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Children, history and archives

Dodd picture (118x150)

Interested in these topics? Think about attending our workshop on 3 September 2015 in London.

By Lindsey Dodd, Project Co-Investigator, School of Music, Humanities and Media, University of Huddersfield

Composite image of 1940s children in an archive

Ghostly children in the archives [composite image: corridor of the National Archives superimposed with image of children; both images cleared for non-commercial use with modification]

Some of the historical documents I’m using for my research are letters written by children to Marshal Pétain, the Head of the French State during the Vichy years. As my previous blogs have shown, Pétain’s regime made vigorous use of pre-adolescent children as both the objects and subjects of its propaganda; that is, there was a lot of propaganda about children as the future of France, and a lot of propaganda for children. Many were drawn into letter-writing campaigns to Marshal Pétain, but others wrote to him of their own volition. In a country where families were divided and many fathers were absent (as prisoners-of-war or forced labourers in Germany, or in hiding, perhaps) writing to Pétain may have provided some comfort. His office always replied in his name with a personalised response and often a gift; some children replied to this response, and a dialogue was established. As I have shown, many letters glorified the Marshal; others vaunted the right-wing, nationalistic values of the regime. And these letters were written by children, some as young as six.

The response when I explain this to people – friends, colleagues – is usually disgust: that the regime could coerce or manipulate children in this way is further proof – were any needed – of its baseness. Why is our moral outrage more exercised when children are invoked? Isn’t the corruption of adults – the decision-makers in society – of greater cause for concern? Don’t all societies manipulate children to embrace certain ideological principles? And is this just a story of simple manipulation: what choices did children make?

These questions set me thinking about historical research using primary sources created by children.

Doing this research on children in the past has revealed them to me as social actors in their own right. The idea of a child as passive, as a pawn, as simply vulnerable to adult machinations is a useful trope with a ‘common sense’ underpinning. Yet social scientists and some policymakers recognise children as ‘heterogeneous, active agents, playing out and shaping their lives’ and as ‘competent individuals – knowledgeable about their own experiences and situations’. While this values children’s production – their words and cultural outputs – it could also suggest that such production can be treated in the same way as adults’. But while children are competent social actors in the world, their worlds are different – not inferior – to adults’. They lack the accumulation of knowledge and experience of the adults around them, as Owain Jones has written, but ‘have fully blown imaginative, social lives’. They loved Pétain, they entered into an epistolary relationship with him, they received gifts of date jam and writing-paper, they responded with pictures and affirmations of loyalty, pride and obedience. What Pétainists they were! But were they? They cannot bear the same moral responsibility as adults; they did not shape policy; their views went unheeded. What did they think when their hero fell from grace in 1944?

All sorts of ethical regulations govern academic research involving children; but children in the archive are not afforded the same consideration. For social scientists conducting research on ‘live’ children, key ethical issues concern access, consent and confidentiality. While certain archival documents pertaining to children in the past may be embargoed if the archivist considers them particularly sensitive, in other cases access to children in the archive is governed by no formal constraints save the standard fifty or seventy year rule. And if you were seven when you wrote your letter to Marshal Pétain, the chances are you’re still alive. Whence the issue of confidentiality: should historians be more careful about anonymising children in the archive? If the documents are in the public domain anyway, is there any point? Certainly, no consent has been given by the child or child-now-adult to use their letter; indeed, as Carolyn Steedman has noted, ‘the historian will always read that which was never intended for his or her eyes’. Perhaps an adult writing to the mayor of his or her town might imagine that a record of the letter, or the letter itself, might be filed away somewhere. But could a child have imagined that a letter, a drawing, would end up in a national, public archive, kept forever? Archives contain snapshots of the past, of people ‘frozen in time’ as children. They had no power or control over the archiving of their words, and now have none over their use.

Finally, I have been thinking about what Owain Jones has called the ‘otherness’ of children and its ‘unknowableness’ – and beyond that, something of the epistemological conundrum of the evidence I find. Children’s worlds, Jones writes, ‘are irretrievably lost to adults’. So while I can read the letters, see what children said and what they did, I can never know what they felt or meant by doing it. When a child wrote ‘Vive Pétain!’ what did that mean? What did she feel at that moment? Not only is there an unbridgeable gap between the child and the adult, there is another between the archive reading room, and the Vichy-era living room, bedroom or schoolroom where the letter was written. The moment the source was created is irretrievably lost. Did her mother stand over her as she wrote? Did her brother write a letter alongside? Was she in her bedroom, alone, later pilfering a stamp from the sideboard to post the letter? Did she write it because all her friends were writing too, or was she a lone voice among her schoolmates? I imagine that child’s act, in a particular place and time. I cannot know it: I try to make this silence speak, but it will not. I can surmise, narrativise, imagine and empathise. I cannot know.

How many contemporary historians want to ‘do justice’ to a Pétainist? Yet I do feel that sense of obligation to these unwittingly-archived children which Steedman described as part of the frenzy of her archive fever. I want it to be recognised that they had loved Pétain, but that was in the past; it belonged to childhood and was comprehensible in the historical context. I want it to be recognised that there was coercion and manipulation, but there was not only that: there was the excitement of writing to a celebrity, to a hero – and getting a response. I want it to be recognised that these children were competent and creative actors, and Pétain was an important part of their social world.


Further reading

Hopkins, P. E. and Bell, N., ‘Interdisciplinary perspectives: ethical issues and child research’, Children’s Geographies, 6:1 (2008), 1-6

Jones, O., ‘“Before the dark of reason:” some ethical and epistemological considerations on the otherness of children’, Ethics, Place and Environment: a Journal of Philosophy and Geography, 4:2 (2001), 173-8

Mills, S., ‘Young ghosts:  ethical and methodological research in children’s geographies’, Children’s Geographies, 10.3 (2012), 357-63

Steedmman, C., Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (Manchester University Press & Rutgers University Press, 2001)


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