March 11 2010

The motif [of Withdrawal-and-Return] presents itself conspicuously in the case of one minority of a natural order which always exists of necessity in every society: the minority consisting of those male members of any given society who, at any given moment, are in course of passing out of boyhood into manhood through the metamorphosis of puberty. The withdrawal of the boys from the common life of Society on the eve of puberty in order that they may return as men when they are ripe for marriage is a social movement which is not only common in the life of primitive societies, but is also traceable in the lives of societies that are in process of civilization – sometimes as a theme of Mythology and sometimes as a custom that lingers on in practice in some by-way of practical life. The temporary segregation of the boys of a primitive society during their years of puberty is a commonplace of Anthropology [Footnote: For a survey of the prevalence of this institution in the lives of extant primitive societies, see Schurz, H.: Altersklassen und Männerbünde (Berlin 1902, Reimer).] The reflexion of this custom in Mythology is illustrated by the Hellenic myth of the Centaur Cheiron’s school of heroes in the wilderness of Mount Pelion. Its survival as a “going concern”, into the history of a civilization is illustrated by the Spartan institution of the so-called “Lycurgean Agôgê” and by the English institution of the so-called “Public Schools”. [Footnote: […] It is to be noted that while the English boy who is segregated from his family on the eve of puberty by being sent to a “public school” does return to ordinary life upon reaching manhood, the Spartiate never returns, after his entry into the Agôgê at the age of seven, until he is superannuated from military service at the age of sixty.]

Degas’ Young Spartans Exercising (1860) at the National Gallery reminds us that there was not always total segregation of adolescent boys. Plutarch writes in his life of Lycurgus that girls were encouraged to exercise, dance and sing naked in front of the young men in order to encourage them to marry, and to humiliate them and criticise those who were weak.

A Study of History, Vol III, OUP, 1934

4 Responses to “Puberty”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    The Degas is an early painting, but one that hints at later work by Cézanne and even Picasso: doesn’t it look forward to Les demoiselles d’Avignon?

  2. davidderrick Says:

    I’ve added an image.

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