Patriarchy and Families of Privilege in Fifteenth-Century England

Patriarchy and Families of Privilege in Fifteenth-Century England

Patriarchy and Families of Privilege in Fifteenth-Century England

Patriarchy and Families of Privilege in Fifteenth-Century England


There are, contends Joel Rosenthal, two suppositions that have achieved almost full and unquestionable acceptance in contemporary social history and family studies. The first is that at any given time in any given culture one particular form or model of the family dominates; the second is that historical changes in the family operate in a single and compelling direction.

In Patriarchy and Families of Privilege in Fifteenth-Century England, the author joins quantitative and legal evidence with case studies to yield a depiction of the family as something at once corporeal, fictive, and symbolic.


These essays are offered in the hope that they will be suggestive, adding a further dimension to what we know about the lives of the prominent and a further direction and context to what we can glimpse of the fives of lesser men and women. Then as now, family life was a many-faceted affair, a kind of moveable feast that we share now with some, now with others, and with differing degrees of pleasure and spontaneity in different situations. It is still hard to escape the idea that fiteenth-century England was the last medieval century, and the appeal of a waning civilization remains strong; tarnished glory, at best, as a harbinger of things to come. Certainly, fifteenth-century sources are sparse and laconic, compared to the explosion of records and expression that marks Tudor England. They retain an air of mystery and of challenge to those who work to explicate them.

In the introductory chapter I explain at some length how and why I wish to present a series of investigations into family forms and structures so as to offer a brief for their diversity. Each life comprised its own unique tapestry, and in generalizing about typical if not universal fife experiences I have drawn heavily upon the historian's license to move from individual(s) to group and back again. There is a universal similarity in the human condition, of course, and the fifteenth century can be seen as more like our world that we might think at first glance, especially once we cease to approach it by way of the morbid dramatizations of Huizinga or the sentimentality of popular historical fiction. It was not a century of fin de siècle. On the other other hand, "the historian is in no sense a free man," as Marc Bloch reminds us, and I have tried to shape my orchestration of late medieval behavior, institutions, and social interaction so as to include a fair run of their words, their ideas, and their perception.

This book has but slowly worked its way to the end of its road. the idea of a series of separate if related essays on the varieties of family life first occurred while I was mulling over a conversation with Compton Reeves as he worked on his Lancastrian Englishmen. Many other projects, interests, and commitments have interrupted my progress: University and departmental administration, work on Anglo-Saxon England, research on . . .

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