Tuesday, 1 November 2011
The seventeenth-century family
In the seventeenth century the family was the basic unit of society. It was the place of residence and of the pooling and distribution of resources for consumption. For many a small farmer and craftsman it was also the basic unit of production. For most people the place of work was also the place of residence.
Types of family
In most of northern Europe (and in south and south-eastern Spain, southern Italy and Sardinia) the nuclear family was the norm and it was rare for a married couple to share the same roof as the parents of one of the partners. In northern Europe this might have made for a more individualist type of human being. This clearly did not apply in the south, and the reasons for the existence of nuclear families may have been primarily economic – the high number of farm labourers as opposed to peasants with smallholdings.
The nuclear family was especially long-standing in England, possibly dating back at least to 1400 – rather than to the Industrial Revolution as is sometimes stated. Within this two-generational structure people married relatively late, and this had clear implications for family size. Such marriages produced c. four to five children (excluding miscarriages and stillbirths) of whom enough would reach adulthood to ensure in normal times sluggish population growth.
In this family structure, husbands were likely to be only two or three years older than their wives at first marriage, and apart from servants, households rarely contained more than one family member who was not part of the nuclear family.
Historians are not sure why this unusual pattern of the nuclear family developed, but the consequences are clearly important. Couples set up nuclear households only whey they could afford to do so. Because of later marriage women had fewer pregnancies, though not necessarily fewer surviving children. Newly-weds were more economically independent. There were also more people who never married at all. Demographers have estimated that from 10 to 15% of the people of north-west Europe never married.
Some economic arguments favoured the nuclear family. When they were short of hands these families could take on additional labour and this could be a more flexible solution than hiring relatives.
But in other parts of Europe, such as Russia, Ireland, central Italy, and the Auvergne, all men who married brought their wives to the parental home. Demographers distinguish two types of extended family: the complex (one conjugal unit plus one or more other kin) and multiple family households with two or more other kin-related family units. Multiple families could comprise up to fifty people. There was also an economic argument for this type of family, which operated with economies of scale.
Because marriage was less dominated by economic necessity, the age of marriage was earlier. In southern and eastern Europe most of the unmarried people lived in convents or monasteries.
Servants were essential to the running of a household and in the mobile society of early modern Europe they were in plentiful supply. Paradoxically, this meant that nuclear families were less fixated on blood relatives than now. Children grew up in the presence of people to whom they were not related.
‘Family’ could also imply looser connections only vaguely based on kin such as clans.
Inheritance laws and traditions varied across Europe and do not seem to have correlated with family structure. In general inheritance was either partible, in which the total estate was divided among all the children, or all the sons, or operated according to primogeniture where the eldest son took everything. Both systems had their advantages and disadvantages. Partible inheritance was fairer, but could lead to a diminution of the land and an impoverishment of the holding. Impartible inheritance created problems (and opportunities?) for younger sons.
Families were constantly growing and shrinking. There was a high turnover within marriage because of the death of one partner. Up to one third of the marriages in Stuart England were second or later marriages – 39 % at Clayworth in Nottinghamshire in the late 17th century. Children were therefore accustomed to stepmothers. Between a quarter and a fifth of all seventeenth-century children had lost one birth parent. As a result the Church’s insistence on life-long marriage was very different from now.
Between sixteen and twenty-five women in every thousand died in childbirth. Birth was more dangerous for the child than the mother, with perhaps one in three pregnancies in England ending in a miscarriage or stillbirth. Most births were supervised by midwives though in the late seventeenth century the accoucheur (man midwife) helped to medicalize childbirth in wealthy families.
In the northwest European pattern, a high proportion of females, possibly up to a fifth, abstained completely from marriage; whereas in eastern Europe virtually all women married (Kamen, 159). In northwest Spain in the early eighteenth century 16 % of women remained celibate. Men too could find it difficult to marry. Rome in 1592 had only 58 women for every 100 men and in Nördlingen during the Thirty Years’ War the authorities allowed unlimited immigration to women, but restricted the entry of males.
In 1960 a landmark book by Philippe Ariès was published in France. It was translated into English as Centuries of Childhood. Ariès’ book has revolutionized the study of young people. Aries argued that childhood is a very new concept. It did not exist at all in the Middle Ages, grew into existence in the upper classes in the 16th and 17th centuries, solidified itself somewhat more fully in the 18th century upper classes, and finally mushroomed on the scene of the 20th century in both the upper and lower classes. But, on his argument, childhood did not really penetrate the great masses of the lower and lower-middle classes until very late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Ariès claimed that in the Middle Ages a young person of 7 was already an adult. He points out that most young people were apprenticed, became workers in the fields (later, after the industrial revolution, in the factories) and generally entered fully into the adult society at a very early age.
As evidence he cites art work. There are no children, only babies and little adults. The musculature, dress, expressions, and mannerisms are all adult. On Aries' view, once the institution of childhood began to emerge the situation of the young person began to change in society. First they were named children. A theory of innocence of the child emerged. Children were to be protected from adult reality. The facts of birth, death, sex, tragedy, world events were hidden from the child. Children, the new creation, were increasingly segregated by age -- the very fact of having an age became important, whereas in the ‘ancien regime’ peoples ages were virtually unknown.
However, children were expected to be economically productive. From the ages of six or seven many learned to card wool so that it could be spun. Girls appear to have helped their mothers with quilting and button-making and boys followed their fathers into the fields. From the age of twelve they could be sent away from home to work as domestic servants.
Ariès’ arguments were applied to the family in England by Lawrence Stone. According to his analysis, the modern ‘affective’ family did not come into being until the 18th century. But much of this evidence was derived from the (inevitably) better documented elite families, especially in England, where family formation was often a commercial transaction. In fact there is abundant evidence of affection between husbands and wives, parents and children By the time they reached the age of 4 or 5 many children had considerable parental time and energy invested in them and their progress had given much pleasure. Deaths later in childhood were especially hard to bear. Ralph Josselin was devastated by the loss of his eldest child Mary aged 8. The death of Cromwell’s daughter Betty at the age of 29 was a shattering blow for her father.
But, however bitter their bereavements, Christians believed that the deaths had a meaning. Often the death of a child was ascribed to the sinfulness of the parents.
The patriarchal family
The family was seen as a microcosm of the state, with a similar pattern of authority. Both the law and the prescriptive literature asserted the authority of the husband and ascribed a subordinate role to the wife and children. This was especially the case in the areas of Roman law. In some parts of France disobedience to a parent came to be regarded as a crime and in Madrid the city police arrested disrespectful sons.
But in Catholic countries the Church courts granted legal separations to wives who could prove systematic beating. The community could also intervene in cases of marital ill-treatment. There was a growing recognition of the importance of love within marriage.