of the fundamental unity of Nature, of the solidarity which exists between all the phenomena of Nature, phenomena which could not be distinguished from supernatural manifestations. The idea that there was no opposition between the natural and the supernatural derived both from popular beliefs inherited from paganism and from a science that was physical as well as theological. I am inclined to things that this rigorous concept of the unity of Nature must be held responsible for the delay in scientific development, much more than the authority of tradition, the ancients of the Scriptures. We cannot exert any influence on an element of Nature unless we are agreed that it can he adequately isolated. Given a certain degree of solidarity between the phenomena of Nature, as Le Grand Proprietaire postulates, it is impossible to intervene without setting off a chain reaction, without upsetting the order of the world: none of the categories of the cosmos possesses a sufficient autonomy, and nothing can be done in the face of universal determinism. Knowledge of Nature is limited to the study of the relations governing phenomena by means of a single causality - a knowledge which can foresee but cannot modify. There is no escape from this causality except through magic or miracles. A single rigorous law governs at one and the same time the movement of the planets, the vegetative cycle of the seasons, the connections between the elements, the human body and its humours, and the destiny of a man, with the result that astrology makes it possible to discover the personal effects of this universal determinism. As late as the middle of the seventeenth century, the practice of astrology was sufficiently widespread for the skeptical Moliere to choose it as a butt for his raillery in Les Amants magnifiques.

The correspondence of numbers seemed to be one (if the keys to this profound solidarity the symbolism of numbers was a commonplace theme in religious speculations, in descriptions of physics and natural history), and in magic practices. For examples there was a correspondence between the number of the elements, the number of man's temperaments, and the number of the seasons: the figure 4. We find it difficult today to imagine this tremendous concept of a massive world in which nothing could be distinguished but a few correspondences. Science had made it possible to formulate the latter and to define the categories which they linked together; over the centuries these correspondences had slipped from the realm of science into that of popular mythology. The concepts born in sixth-century Ionia had gradually been adopted by the ordinary mentality; the categories of antiquo-medieval science had become commonplaces: the elements, the temperaments, the planets and their astrological significance, and the symbolism of numbers.

The concept of the ages of life was also one of the common ways of understanding human biology, in accord with the universal system of correspondences. This concept, which was destined to become extremely popular, did not go back to the great period of ancient science, however. It originated in the Byzantine Empire in the sixth century. Fulgentius found it hidden in the Aeneid: he saw in Aeneas' shipwreck the symbol of man's birth in the midst of the storms of existence. He interpreted Cantos II and III as the image of childhood hungering for fabulous tales, and so on. An Arabian fresco of the eighth century already represented the ages of life."

There are countless medieval texts on this theme. Le Grand Proprietaire de toutes choses deals with the ages in its sixth book. Here the ages correspond to the planets, and there are seven of them:

The first age is childhood when the teeth are planted, and this age begins when the child is born and lasts until seven, and in this age that which is born is called an infant, which is as good as saying not talking, because in this age it cannot talk well or form its words perfectly, for its teeth are not yet well arranged or firmly implanted, as Isidore says and Constantine. After infancy comes the second age ... it is called pueritia and is given this name because in this age the person is still like the pupil in the eye, as Isidore says, and this age lasts till fourteen.

Afterwards follows the third age, which is called adolescence, which ends according to Constantine in his viaticum in the twenty-first year, but according to Isidore it lasts till twenty-eight ... and it can go on till thirty or thirty-five. This age is called adolescence because the person is big enough to beget children, says Isidore. In this age the limbs are soft and able to grow and receive strength and vigour from natural heat. And because the person grows in this age to the size allotted to him by Nature. [Yet growth is over before thirty or thirty-five, even before twenty-eight. And it was probably even less tardy at a time when work at a tender age mobilized the resources of the constitution earlier on.]

