Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada
The paper reflects on how Philippe Ariès’s work, Centuries of Childhood (1962), and its (in)famous conclusion, “[i]n medieval society the idea of childhood did not exist,” can inform a cognitive approach to childhood. Drawing upon recent research in cognitive sociology, I elucidate a conception of childhood as cognition, childhood as one of the many mental frames or cognitive “schemes” that individuals evoke as they respond to culture. From this perspective, I argue Ariès’s contentious conclusion can be taken to suggest that the “childhood scheme,” the cognitive frame by which modern westerners “think” people within a certain chronological age range, was not available to individuals in medieval society, nor were the cultural cues – personal and structural – that would sustain such a conception of childhood. I reread Ariès’s text in this new light and find he presents evidence that key cultural tools required to enact modern childhood – specifically the notions that age, like time, is linear, limited and quantifiable; that development is tantamount to the “counting down” of chronological age from birth to death; and that childhood is the most significant, developmentally-speaking, stage of the life course – were unavailable to medieval society. I conclude that taking Ariès “at his word” – in other words, accepting that medieval society did not hold the idea of childhood – can help advance a conception of childhood as cognition, an approach that holds some interesting possibilities for childhood studies more generally.