Framing the Family: Narrative and Representation in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods

By Rosalynn Voaden; Diane Wolfthal | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

Over the past few decades specialists in medieval and Early Modern Europe have recognized that the family is one of the most significant subjects for study. As early as 1954, Régine Pernoud asserted that “The whole of our history and of our civilization depends … on the family.”1 More recently, Frances and Joseph Gies concurred, noting that, “No element in social history is more pervasive than the family, the universal environment where human beings learn to eat, walk, and speak, and acquire their sense of identity and modes of behavior.”2

But what does the term “family” mean in the context of medieval and Early Modern Europe? One of the meanings of the Latin word familia is “house,” but its root derives from the Oscan famel, or “slave,” which suggests that the idea of family was initially property-based, and indicated the group of people who belonged to the head of the household, or paterfamilias.3 The medieval Italian term famiglia and its cognates, including the English word family, came to signify “household,” that is, those persons who lived under the same roof, whether biologically related or not. As late as 1694, the French famille was still defined as “all the persons who lived in the same house, under the same head.”4 Indeed, images of the family, such as Hans Holbein's drawing of Sir Thomas More's, often include the servant along with the husband, wife, and children (Figure 1 on p. 19). As David Gaunt has observed, this broad understanding of family was so pervasive that when the humanist Leon Battista Alberti wished to designate the nuclear family, that is, a set of parents and their children, he was forced to coin a new term, famigliola, or little family.5

1 Régine Pernoud, “La vie de famille du Moyen Âge à l'Ancien Régime,” in Renouveau des idées sur la famille, éd. Robert Prigent, Cahiers de l'Institut national d'études démographiques 18 (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1954), 27.

2 Frances and Joseph Gies, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), 3.

3 David Herlihy, Women, Family and Society in Medieval Europe: Historical Essays, 1978–1991 (Providence: Berghahn Books, 1995), 115.

4 Naomi Tadmor, “The Concept of the Household-Family in Eighteenth-Century England,” Past and Present 151 (1996): 111–40; eadem, “Family and Friend in Pamela,” Social History 14 (1989): 289–306.

5 David Gaunt, “Kinship: Thin Red Lines or Thick Blue Blood,” in The History of the European Family. Vol. I. Family Life in Early Modern Times 1500–1789, ed. David I. Kertzer and Marzio Barbagli (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001), 259. For Leon Battista Alberti's I libri della famiglia (1433–1434), see idem, Opere volgari, ed. Cecil Grayson (Bari: Laterza, 1960), 1: 182.

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