Afterwards follows youth, which occupies the central position among the ages, although the person in this age is in his greatest strength, and this age lasts until forty-five according to Isidore, or until fifty according to others. This age is called youth because of the strength in the person to help himself and others, according to Aristotle. Afterwards follows senectitude, according to Isidore, which is half-way between youth and old age, and Isidore calls it gravity, because the person is grave in his habits and hearing; and in this age the person is not old, but he has passed his youth, as Isidore says. After this age follows old age, which according to some lasts until seventy and according to others has no end until death..... old people have not such good sense as they had, and talk nonsense in their old age... The last part of old age is called senies in Latin, but in French there is no separate word for it... The old man is always coughing and spitting and dirtying [we are a long way yet from the noble old man of Greuze and Romanticism] until he returns to the ashes and dust from which he was taken.

Nowadays we may consider this jargon empty and verbose, but it had a meaning for those who read it, a meaning akin to that of astrology: it called to mind the link which joined the destiny of man to that of the planets. The same sort of sidereal correspondence had inspired another division into periods connected with the twelve signs of the zodiac, thus linking the ages of life with one of the most popular and moving themes of the Middle Ages: the scenes of the calendar. A fourteenth-century poem, reprinted several times in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, expounds this calendar of the ages:

The first six years of life on earth
We to January would compare,
For in that month strength is as rare
As in a child six years from birth.

Or witness this thirteenth-century poem:

Of all the months the first behold,
January two-faced and cold.
Because its eyes two ways are cast,
To face the future and the past.
Thus the child six summers old
Is not worth much when all is told.
But one must take every care
TO see that he is fed good fare,
For he who does not start life well
Will finish badly, one can tell...
When October winds do blow,
Then a man his wheat must sow
To feed the other men on earth;
Thus must act a man of worth
Who has arrived at sixty years:
He must sow in young folk's ears
Wisdom all their hearts to fill,
And give them charity if he will.

Of the same nature is the correspondence established between the ages of life and the other 'fours': consensus quatuor elementorum, quatuor humorum (the temperaments), quatuor anni temporum et quatuor vitae aetatum. About 1265, Philippe de Novare spoke of the 'four times of man's age', namely four periods of twenty years each. And these speculations went on recurring in text after text up to the sixteenth century.

We must try to grasp the fact that this terminology, which seems so futile to us now, expressed ideas which were scientific at the time and also corresponded to a popular and commonplace idea of life. Here again, we come up against great difficulties of interpretation, because today we no longer have this idea of life: we see life chiefly as a biological phenomenon, as a situation in society. Yet we say 'Such is life!' to express at once our resignation and our conviction that there is, outside biology and sociology, something which has no name, but which stirs us, which we look for in the news items of the papers, or about which we say: 'That's lifelike.' Life in this case is a drama, which rescues us from everyday boredom. For the man of old, on the contrary, it was the inevitable, cyclical, sometimes amusing and sometimes sad continuity of the ages of life; a continuity inscribed in the general and abstract order of things rather than in real experience, for in those periods of heavy mortality few men were privileged to live through all these ages.

The popularity of the 'ages of life' made the theme one of the most common in profane iconography. They are to be found for instance on some illuminated twelfth-century capitals in the baptistery at Parma. The sculptor has tried to represent at one and the same time the parable of the master of the vineyard and the labourers of the eleventh hour, and the symbol of the ages of life. In the first scene one can see the master of the vineyard laying his hand on a child's head, and underneath an inscription points out the allegory of the child: prima aetas saeculi: primum humane: infancia. Further on: hora tertia: puericia secunda aetas - the master of the vineyard can be seen putting his hand on the shoulder of a young man who is holding an animal and a bill-hook. The last of the labourers is resting beside his mattock: senectus, sexta aetas.

But it was above all in the fourteenth century that the essential characteristics of this iconography became fixed and remained virtually unchanged until the eighteenth century; they can be recognized on capitals in the Palace of the Doges no less than in a fresco of the Eremitani at Padua. First of all the age of toys: children playing with a hobby-horse, a doll, a windmill, or birds on leashes. Then the age of school: the boys learning to read or carrying book and pen-tray, the girls leaning to spin. Next the ages of love or of courtly and knightly sports: feasting, boys and girls walking together, a court of love, and the Maytime wedding festivities or hunt of the calendars. Next the ages of war and chivalry: a man bearing arms. Finally, the sedentary ages: those of the men of law, science or learning - the old bearded scholar dressed in old- fashioned clothes, sitting at his desk by the fire. The ages of life did not correspond simply to biological phases but also to social functions; we know that there were some very young lawyers, but in popular imagery learning is an old man's trade.

