The Pre-Industrial Family
Ralph Houlbrooke traces back the distinctive roots of the modern family.
How far back can we trace the distinctive traits of the 'modern' family? This is a question of great interest not only to historians but also to policy-makers and pressure groups concerned with the condition and likely future of the present-day family. Family life as experienced by a growing proportion of the British population has been influenced in the last twenty years by such developments as the wider acceptance of pre-marital sex, the employment of more married women outside the home, a rapidly rising divorce rate, and increasing numbers of one parent families. Some people would like change, or at least certain types of change, to proceed faster; others accept it with varying degrees of complacency; others again fear that the family is under threat.
Past history is sometimes invoked in support of current arguments or concerns. Some emphasise the durability of the institution's essential characteristics, others the variety of forms it has assumed in different epochs and cultures. As is so often the case, opposing arguments each incorporate elements of the truth. The family as we know it in Britain today is in part the product of comparatively recent developments, but some of its features are very ancient. The typically small size of the modern nuclear family, the concentration of child-bearing in the early years of marriage and the tendency to take the longevity of family members for granted are the results of changes which have taken place since the mid-nineteenth century. The spread of the factory and office during and after the industrial revolution and the growth of the non-farming population drastically reduced the household's productive activities and women's and children's participation in breadwinning.
Peter Laslett has eloquently described the social infrastructure before this transformation in The World We Have Lost – further explored (Methuen, 1983). Michael Mitterauer and Reinhard Sieder, in The European Family: Patriarchy to Partnership from the Middle Ages to the Present (Blackwell, 1982) also see the family's history largely in terms of a surrender of functions: this process, very gradual until the nineteenth century, was then accelerated by industrialisation. They argue that this process has weakened patriarchy, permitted personal emancipation and encouraged the development within the family of a more intense emotional life.
Other writers place the crucial phase in this last development well before the onset of industrialisation, in certain classes of society at least. They discern higher expectations of the relationship between husband and wife, increased parental solicitude, the development of the concept of childhood, some softening of the harsher features of patriarchy and greater intimacy between members of the nuclear family as against the outside world. The family, in which distance, indifference and casual brutality were once normal, became the emotionally close-knit institution supposedly typical of the recent past. Some or all of these changes in attitudes and ideals are to be found in Philippe Aries, Centuries of Childhood (Penguin eds. 1973, 1985), Jean-Louis Flandrin's, Families in Former Times: Kinship, Household and Sexuality (Cambridge University Press, 1979), Steven Ozment's When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe (Harvard University Press, 1983), Lawrence Stone's The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (Penguin abridged ed., 1979), and Randolph Trumbach's The Rise of the Egalitarian Family: Aristocratic Kinship and Domestic Relations in Eighteenth-Century England (Academic Press, 1978).
The intensified influence of religious teaching during and after the Reformation and Counter- Reformation is important in the accounts of Ariès, Flandrin, Ozmrnt and Stone. It was not however an unmixed blessing. According to Stone and Aries it led to more repressive husbandly and parental control, at any rate in the short run, while Flandrin believes that it subjected spouses and parents to conflicting moral pressures. Subsequent secularisation (combined, according to Stone and Trumbach, with the decline of a patriarchal monarchy) bought about a process of relaxation while leaving intact ideals of love and duty. Most of these writers, but particularly Ariés and Stone, have been criticised for their readiness to equate ideals with practice and for relying too heavily on evidence relating to rather small social groups, particularly the upper classes.
Other historians have called in question the thesis of fundamental changes in the emotional climate of the early modern family. In the diary on which he based The Family Life of Ralph Josselin, a Seventeenth-Century Clergyman (Cambridge University Press, 1970), Alan Macfarlane thought he found a striking 'modernity' of attitudes towards wife and children, kin and neighbours, despite the fundamental differences in social context, religious attitudes and patterns of fertility and mortality. As a result of her analysis of over 400 British and American diaries and auto- biographies Linda Pollock concludes in Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500-1900 (Cambridge University Press, 1983) that parental love and solicitude were normal throughout the period from the late sixteenth to the late nineteenth century.
