chapter  43
The Hour of Our Death (Philippe Ariès, 1914–1984)
Pages 6

Lucien Febvre, a founder of the French Annales school of historiography, complained that no one had written a history of death. The deficiency was corrected many years later by Ariès, a medieval historian. He attended the Sorbonne but failed a key examination that denied him an academic career. Thereafter he became a successful agronomist while pursuing social and cultural history as a sideline, with his wife’s help on some projects. Ariès was politically conservative and described himself as a “right wing anarchist.” Right wing sympathies included Action française, founded in the late nineteenth century as a counter-revolutionary monarchist organization. True to his “anarchism,” however, he eventually decided the group and its outlook were too authoritarian for him. Although clearly influenced by Annales, he was never formally part of the movement. Ariès wrote some 15 works. In 1960 he published the ground-

breaking Centuries of Childhood, which argues that childhood was nonexistent in the Middle Ages and emerged only later as a social reality. His expansive work on death applied the idea of “mentalities,” the collective beliefs and feelings of ordinary people manifested in daily life. In these two books he fixed attention on polarities, the bookends, of human life-childhood and death. His use of every kind of source to understand collective social behavior and belief is informed by historical and symbolic anthropology as well as ideas

from psychoanalysis, especially “the collective unconscious” (298, and see essay 37 in this volume). The book on death examines attitudes, practices, and artifacts

relating to death over a thousand-year period. Why a thousand years?