These attributes of fourteenth-century art are to be found in almost identical form in prints of a more popular, more commonplace type, which lasted with very few changes from the sixteenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth century. They were called the 'steps of the ages', because they depicted a row of figures representing the various ages from birth to death, and often standing on steps going up on the left and going down on the right. In the centre of this double staircase, as under the arch of a bridge, stood the skeleton of Death, armed with his scythe. Here the theme of the ages merged with that of death, and it is probably no accident that these two themes were among the most popular: prints depicting the steps of the ages and the dances of death went on recapitulating until the beginning of the nineteenth century an iconography established in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. But unlike the dances of death, in which the costumes never changed and remained those of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries even when the print was produced in the nineteenth, the steps of the ages dressed their characters after the fashion of the day: in the last of the nineteenth-century prints, First Communion costumes can be seen making their appearance. The enduring quality of the symbols is an the more remarkable for that: the child is still there riding his hobby-horse, the schoolboy carrying book and pen-tray, the handsome couple, with the young man sometimes holding a may-bush in one hand as a sign of the feasts of adolescence and spring, and the man at arms, now an officer wearing the sash of command or carrying a banner; on the downward slope, the costumes have stopped being in fashion or have remained true to the fashions of old; the men of law are still equipped with their procedure-bags, the scholars with their books or their astrolabes, and the churchgoers - the most curious of all these figures - with their rosaries.

The repetition of these pictures, pinned to the wall next to the calendar and in the midst of everyday objects, fostered the idea of a life cut into clearly defined sections corresponding to certain modes of activity, physical types, social functions and styles of dress. The division of life into periods had the same fixity as the cycle of Nature or the organization of society. In spite of the constant evocation of old age and death, the ages of life remained good-natured, picturesque sketches, character silhouettes of a rather whimsical kind.


Antiquo-medieval speculation had bequeathed to posterity a copious terminology relating to the ages of life. In the sixteenth century; when it was proposed to translate this terminology into French, it was found that the French language, and consequently French usage, had not as many words at its disposal as had Latin or at least learned Latin. The 1556 translator of Le Grand Proprietaire de toutes choses makes no bones about recognizing the difficulty: 'It is more difficult in French than in Latin, for in Latin there are seven ages referred to by various names, of which there are only three in French: to wit, childhood, youth and old age.'

It will be noted that since youth signifies the prime of life, there is no room for adolescence. Until the eighteenth century, adolescence was confused with childhood. In school Latin the word puer and the word adolescens were used indiscriminately. Preserved in the Bibliotheque Nationale are the catalogues of the Jesuit College at Caen, a list of the pupils' names accompanied by comments. A boy of fifteen is described in these catalogues as, bonus puer, while his young schoolmate of thirteen is called optimus adolescens. Baillet, in a book on infant prodigies, admitted that there were no terms in French to distinguish between pueri and adolescentes. There was virtually only one word in use: enfant.

At the end of the Middle Ages, the meaning Of this word was particularly extensive. It could be applied to both the putto (in the sixteenth century the putti room, the bedchamber decorated with frescoes depicting naked children, was referred to as 'the children's room') and the adolescent, the big lad who was sometimes also a bad lad. The word enfant (child)* in the Miracles de Notre-Dame was used in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as a synonym of other words such as valets, valeton, garcon, fils ('valet', 'varlet', 'lad', 'son'): 'he was a valeton' would be translated today as 'he was a good-looking lad', but the same word could be used of both a young man ('a handsome valeton') and a child ('he was a valeton, so they loved him dearly. . . li valez grew up').

*Translator's note: in the following discussion of terminology (Pp. 25-32,), wherever the word child' or 'children' is used, the original French source has 'enfant' or 'enfants'.

