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Childhood in Nineteenth Century France

The theme of the book Childhood in Nineteenth Century France: Work, Health and Education among the ‘Classes Populaires’ by Colin Heywood centers on the experiences of the child within France during that century. In light of the recent revolution and the culture of change brought to post-revolutionary France, Heywood explores the social issues of concern at the time and tracks the changes in the lifestyle of the typical working class and peasant child in light of these.

While this demographic had been accustomed to a more relaxed form of education and apprenticeship through an almost immediate thrust into the realms of peasant work, the reforms being brought to France during that time gradually introduced them to formal education. The book details the type(s) of existence to which children were exposed in the rural and urban areas of France, and tackles changes experienced in these children’s lives once the industrial age hit.

The book also tracks the changing roles and expectations of the child during the latter years of the nineteenth century, when legislators began becoming concerned about child labor. It also examines these legislative attempts, delving into the philosophies of the times, and using a mixture of primary and secondary sources to substantiate his discussions. Overall, Colin Heywood presents a comprehensive analysis and synthesis of the factors that contributed to the dynamic lifestyle of the French children during a century in which so much occurred to transform the aspect of their existence.

The introduction to the text provides insight into the varying lifestyles of the peasant child, and offers an understanding of the relationship that the bourgeoisie had to these young persons. It gives a description of the peasant class’ street urchins whose health was visibly worse than that of the youth of wealthier classes. The book also gives a look the adolescent-aged peasant youths that also lived in urban centers, eking out an existence through offering themselves for work or even by resorting to less noble acts.

The relationship between these youths and the more privileged classes is depicted as one in which these youths were considered to be on an inexorable path to “dissipation, vice, petty crime—and political subversion” . This chapter provides an introduction that effectively paints a picture for the reader of the situation facing the peasant youth in his urban setting. It denotes the several levels on which improvement of the youths’ conditions was needed: behavioral, social, and political.

The considerations of the proletariat concerning these youth also provide a direct and effective lead into the reforms considered necessary during that period and discussed in detail in the text. The material found in chapter one might also be considered introductory in nature, as it serves the purposes of the author well as a means of providing background information with a view to informing the reader concerning the major historical themes to be explored within the book itself.

Heywood offers a rather detailed introduction to the historical and societal structure of France, as he presents 32 pages of material concerning the “agricultural setting. ” This chapter gives details about the geography, history and societal structure of the country. He relates the class structure of the French society to its geographical structure, noting for example that in such places as Ile-de-France, Beauce, and Picardy, “the concentration of farms meant that a few wealthy tenant farmers and laboureurs held sway over a vast army of dependent agricultural labourers” .

He also demonstrates the hardships endured by peasants during the time period—highlighting the background from which child labor developed as a means of reducing the work load of these peasant farmers. In this chapter, Heywood goes on to note not only the frequent bouts of crop failure but also the devastating effect of over-population, which was equally capable of removing food from the mouths of peasants . He notes that “in these rude circumstances, the great mass of peasants and agricultural labourers could not allow their offspring to remain idle for long” .

This exposure of the several causes of hardship serves as an effective method of introduction, as it offers the reader the necessary groundwork or foundation on which to build an understanding of his arguments. Therefore, a reader with minimal knowledge of French society may, through this introduction in the first chapter, develop a firm grasp on the issues with which Heywood deals further in the body of the text.

The second chapter of the text details the ways in which children in the rural, farming areas of France were expected to work. This approach to the text offers a cushioned view of the practice of child labor, as it is introduced as being less cruel and backbreaking than the term usually suggests. Gradually, however, Heywood presents the hardships of the job, demonstrating how the difficulty of such pastoral employment manifests itself to the psyche of the child.

After depicting the main form of agrarian employment, shepherding, as an easy lifestyle, Heywood goes on to describe the almost painful boredom that children often experienced at this job. He then follows the seasonal changes toward winter, in which children usually suffered from wet and cold. Here he makes good use of primary source material by citing entries from the journals of former child shepherds who described such hardships as wolf attacks and the cold and “desolate atmosphere” associated with that type of employment .

This delicate approach to the subject of child labor is a skilful achievement, in which Heywood is able to garner sympathy for the parents who must send their children to work as well as sympathy for the child him-/herself who was in effect forced to work during that time. The insidious nature in which primary schooling is demonstrated to have crept upon the agrarian peasant society also offers an oblique yet effective introduction to the slow and awkward way in which education was integrated into French peasant society.

Heywood gives a look at the different types of schooling and offers insight into their availability and desirability during the years in which education was being introduced into the society. He writes about the supplanting of the informal education (received by children through work in the peasant fields) by the rival elementary school, as “a very different philosophy of education was percolating down from middle- and upper-class circles” . He goes on to describe the philosophy as one that “required children to be sheltered from an outside world judged too dangerous and too corrupt for their sensibilities” .

Heywood also describes the methods of education’s introduction into the society, detailing its effect via such problems as education for females and the proper enforcement of the compulsory education law (loi Ferry) of 1882. This method provides an effective lead in to the political and social age of reform that characterized the nineteenth century. It also provides Heywood with the point from which to begin his counterpart discussion of elementary school lifestyle, subsequent to his former discussion of the informal “education” of rural life.

The effect of this method of description is that the reader is allowed to make educated judgments concerning the improvement that the elementary education described here presents over the rural, agrarian life discussed in the previous chapter. Chapter four parallels the second chapter of the book by giving details about the “nature of work” for children in the industrial areas of France. Heywood points out how the artisan tradition within the town centers had become undermined by the “mercantile and industrial interests” that prevailed during that era .

He presents a look at how these new developments affected the artisan families and forced children to openly seek work in order to support the lives represented in their households. Heywood deliberately points out the openness with which these children were forced to seek work, in an effective method of introducing the public outrage that this situation inspired. In the next chapter he supplements this with information about the conditions under which children worked.

Subsequent chapters speak of the role of the families that make up the working class and present ideas concerning the contribution of these persons (especially children) to the development of industrialization. These chapters also offer a moral view of the situation as it involved the physical and intellectual health of the children. Heywood demonstrates the cruelty of the economic environment in which these children existed as a method of showing the necessity of political intervention as a means of creating better conditions for the children.

He writes, “The background to the work of children in nineteenth century industry was thus the interplay of the notorious forces of supply and demand, personified respectively by working class parents and industrial employers” . In this way he offers a detailed analysis of the implications of child labor and the ideologies that drove many lobbyists to argue and act for the reform of the socio-economic and even political system extant in France at the time. In this way, the author sums up the problems faced by the children, and points toward the necessity of outside help for the children who acted as the supply of the demand for employment.

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