Coercing Children: State-Building and Social Reform in the 18th-Century French World  – Under contract with McGill-Queen’s University Press.  Publication 2019.

Manuscript Overview

“Coercing Children: State-Building and Social Reform in the 18th-Century French World” reveals that children were capable of participating in or rebelling against authoritative state, local, and religious initiatives across the burgeoning eighteenth-century French empire. Children were not merely passive subjects upon which authority was exercised. Instead, social reform was contingent on children’s compliance and defiance as they passed through educational programs in charity schools, hospital-orphanages, and colonial schools. I use “childhood” as a central category for historical analysis to demonstrate that social reform was not a strictly top-down process that the state mandated. As a series of regional case studies, the chapters link major French cities to the peripheries of the eighteenth-century world while examining childhood experience. Many of the programs that encouraged children to be major stakeholders in social reform started in France’s second city, Lyon, and spread to Paris, North America, the Levant, and Southeast Asia.  Whether in the metropole, the colonies, or the wider eighteenth-century world, French children negotiated, shared, and played an active role in social reform, state-building, commerce, and imperialization with adults and with each other.

Detail of Boys Working at Wetter Textile Factory at Orange, 1764 The boys can be seen scouring the fabric with hot water, pressing the fabric, and dyeing the embroidery.

Boys Working at Wetter Textile Factory at Orange, 1764
The boys can be seen scouring the fabric with hot water, pressing the fabric, and dyeing the embroidery.

“Coercing Children” joins the nascent but growing field of childhood studies that considers children as exceptional actors in the historical process, focusing on youth experience.  My manuscript both provides an important interpretation about the role of children in eighteenth-century social reform and state-building and also contributes a methodological framework for examining children as historical actors. “Coercing Children” benefits from the voices of “ordinary” children – those whose families were from the working poor who constituted the majority of early modern France’s population.  With these narratives, my manuscript provides unprecedented access to youth experience in eighteenth-century France. A number of these children’s documents detail their experiences in the colonies and nascent eastern empire, demonstrating the broader global experiences of childhood.  Although these kinds of sources are common in the late 19th and 20th centuries, few early modern historians have incorporated non-elite children’s ego-documents into their studies. Additionally, my manuscript draws on a number of prescriptive sources, such as school regulations, schoolmasters’ reports, and bureaucratic documents, that I have read against the grain to uncover children’s experiences.

Much like how Joan Scott and Louise Tilly both famously considered the role of gender and family as categories for historical analysis, “Coercing Children” examines why childhood is a useful analytical lens.  I focus on how our understanding of power relationships can be greatly enriched by studying children. Although we often think of the state, church, and family as dominant powers that coerce, or impose power on subjects, including children, when children and their experiences are more carefully considered, a clear dyad between compliance and defiance is presented.  Children can be coerced, but they are equally capable of coercing fellow children and adults alike. Methodologically, much of gender history’s consideration of power relationships enhance our understanding of how children might have complied with authority or defied against various civil, religious, and familial authorities.  Far from Philippe Ariès’s notorious image of children as passive receptacles of knowledge, early modern youths were actors in the historical process.

My manuscript is a revised version of my dissertation.  During revision, I focused on and strengthened three key parts of my argument: the meaning of childhood; the role of gender to childhood experience; and the emergence of the French global empire. First, any discussion of early modern childhood needs to be contextualized and theory-based.  This involves breaking down the etiology of the use of “childhood” and “children” in the early modern French world.  The French used the terms “enfants” (children) and “jeunes” (youths) interchangeably to refer to people between the ages of 7 and 25. But, from the available literature it is clear that people implied differences between children of different ages despite using only two words to describe this wide range of ages.  The manuscript explicates that these “children” were what modern society considers “adolescents” or “youths.” Contextualizing the category of “childhood” in early modern France helps to elucidate experiences at certain ages, considering whether or not numeric age was necessarily tied to specific expectations.

Gender often further defined age-specific expectations. Understanding how gender relates to childhood experience is extremely important as expectations on boys and girls differed.  More significantly, boys and girls experienced life differently.  Therefore, after carefully interrogating my sources for gendered difference, I built the category of childhood gender from the bottom-up in my manuscript. I argue that the French state was much more concerned about the assignment of gendered identities and actions than local communities were.  The state insisted that children were segregated in schools according to sex. However, co-education in the same classroom existed in French communities, both urban and rural, into to the nineteenth century.  Additionally, I analyze how gendered identities were communicated to children and how children internalized those ideas.   Interrogating documents with gender as a central concern also helps develop arguments about children’s sexuality, especially as they transitioned from adolescents to procreative adults.  This is epitomized through the experience of filles de roi.  These girls were sent to North America to marry French men, birth French babies, and build the French population abroad.

