Icons of Unity

Family favourites: Jean Wilson sifts through group portraits and monuments for clues as to whether relationships were intimate or remote in early modern England.

Mortality made the Renaissance family fluid in its composition. Every childbirth threatened the mother; infections now regarded as minor ailments could kill a child within hours. Children died from such diseases as measles, but far more succumbed to the gastro-intestinal infections which are the concomitants of a low standard of hygiene: every sneeze must have aroused in the parent's mind the dread which is now associated with leukaemia. Estimates of mortality rates vary, but between 1588-1640, up to 50 per cent of children may have died before they reached adulthood, while three-quarters of gentry wives who died within ten years of marriage did so in childbirth. Those marriages themselves lasted, on average, only seventeen to twenty years before they were cut short by the death of a partner: it seems that more than half those contracting first marriages had lost either one or both parents.

Such statistics have led to a debate about the quality of family life experienced in these circumstances in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. One group of historians, the best-known being Lawrence Stone, has argued that an affectionate family life developed only during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and that personal relations during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were distinguished either by emotional coldness, or by patriarchal domination. This view has been widely attacked, but is still influential. In this context, it is interesting to examine the way in which families chose to represent themselves, both in paintings and in monumental sculpture.

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