Young Subjects: Children, State-Building, and Social Reform in the 18th-Century French World  – In-Press with McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Book cover for Young Subjects that shows two young students speaking with a schoolmaster in a bustling school house in the seventeenth century.

McGill-Queens University Press Book Cover

Manuscript Overview

Young Subjects: Children, State-Building, & Social Reform 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.

“Young Subjects” 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. “Young subjects” 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, “Young Subjects” 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.

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

External Awards:

  • Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture’s Colloquia Series, 2019
  • 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 Awards:

  • CHaSS & History Subvention Grant, 2020
  • Creative Activity and Research Enhancement Award, CHaSS, USU 2018-19
  • Seed Grant Award, CHaSS, USU 2019
  • Travel Grants, History Department, Utah State University (USU) 2017-2020
  • 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