Americans like to romanticize the family.
They cling to the notion that the nuclear family - father,
mother, and children all living in the same abode - is a fairly
recent development. A misty-eyed nostalgia prevails as they imagine
a past in which extended families predominated, with grandparents,
in-laws, uncles, and cousins living together. All those built-in
baby sitters! All that mutual support! All that wisdom passed daily
from old to young!
But myths don't always match reality. As social historians sift
through old documents, they are discovering that for much of the
past millennium, the nuclear family reigned as the primary family
form in Europe and America. Far from being merely a passive domestic
unit for procreation and survival, it exerted an influence extending
far beyond the walls of home.
The nuclear family is "the driving revolutionary force of the
millennium," says Brigitte Berger, author of the forthcoming book,
"More Than a Lifestyle Choice: The Family in the Postmodern Age."
She sees the entire millennium as an epic featuring this type of
Calling this grouping "the carrier of the modernization process,"
she explains that when people reflect on what the past millennium
was about - the rise of democracy, capitalism, and industrialization
- they are talking about big structural and institutional changes.
Ms. Berger takes the position that these macro-changes actually grew
out of the triumph of an all-important micro-unit, the nuclear
Stephen Morillo, a medieval historian at Wabash College in
Crawfordsville, Ind., considers the year 1000 a significant marker
for the family. Around that time, he says, the family structure of
Western European aristocracy began changing. Instead of continuing
to live in loose clans that traced relationships through common
ancestors, people began narrowing their lineage, following family
connections from father to eldest son.
At the same time, aristocratic families began adopting last
names. Surnames were typically the name of a place, such as a
castle, that identified the seat of family power.
Between 1000 and 1500, many peasant and merchant households
consisting of parents and children and perhaps a few servants also
resembled nuclear families. Families with too many children would
often lend a child to a family with too few children.
"It was about labor," says Professor Morillo. "It was about
getting farm work done." Women also played an important economic
role, he notes. Peasant households could not survive without female
As far back as the 13th century, long before the onset of
industrialization and democracy, a family system called the proto-
industrial family existed in northwestern Europe. One of its
distinctive features - marriage by choice rather than parental
arrangement - gave individuals the freedom to shape their own
future. Another feature, primogeniture, promoted economic stability
by passing land to the eldest son, rather than dividing it.
"You didn't split up the family possessions," Berger says. …