Two other books, Keith Wrightson's English Society 1580-1680 (Hutchinson, 1982), and Ralph Houlbrooke's The English Family, 1450-1700 (Longman, 1984), both lay stress on continuity rather than change in family relationships and (for the bulk of the population) the importance of love as well as economic calculation in courtship, and affection within the nuclear family. Houlbrooke claims that many of the key family ideals which have survived down to the present day were well established by the later Middle Ages. It is indeed in late antiquity and the Middle Ages that the crucial changes in the nature of marriage have been located by Jack Goody in The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe (Cambridge University Press, 1983) and Georges Duby in The Knight, the Lady and the Priest: The Making of Modern Marriage in Medieval France (Allen Lane, 1984). The church won acceptance of its main demands (indissolubility, monogamy, free consent, prohibited degrees) though in the process making some compromises with the requirements of the lay monarchies and aristocracies, and its victory has strongly influenced the nature of marriage down to the present day.
But the positive contribution of Christian teaching to family life has been called in question by Ferdinand Mount in The Subversive Family: An Alternative History of Love and Marriage (Jonathan Cape, 1982). Rather does he range the Church, at least in its early zeal, along with other 'Family-haters', including Plato, Marx, various avantgarde writers and today's radical feminists, who have variously criticised the family as selfish, exclusive, oppressive and artificial, Mount seeks to show that the nuclear family is a uniquely resilient institution which has survived all attempts to discredit it because it meets basic and enduring human needs, and he succeeds in exposing some of the major fallacies incorporated in the arguments that it is an 'Historical Freak'. But in trying to cover over two thousand years in one short book he inevitably fails to put a lot of his rather scattered material in context and gives a somewhat exaggerated impression of continuity.
So far as the family in England and north-western Europe is concerned, certain important demographic and structural patterns, as well as ideals and attitudes, have been traced back well before the industrial revolution. The essay in which John Hajnal set 'European Marriage Patterns in Perspective', the most influential in a valuable collection, Population in History: Essays in Historical Demography, ed. D.V. Glass and D.E.C. Eversley (Edward Arnold, 1965) demonstrated that until very recently Western Europe was distinguished not only by late marriage but also by the relatively high proportion of its population who never married at all. Among the most important consequences of such a marriage pattern are relatively low fertility, a closer emotional bond between spouses and a high propensity to accumulate which could have facilitated the early European 'take-off' into fast economic growth. Hajnal was himself inclined to date the origins of this distinctive pattern to the sixteenth century, but Richard Smith's 'Some Reflections on the Evidence for the Origins of the "European Marriage Pattern" in England' in The Sociology of the Family: New Directions for Britain, ed. C.C. Harris, Sociological Review Monographs, no. 28, 1979, lead him to the conclusion that various features of English society in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were incompatible with a 'non-European' pattern of early and near universal marriage.
E. A. Wrigley's and Roger Schofield's massive The Population History of England, 1541-1871: A Reconstruction (Edward Arnold, 1981) confirms for the era it covers the importance of the pattern Hajnal discerned. Drawing on the 'reconstitution' of families from parish registers, it shows that the mean age at first marriages for both sexes has lain in the twenties since at least the later sixteenth century; by means of a new technique of 'aggregative back projection', applied to data from hundreds of registers, it shows that life-long celibacy was for most of the time the lot of a significant fraction of the English population, reaching a peak in the seventeenth century. But, contrary to preliminary hypotheses earlier advanced by Professor Wrigley, changes in marital fertility are claimed to have had very little influence on English population trends before the industrial revolution.
In this respect, England's experience apparently differed from that of France: the widespread adoption of contraceptive measures there in the eighteenth century is discussed by Flandrin in Families in Former Times. Wrigley and Schofield attribute the great population increase of the eighteenth century above all to a fall in the age of marriage and an increase in its incidence, rather than to falling mortality, favoured by many previous historians.