Furthering this global framework, I argue that though local communities initiated, implemented, and sustained children’s social reform, there were similar global French practices. My manuscript considers the ways in which French children in Canada, Louisiana, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the Levant, and in Southeast Asia not only populated the territories, but had important impacts on the trajectory of French power relations in each area.  French historiography has been predominately concerned with the Atlantic, but social reform programs using children also existed in the developing eastern empire. Much of the colonization of the Ottoman Empire and Asia was not a territorial colonization, but rather an attempt to colonize the commercial and ideological realms, often by using children as intermediaries. Children served important roles as trans-imperial subjects of the early modern French state.  Youths brokered political, cultural, and economic alliances with foreign populations in Siam, the Safavid Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and Cochinchina.  While acting as agents of the state and advancing French imperialism, children also created new categories of identity, becoming hybrid, trans-imperial subjects.  In looking at these children’s experiences abroad, it is important to consider not only their impact on foreign societies, but also foreign societies’ impact on the children. Socializing with foreigners, many of whom were non-Christian, also raises questions about the interaction of faiths during this period. Expanding the French global framework is a crucial intervention to the historiographies of the early French empire and childhood.

The Audience

“Coercing Children” has a wide, international scholarly, classroom, and general audience.

Scholarly Audience

History: Scholars of early modern European social history, especially those interested in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries will benefit from “Coercing Children.” In particular, my manuscript provides a new understanding of the social history of France prior to the Revolutionary period.  Those interested in the ways in which ordinary French subjects asserted their own authority and agency will find my interpretation enlightening. Additionally, those interested in the history of France’s colonization – both westward in the Atlantic and eastward in the Middle East and Asia – will find “Coercing Children” a helpful addition to this growing field of historical inquiry. With scholars of France scattered across the globe, readership will be international, with American, Canadian, British, and French readers.  Finally, those interested in the history of childhood, children, and pedagogy will welcome my work.

Pedagogy/Education: The history of pedagogy and education often places the advent of modern learning in the nineteenth century.  “Coercing Children” challenges that narrative by pushing the date back to the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century.  With the increasing number of conferences, symposia, and intellectual centers devoted to the history of pedagogy, I see “Coercing Children” striking an important debate about the modernity of educational models and methods.

Gender: The history of children and childhood allows for a greater examination of gender.  Not only did boys and girls experience life differently, but the historical changes in gender identity deserve careful attention.  Gender scholars will be particularly interested to see how gender was not a central concern for local societies, raising further questions about the social construction of gendered identities, especially among children. Those interested in the wide application of gender theory and methodology will also find “Coercive Children” worthy of study and discussion.

Sociology, Anthropology, and Psychology: Aside from historians, sociologists and psychologists will find “Coercing Children” necessary additions to studies on early childhood development, language acquisition, and historical sociability.  Sociologists and anthropologists have long been interested in kinship studies and my study’s focus on childhood experience adds new dimensions to the complexities of kinship networks.

Classroom Audience

Since “Coercing Children” proposes a new use of childhood as a category for historical analysis, I anticipate this book’s adoption in advanced undergraduate and graduate-level methodology courses.  For graduate studies in history, “Coercing Children” will likely be put on early modern or modern European, Atlantic, or World comprehensive examination reading lists.  My monograph is also an excellent addition to an undergraduate or graduate-level history course that engages with social history, subaltern history, and gender history.  This manuscript would also be an excellent edition to courses that question the role of politics, state formation, and the rise of capitalism.  Outside of history departments, this monograph could be included in Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology, Education, and Early Childhood Development syllabi to provide a historical context on a variety of issues dealing with children, youth, education, and social reform.

General Public Audience

With the rise in popularity of television shows like Versailles and films like A Little Chaos, there is a niche general audience for “Coercing Children.”  Those of the general public interested in eighteenth-century French society and culture will find “Coercing Children” a fascinating addition to their historical knowledge and will question the historical continuities in children’s behavior.

Awards, Grants, and Fellowships that Supported Manuscript and Dissertation Research and Writing:

External Awards:

  • Bernadotte E Schmitt Research Grant, American Historical Association, 2017
  • Short Term Research Fellowship, The Newberry Library, Chicago, IL June 2017
  • The Society for French Historical Studies Marjorie M. and Lancelot L. Farrar Memorial Award for the Best Dissertation in Progress at a North American University, 2012
  • American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Robert R. Palmer Research Travel Award, 2012
  • The Mellon Summer Institute in French Paleography at the Newberry Library, Summer 2012
  • Newberry Renaissance Consortium Grant, Spring 2012

Internal (UT) Awards:

  • The University of Texas Graduate School Named/Endowed Fellowship, The Graduate School, The University of Texas at Austin, 2014-2015
  • Departmental Research Fellowship, History Department, The University of Texas at Austin, 2012-2013
  • Professional Development Grant, The Graduate School, The University of Texas at Austin, Fall 2013
  • Research Travel Grant, History Department, The University of Texas at Austin, Summer 2012