“Children are still in the flowering of life, they still have an imagination, a passion for life that is lost on adults [who are] jaded by life’s experience.”
“Projet pour l’établissement d’école des enfants,” 1698 (Archives Nationales, K 1374)
My research focuses on the history of early modern France and its presence in the wider world, with particular attention to the history of childhood, education, social reform, state formation, and global expansion from the late fifteenth century to the nineteenth century. Historians have often overlooked the importance and centrality of children and childhood to the development of the early modern economy, the state, the Catholic Reformation, and in overseas exploration and expansion.
Prior to the nineteenth century, children left few written records of their own, making recovering children’s “voices” difficult. Although historians like Colin Heywood have looked at children’s “ego-documents” meaning diaries, autobiographies, and correspondence to explicate the late 18th-century and 19th-century children’s mentality, these documents were exclusively the product of elite children. Poor children rarely left, if they even created, such documents, making getting at their voices even more challenging for historians. Therefore, my dissertation relies heavily on a number of prescriptive sources including school regulations, schoolmaster’s reports and diaries, and institutional documents. From these documents, children’s experiences and sometimes their voices can be recovered.
Through archival research in nine French archives and two in the United States, my dissertation, “Reforming Children: Charity, Childhood, & Education in Early Modern France and Its Colonies” reconfigures the history of childhood by considering children as actors as well as subjects. Using “childhood” as a central category for historical analysis, my research reveals that social reform was not a strictly top-down process mandated by the state or the nobility. Instead, the local community, including the poor, was actively involved in social reform that addressed local problems while simultaneously helping to centralize the early modern state. In particular, social reform hinged on poor children’s compliance and defiance in educational programs in charity schools, hospitals, and orphanages. These educational institutions were created, supported, and established by members of the nobility, but their success was impossible without the cooperation and participation of both poor parents and poor children. Embedded within these educational institutions were complex relationships that intertwined children with commerce, work, subjecthood, state formation, and Catholic morality. Unpacking these networks and relationships, I demonstrate children played fundamental, active roles in society, politics, and economics. As key sources of labor, as future taxpayers, as potential criminals, as prospective colonial subjects, and as future parents, children were a central focus for civic, religious, and economic stakeholders as well as their own families.
These educational programs attempted to create a new generation of loyal, industrious workers. Children’s actions were essential to achieving this goal. By examining official school records, class lists, schoolmasters’ reports and journals, school regulations, worksheets, and records for admission, “Reforming Children” does much to reveal the day-to-day lives of early modern charity schoolchildren. Although historians have acknowledged the existence of charity schools in educational historiography since the 1970s, there has been no systematic study of charity schools. “Reforming Children” provides clear insight into how the schools operated and what children would have done on a daily basis, greatly widening our understanding of early modern pedagogy and childhood experience.
“Reforming Children” examines children and educational institutions in urban centers such as Lyon and Paris as well as colonial children in Louisiana, Québec, Siam, and the Ottoman Empire. Although metropolitan children had markedly different experiences from colonial children due to their geography, the expectations placed on these children and their roles in society were similar. With such a large geographical scope, “Reforming Children” argues that whether in the colonies, in the metropolitan cities, in the workshops, in the Church, or in the home, children were a crux of French imperial strategy. The inclusion of Asia breaks with traditional French colonial historiography to consider the early modern empire not only as a movement of western expansion, but also as one that was simultaneously moving eastward. “Reforming Children” therefore places children in a wide early modern global context. For an abstract of my dissertation, see my Dissertation page. For information on my book manuscript see my In Progress page.
My future research will pursue my core interests in the history of childhood, education, social reform, and colonial expansion with a second project, “Imperial Children: Colonizing the East.” I will examine French, colonial, and Asian children’s highly active roles in social reform in a global context from 1650 to 1900. Working in tandem with one another, the French crown and the Catholic Church began a series of missions to Persia, Siam, Pondicherry, and China in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Hoping to expand their influence in the east both politically and religiously, these state-sponsored missionaries from the Missions Etrangères de Paris kept very detailed records in French about their experiences abroad.
The monarchy, the Church, and colonial society understood that children, whether French or indigenous, could serve in a variety of functions that would benefit the expansion and stability of the French presence in the Near East and Asia. Orphaned children were often conscripted into the royal armies or they were put on merchant vessels, serving as lookouts and deckhands. The Missions Etrangères and the state sponsored a seminary in the eighteenth century that sought to educate French boys between the ages of 12 and 16 to be agents of colonization by teaching them how to teach other children, most importantly, Asian children. In this way, French children would act as teachers to other children. Those Asian children receiving the education could then help initiate and stabilize French connections in their homelands.
The historiography of French colonization in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the Near East and Asia remains underdeveloped, especially in relationship to social history. Although existing studies investigate missions, such as the 1680s missions to Siam, they overlook the importance that children had to imperial strategy. “Imperial Children” will bring attention to the role of French and Asian children in the development of political, economic, and cultural alliances.
Both “Reforming Children” and “Imperial Children” reframe our explanations of how the early modern family, economy, state, Church, and community developed throughout the early modern era. Once on the periphery of history, my research places children at the nexus of social reform and change.
List of Research Fields (Broadly Defined): Early Modern Europe; Early Modern France; Childhood, Children, and Youth; Education; Gender; Social Reform; Colonization and Empire(s); Commerce and Economics; Labor; State-Building; Subjecthood; Catholic Reformation
- Lyon, France: Archives Départementales du Rhône, Archives Municipales de Lyon
- Paris, France: Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Site Mitterrand & Site Richelieu), Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Archives Nationales, Bibliothèque Mazarine, Archives d’Assistance Publique Hôpitaux de Paris, Archives de la Société des Missions Étrangères
- Rouen, France: Archives Départementales de la Seine Maritime
- Chicago, Illinois: The Newberry Library
- Austin, Texas: The Harry Ransom Center