Some continuity through the industrial revolution and preceding centuries can be traced in household structure as well as demography (Laslett's updated World We Have Lost provides an excellent introductory guide to both). The systematic analysis of local censuses and community listings has shown that the nuclear family household has been the commonest type in England and much of north-western Europe since at least the sixteenth century. More complex forms have however been typical of certain areas of Mediterranean and Eastern Europe; within early modern England they were commoner in the upper reaches of the social scale than the middle and lower. Much of the work on the household has been presented in three volumes published by the Cambridge University Press: Household and Family in Past Time, edited by Peter Laslett and Richard Wall, Laslett's Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations and Family Forms in Historic Europe ed. Wall and others (1972, 19i7 and 1983 respectively). One of the shortcomings of local population listings is that they tell us little about the links between kinsfolk living in different households. Attempts to evaluate the strength of such links by means of other evidence have been made by Marfarlane in Ralph Josselin and by Keith Wrightson and David Levine in Poverty and Piety in an English Village: Terling 1525-1700 (Academic Press, 1979). Both these studies, based on material relating to Essex, conclude that they were relatively weak. Ways in which they may be reconstructed from continental sources are discussed by Andrejs Plakans in Kinship in the Past: An Anthropology of European Family Life, 1500-1900 (Blackwell, 1984).
Some of the most interesting work of recent years has examined the interaction between family ideals, demography and structures and larger social and economic developments. In Edward Shorter's view it was the development of capitalism and particularly the spread of rural industry in the eighteenth century which played the crucial part in The Making of the Modern Family (Collins, 1976); by multiplying employment opportunities for young people, and especially young women, it allowed the development of a freer and more erotic courtship. David Levine also believes that the first phase of industrialisation, and particularly the growth of domestic manufacturing, had momentous results, though his view of them is much less rosy than Shorter's. It accelerated Family Formation in an Age of Nascent Capitalism (Academic Press, 1977) by encouraging early marriage, towards the lower edge of the 'European pattern' age band. The price to be paid became evident later, in the vulnerability of this transient type of industrial proletariat to slump and technological change.
According to Shorter, capitalism promoted 'individualism' in family life as in the economy. Alan Macfarlane finds The Origins of English Individualism (Blackwell, 1978) far back in the Middle Ages, above all in respect for individual property rights. Even in the thirteenth century England exhibited this key characteristic of a 'capitalist' society rather than a 'peasant' society in which property belongs to the kin group or family rather than the individual. Macfarlane's lively and stimulating if sometimes wayward argument has been harshly criticised for neglecting economic change, caricaturing 'capitalist' and 'peasant' and underestimating the strength of family obligations. The latter, particularly that of providing for children, stand out clearly from a number of studies of rural communities published by the Cambridge University Press: Margaret Spufford's Contrasting Communities: English Villagers in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Zvi Razi's Life, Marriage and Death in a Medieval Parish, and Cicely Howell's Land, Family and Inheritance in Transition: Kibworth Harcourt 1280-1700 (1974, 1980 and 1983 respectively). Unfortunately, as all these studies show, provision for non-inheriting children bore hard on middling and small agricultural holdings. It combined with other pressures, especially those exerted by poor harvests, to lessen their viability, and ultimately to force the sale of land, save where supplementary sources of income could be developed. The ways in which the operation of inheritance customs was affected by demographic and economic trends, the alienability of land and the importance of non-family labour in the medieval and early modern countryside, are all major themes tackled by Richard Smith and his team of contributors in a splendid volume of essays on Land, Kinship and Life-Cycle (Cambridge University Press, 1984).
Other outstanding collections by different contributors deal with so many varied topics that it is impossible to do them justice here. They include Marriage and Society, ed. R.B. Outhwaite (Europa, 1981), mostly concerned with legal, social and demo- graphic aspects of entry into marriage between the twelfth and nineteenth centuries; Women in English Society, 1500-1800, ed. Mary Prior (Methuen, 1985), containing much new information on women as wives and mothers; Family and Inheritance: Rural Society in Western Europe, 1200-1800, ed. Jack Goody and others, and Interest and Emotion: Essays on the Study of Family and Kinship, ed. Hans Medick and David Sabean, which through study of familial obligations and economic relationships challenges 'the widespread notion... that interests and emotions are polar opposites' (both Cambridge University Press, 1976 and 1984).
This survey has concentrated on books, but much important work has appeared in journals. Foremost is the Journal of Family History particularly useful special issues are devoted to such topics as 'Religion and the Family' and 'Spinsterhood'. Another valuable American periodical is the Journal of Inter-disciplinary History. Much of the best work in French appears in Annales: Economies-Sociétés- Civilisations. Among English journals Population Studies, Local Population Studies, Social History and History Workshop Journal may be singled out. One must not conclude without paying tribute to the best short introduction to the historiography of the subject: Michael Anderson's Approaches to the History of the Western Family, 1500- 1914 (Macmillan, 1980).
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