Only one word has kept this very ancient ambiguity down to our times, and that is the word gars ('lad'), which has passed straight from Old French into the popular modern idiom in which it is preserved. A strange child, this bad lad who was 'so perverse and wicked that he would not learn a trade or behave as was fitting in childhood... he kept company with greedy, idle folk who often started brawls in taverns and brothels, and he never came across a woman by herself without raping her'. Here is another child of fifteen: 'Although he was a fine, handsome son', he refused to go riding or to have anything to do with girls. His father thought that it was out of shyness: 'This is customary in children.' In fact, he was betrothed to the Virgin. His father forced him into marriage: 'The child became very angry and struck him hard.' He tried to make his escape and suffered mortal injuries by falling downstairs. The Virgin then came for him and said to him: 'Dear brother, behold your sweetheart.' And: 'At this the child heaved a sigh.' According to a sixteenth-century calendar of the ages, at twenty-four 'a child is strong and brave', and 'this is what becomes of children when they are eighteen.'

The same is true in the seventeenth century. The report of an episcopal inquiry of 1667 states that in one parish 'there is un jeune enfans ['a young child'] aged about fourteen who in the year or so he has been living in the aforementioned place has been teaching children of both sexes to read and write, by arrangement with the inhabitants of the aforementioned place.'

In the course of the seventeenth century a change took place by which the old usage was maintained in the more dependent classes of society, while a different usage appeared in the middle class, where the word 'child' was restricted to its modem meaning. The long duration of childhood as it appeared in the common idiom was due to the indifference with which strictly biological phenomena were regarded at the time: nobody would have thought of seeing the end of childhood in puberty. The idea of childhood was bound up with the idea of dependence: the words 'sons', 'varlets' and 'boys' were also words in the vocabulary of feudal subordination. One could leave childhood only by leaving the state of dependence, or at least the lower degrees of dependence. That is why the words associated with childhood would endure to indicate -in a familiar style, in the spoken language, men of humble rank whose submission to others remained absolute: lackeys, for instance, journeymen and soldiers. A 'little boy' (petit garcon) was not necessarily a child but a young servant, just as today an employer or a foreman will say of a worker of twenty to twenty-five: 'He's a good lad.' Thus in 1549, one Baduel, the principal of a college, an educational establishment, wrote to the father of one of his young pupils about his outfit and attendants: 'A little boy is all that he will need for his personal service.'

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Furetiere's dictionary gave an explanation of the usage: ' "Child" is also a term of friendship used to greet or flatter someone or to induce him to do something. Thus when one says to an aged person: "Goodbye, good mother" ['so long, grand- ma,' in the modern idiom] she replies: "Goodbye, my child" ['goodbye, lad']. Or she will say to a lackey: "Child, go and get me this or that." A master will say to his men when setting them to work: "Come along, children, get to work." A captain will say to his soldiers: " Courage, children, stand fast."' Front-line troops, those most exposed to danger, were called 'the lost children'.

At the same time, but in families of gentle birth, where dependence was only a consequence of physical infirmity, the vocabulary of childhood tended rather to refer to the first age. Its use became increasingly frequent in the seventeenth century: the expression 'little child' (petit enfant) began to take on the meaning we give it. The older usage had preferred 'young child' (jeune enfant), and this expression had not been completely abandoned. La Fontaine used it, and again in 1714, in a translation of Erasmus, there was a reference to a 'young girl' who was not yet five: 'I have a young girl who has scarcely begun to talk.' The word petit or 'little one' had also acquired a special meaning by the end of the sixteenth century: it referred to all the pupils of the 'little schools', even those who were no longer children. In England, the word 'petty' had the same meaning as in French, and a text of 1627 on the subject of school spoke of the 'lyttle petties', the smallest pupils.

It was above all with Port-Royal and with all the moral and pedagogic literature which drew its inspiration from Port-Royal (or which gave more general expression to a need for moral discipline which was widely felt and to which Port-Royal too bore witness), that the terms used to denote childhood became common and above all modern: Jacqueline Pascal's pupils at Port-Royal were divided into 'little ones', 'middle ones' and 'big ones'. 'With regard to the little children,' she wrote, 'they even more than all the others must be taught and fed if possible like little doves.' The regulations of the little schools at Port-Royal stated: 'They do not go to Mass every day, only the little ones." People spoke in a new way of 'little souls' and 'little angels', expressions which foreshadowed the eighteenth century and Romanticism. In her tales, Mlle Lheritier claimed to be addressing 'young minds', 'young People': 'These pictures probably lead young people to reflections which perfect their reasoning.' It can thus be seen that that seventeenth century which seemed to have scorned childhood, in fact brought into use expressions and phrases which remain to this day in our language. Under the word 'child' in his dictionary, Furetiere quoted proverbs which are still familiar to us: 'He is a spoilt child, who has been allowed to misbehave without being punished. The fact is, there are no longer any children, for people are beginning to have reason and cunning at an early age.' 'Innocent as a new-born child.'

