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Peter Laslett

Peter Laslett is a director of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. Their next book will be Bastardy and its Comparative History.

Fallacies

Peter Laslett, 19 February 1987

These two books are important commentaries on the preoccupations of our own day. We all have expectations about the relationship between puritanism and sex, and therefore about what is likely to be found when the records of a Massachusetts county court in colonial times are searched for evidence on this matter. We are also aware that the first few days and months of life mould the personality. If the claim that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world now seems a little simple-minded, we know well enough that it matters enormously who offers her breast to a baby – if indeed a baby is fortunate enough to be breast-fed at all. It also matters how and at what point after birth breast-feeding begins, and when and how weaning occurs. Since we cannot escape our inheritance from the past when we consider the nurture of children in our own time, it is important that we have access to the facts. Sober, conscientious studies offering evidence on these points from history, sensitively presented in relation to the myriad issues which they inevitably raise, must be of value.

Super-Performers

Peter Laslett, 15 March 1984

China is a poor country. In 1978 the World Bank estimated that gross national product was no more than $290 per person. Yet everything which happens in China is inevitably important if only because the country is so very, very big. The Third Census of the People’s Republic, taken in July 1982, recorded 1,031,882, 511 Chinese, including, we may notice, the 18 million in ‘Taiwan Province’ and five and a half million in the ‘Hongkong and Macao Region’. These were not unexpected totals. Western demographers do not seem likely to quarrel with them, or to doubt that China is the first political society to attain a billion people, and to include a quarter of the population of the world. What does give us pause, and may reveal something of the efficient working of that ancient and colossal polity, is the great rapidity with which the counting was carried out. The preliminary results were published on 27 October 1982, 17 weeks after the count, which is only ten weeks longer than our own record in 1981. Moreover all this happened in a country where automatic computation was virtually unknown, and where, the Head of the Census informs us, over five million enumerators and over a million census supervisors had to be mobilised and trained. Computer analysis is now going on, using machinery which the United Nations has helped to provide. This will yield the detailed statistics which Chinese administrators so urgently need from their first national enumeration since 1964. In China, according to the Census Communiqué, about 23.5 per cent of all persons are illiterate or semi-literate, about a third of the population has no more than a primary-school education, and not much more than one in 200 has been to a university. Yet these levels are markedly better than they were in 1964, in spite of all that happened in between. Perhaps we need not be so surprised at the rapidity of the calculations, since, in a sense, arithmetic has always been mechanised. The use of the abacus is pretty well universal.

Mothering

Peter Laslett, 6 August 1981

Last year a book was published in Paris with the following sentences written on the back cover:

By ‘family structure’ many things may be intended. I shall take it here in two senses. First, in the sense of composition of the co-resident domestic group, as the historical sociologists call it. This means the knot of persons who live together, man, wife and sometimes, but by no means always, their children, their relatives, if any, along with their servants, now excessively rare. Such is the family which the wage-earner leaves when he catches his bus in the morning to go to work, and which he returns to in the evening. It is also the assemblage of possessions which the bachelor girl or the solitary widower or divorcee calls a home, along with himself or herself. A modest array of this kind is the constitution of the family for very large numbers of Western Europeans in the 1980s. The family in the second sense is the extended family of cousins, aunts, uncles and so on who are recognised, and sometimes associated with, but do not live together in the same place.

Sexual Nonconformism

Peter Laslett, 24 January 1980

We are apt to think of authoritarianism in emotional and sexual life as pre-eminently Victorian. It was an outcome, we tend to believe – if indeed we think of it historically at all – of the unrelenting imposition of middle-class conformism on the easier, opener attitudes of the English peasantry. ‘Earthy’ is the word we most often use of the way the peasants carried on. But listen to this:

Out of it

Rosalind Mitchison, 5 April 1990

These two writers are both concerned with the old and the elderly, but to very different effect. Minois presents a repertoire of comments on the old, from the ancient world to the 16th century:...

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Scenes from Common Life

V.G. Kiernan, 1 November 1984

J.F.C. Harrison has recently told us ‘about the people who are usually left out of history’ – such people as the maid-of-all-work in 1909 whose duties kept her busy from 6 a.m....

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Marriage

Philippe Ariès, 16 October 1980

This is not an easy book to read, even though it is written clearly and at times elegantly; its authors have swathed and encumbered their interpretations in so many reservations and second...

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