The Family in the Western World from the Black Death to the Industrial Age

The Family in the Western World from the Black Death to the Industrial Age

The Family in the Western World from the Black Death to the Industrial Age

The Family in the Western World from the Black Death to the Industrial Age


Although the history of the family was long ignored by serious scholars, research has flourished in recent decades, and this new field of study has told us much more than we knew even thirty years ago. In the process, many myths about what life was like two or three centuries ago have been debunked. For example, contrary to popular belief, we now know that most women in the preindustrial West did not marry before they were twenty-five. Most households consisted of no more than four or five people, usually including unrelated young people working as servants. And perhaps most surprising of all, multi-generational households were not very common. This timely synthesis of a vast and complex literature makes accessible to general readers the story of the family in the preindustrial Western world. Pulling together much fascinating information, Beatrice Gottlieb presents every aspect of a rich subject with clarity and fairness. Her generously illustrated book deals with the households of the wealthy and the poor, courtship and marriage, the care and training of children, and the bonds (and strains) of kinship. The matter of inheritance receives special attention, as it played a substantial role in a world permeated by rank and status, and its importance gave the family a peculiar social and economic significance. The book also deals with ideas about the family and the values it embodied. As Gottlieb says, "What you and I usually mean when we say 'family' is something that comes to us from the nineteenth century, not from time immemorial." She makes the point that the so-called traditional world before the Industrial Revolution was awash in traditions that collided with each other. Marriage, for example, appeared to many as natural and inevitable, to others as burdensome and repellant. And while both medical and religious authorities always strongly advised mothers to nurse their children, upper-class women almost never did, instead using lower-class wet nurses. The famous people and events of history make brief walk-on appearances in this book: Henry VIII's divorce, Louis XIV's mistresses, Benjamin Franklin's apprenticeship to his brother, Mary Wollstonecraft's death in childbirth. But the author's emphasis is on the more ordinary people, whose everyday lives strike a responsive chord in all of us. This remarkable, eminently readable work brings to vivid life the wives and husbands, servants and masters, children and parents of a not too distant past.


One of the most widely held opinions of Europeans and Americans today is that households used to be very different. The traditional household conjures up images of warmth, bustle, shared activities, diversity, and, above all, size. It is a picture that leans heavily on the depictions of households in nineteenth- century literature, a counterimage to the small, parent-child households of restricted activities we believe we are surrounded by today. Historians have come to learn that, for the centuries preceding the nineteenth, this picture is mistaken in a number of ways. It especially needs to be modified by an appreciation of the fact that everyone did not live in the same way.

The most productive research in family history has been on the composition of households. It would be possible to fill this chapter with statistics-- amazing statistics, considering that they are based on evidence left by people with a minimal Interest in the questions we are now asking. I am not going to spew forth torrents of numbers, but having those numbers at our disposal gives us a certainty that we never had before. We know how many people there were likely to be in various kinds of households, and we also know a lot about who those people were.

Whether few or many, household members often were not relatives, either near or distant. We must pay attention to these nonrelatives if we are to get at the differences between families before 1800 and families of the present. As for the members of the household who were related, we need to ask whether the conjugal or nuclear-family household is as modern as we are so often told it is. There is, finally, the subject of the elderly--a burning issue today and not exactly an untroublesome one in the past. (Children are a subject unto themselves, and are treated in Part III.)

There was great diversity in households at any one time but amazingly . . .

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