All the same, in its attempts to talk about little children, the French language of the seventeenth century was hampered by the lack of words to distinguish them from bigger ones. The same was true of English, where the word 'baby' was also applied to big children. Lily's Latin grammar in English, which was in use from the beginning of the sixteenth century until 1866, was intended for 'all lytell babes, all lytell chyldren'.

On the other hand there were in French some expressions which seem to refer to very little children. One of these was the word poupart. In one of the Miracles de Notre-Dame there was a 'little son' who wanted to feed a picture of the Infant Jesus. 'Tender-hearted Jesus, seeing the insistence and good will of the little child, spoke to him and said: "Poupart, weep no more, for in three days you shall eat with me."' But this poupart was not really what the French today would call a bebe: he was also referred to as a clergeon or 'little clerk', wore a surplice and served at Mass: 'Here there were also little children who had few letters and would rather have fed at their mother's breast than do divine service!'" In the language of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the word poupart no longer denoted a child, but instead, in the form poupon, what the French today still call by the same name, but in the feminine: a poupee, or doll.

French was therefore reduced to borrowing from other idioms - either foreign languages or the slang used in school or trade - words to denote in French that little child in whom an interest was henceforth going to be taken. This was the case with the Italian bambino which became the French bambin. Mme de Sevigne also used in the same sense a form of the Provencal, word, pitchoun, which she had doubtless meant in the course of one of her stays with the Grignans. Her cousin Coulanges, who did not like children but spoke of them a great deal, distrusted 'three-year-old marmousets', an old word which in the popular idiom would become marmots, 'brats with greasy chins who put a finger in every dish'. People also used slang terms from school Latin or from sporting and military academies: a little frater, a cadet, and, when there were several of them, a populo or petit peuple. Lastly the use of diminutives became quite common: fanfan is to be found in the letters of Mme de Sevigne and those of Fenelon.

In time these words would come to denote a child who was still small but already beginning to find his feet. There would still remain a gap where a word was needed to denote a child in its first months of life; this gap would not be filled until the nineteenth century, when the French would borrow from the English the word 'baby', which in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had denoted children of school age. This borrowing was the last stage of the story: henceforth, with the French word bebe', the very little child had a name.


Even when a vocabulary relating to infancy appeared and expanded, an ambiguity remained between childhood and adolescence on the one hand and the category known as youth on the other. People had no idea of what we call adolescence, and the idea was a long time taking shape. One can catch a glimpse of it in the eighteenth century in two characters - one literary, as presented by Cherubin, and the other social, the conscript. In Cherubin it was the ambiguity of puberty that was uppermost, and the stress was laid on the effeminate side of a boy just emerging from childhood. Strictly speaking, this was not a new thing: since social life began at a very early age, the full, round features of early adolescence, about the age of puberty, gave boys a feminine appearance. This is the explanation of the ease with which men disguised themselves as women and vice versa in countless baroque novels at the beginning of the seventeenth century - two youths becoming friends when one was a girl in disguise, and so on; however credulous readers of adventure stories have always been, the very minimum of probability demands that there should have been some resemblance between a beardless boy and a girl. However, that resemblance was not presented at the time as a characteristic of adolescence, a characteristic of age. Those beardless men with soft features were not adolescents for they already behaved like fully grown men, fighting and giving orders. But in Cherubin the feminine appearance was linked with the transition from child to adult: it expressed a condition during a certain period, the period of budding love.

Cherubin was not destined to have any successors. On the contrary, it was manly strength which, in boys, would express the idea of adolescence, and the adolescence was foreshadowed in the eighteenth century by the conscript. Witness the text of this recruiting poster dating from the end of the eighteenth century. It is addressed to 'shining youth' (brillante jeunesse): 'Those youths [jeunes gens] who wish to share in the reputation which this fine corps has won for itself can apply to M. d'Ambrun ... They [the recruiters] will reward those who bring them some upstanding men [beaux hommes].'

