The Evolution of the Family in Great Britain

By Burhans, Bruce J. | Michigan Academician, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

The Evolution of the Family in Great Britain


Burhans, Bruce J., Michigan Academician


For thousands of years, the Celtic and Germanic tribes that were the foundation of British society were based upon a clan and an extended family kinship system. During Europe's Middle Ages, most Europeans, as well as the British, developed the nuclear family as we know it today. This paper describes the social evolution of the British family and shows how English, Scottish, and Welsh folk customs reflect on the evolution of the modem British family.

I. THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE BRITISH FAMILY THROUGH THREE STAGES

When William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings in 1066, he found a semi-feudal England that was still partially clan oriented. In the borderlands or "marches" and in Scotland and Wales, the clan was still the predominant internal political structure. In these areas of Britain there were loose clan confederacies or kingdoms, but individual clan chiefs held immense political power over their clans. Although England proper had more feudal development and much less clan autonomy, the various areas of the Saxons, Angles, Jutes, and Danes were still only loosely united.

William brought a more advanced type of French Norman feudalism to England. He replaced over four thousand English thegns (holders of royal land) with only 200 Normans. This effectively brought England completely out of the tribal past and into full feudal development.

Feudalism meant loyalty was required to local barons rather than to clan leaders. As agriculture developed in England during the pre-Norman period, clan relationships had been breaking down for many generations, while in hilly northern England, Scotland, and western Britain (Wales), pastorism was still prevalent and clan loyalties remained quite strong for many centuries to come.

During the Norman period, nuclear families became the norm in England. Each serf or head of a nuclear family was assigned sections of fields to cultivate and harvest. A serf was totally restricted by his lord; he could not leave the fief or marry without his lord's permission. A lord had absolute power of life and death over his serfs, who had to provide grains, dairy products, meat, eggs, and household and military service for his lord. Remaining ancient clan duties became obsolete.

Southern English peasants, or yardlings, lived in a village surrounded by their yardlands (in northern England, oxgangs), an area of approximately thirty acres. Many peasants owned less than a yard; the poorest of these were cotters who owned only a cotland, five acres or less. At the bottom of the social and economic ladder were the servants who lived on the tenements of yardlings or richer peasants. Rich peasants owned hides, which consisted of four yardlands. In northern England, eight oxgangs made a plowland. Both hides and plowlands were around 120 acres.

A typical English peasant had messuage in the village, which was "a house and yard, outbuildings and a garden." (1) The buildings were of a half timbered wattle and daub construction. "... There were no chimneys in peasant houses..." (2) and most floors were clay, while roofs were of thatch. Some rich peasants had stone houses with chimneys. The concept of personal privacy became highly prized as the middling groups of English society were able to afford partitioning of their houses into individual rooms for parents and children. Of course, until modern times, the poorer peasantry continued to live in one room hovels.

Rural village social life and courting usually occurred on holidays in old Britain. Until the latter mid-1800s, young single adults celebrated New Year's Eve, Whitsun, Christmas, St. Valentine's Day, and Easter Monday and Tuesday. Especially popular were the May and Midsummer games such as "Kiss-in-the-Ring." Arthur Munby recounts a story that supposedly took place at the Crystal Palace in London in 1859:

[A] nice looking girl came up, and saying "Are you in the ring, Sir? …

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