The first typical adolescent of modern times was Wagner's Siegfried: the music of Siegfried expressed for the first time that combination of (provisional) purity, physical strength, naturism, spontaneity and joie de vivre which was to make the adolescent the hero of our twentieth century, the century of adolescence. What made its appearance in Wagnerian Germany was to enter France at a later date, in the years around 1900. The 'youth' which at this time was adolescence soon became a literary theme and a subject of concern for moralists and politicians. People began wondering seriously what youth was thinking, and inquiries were made by such writers as Massis and Henriot. Youth gave the impression of secretly possessing new values capable of reviving an aged and sclerosed society. A like interest had been evidenced in the Romantic period, but not with such specific reference to a single age group, and moreover it had been limited to literature and the readers of that literature. Awareness of youth became a general phenomenon, however, after the end of the First World War, in which the troops at the front were solidly opposed to the older generations in the rear. The awareness of youth began by being a feeling common to ex-servicemen, and this feeling was to be found in all the belligerent countries, even in the America of Dos Passos. From that point, adolescence expanded: it encroached upon childhood in one direction, maturity in the other. Henceforth marriage, which had ceased to be a 'settling down', would not put an end to it: the married adolescent was to become one of the most prominent types of our time, dictating its values, its appetites and its customs. Thus our society has passed from a period which was ignorant of adolescence to a period in which adolescence is the favorite age. We now want to come to it early and linger in it as long as possible.

This evolution has been accompanied by a parallel but contrary evolution of old age. We know that old age started early in the society of the past. We are familiar with such examples as Moliere's old men, who appear to be still young to our eyes. Moreover the iconography of old age does not always represent it in the guise of a decrepit invalid: old age begins with the losing of one's hair and the wearing of a beard, and a handsome old man sometimes appears simply as a man who is bald. This is the case with the old man in Titian's concert, which is also a representation of the ages of life. But generally speaking, before the eighteenth century the old man was regarded as ridiculous. one of Rotrou's characters tries to force his daughter to accept a quinquagenarian: 'He is only fifty, and hasn't a tooth in his head. In the whole of Nature there's not a man who doesn't think he was born in the age of Saturn or the time of the Flood. Of the three feet on which he walks, two are gouty. They stumble at every step and are always having to be propped up or picked up.' And in another ten years he will look like this sexagenarian in Quinault: 'Bent over his stick, the little old man coughs, spits, blows his nose, cracks jokes, and bores Isabelle with tales of the good old days.'

Old France had little respect for old age: it was the age of retirement, books, churchgoing and rambling talk. The picture of the whole man in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was that of a younger man: the officer in the sash at the top of the steps of the ages. He was not a young man, although he would be today. He corresponded to that second category of the ages, between childhood and old age, which in the seventeenth century was called youth. Furetiere, who still took very seriously the archaic problems of the division of life into periods, thought up an intermediate concept of maturity; but he recognized that it was not current and admitted: 'Jurists see only one age in youth and maturity.' The seventeenth century recognized itself in this military youth, as the twentieth century recognizes itself in its adolescents.

Today old age has disappeared, at least from spoken French, where the expression un vieux, 'an old fellow', has survived with a colloquial, contemptuous or patronizing significance. This evolution has taken place in two stages. First of all there was the venerable old man, the silver-haired ancestor, the wise Nestor, the patriarch rich in precious experience: the old man of Greuze, Restif de la Bretonne and the whole nineteenth century. He was not yet very agile, but he was no longer as decrepit as the, old man of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There still remains something of this respect for the old man in the received ideas of the present day. But the fact is that this respect no longer has any object, for in our time, and this is the second stage, the old man has disappeared. He has been replaced by 'the elderly man' and by 'well-preserved ladies or gentlemen': a concept which is still middle-class, but which is tending to become popular. The technological idea of preservation is replacing the biological and moral idea of old age.

My Philosophy Page Webster U. Philosophy Department
Philosophy for Children Critical Thinking Current Semester Education Existentialism
Miscellaneous Topics Moral Philosophy Peace Issues Voluntary Economic Simplicity


Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu