Wednesday, 8 October 2008
Family and home
Above: Martin de Vos, Joanna Hoeftmans and Antonio Anselmo with their children, Joanna and Aegidio, 1577 (Koninklijke Musea, Brussels). The inscription records the concord between wife and husband, their birth dates and those of their children. Joanna is standing by her father, and Aegidio is sitting on his mother's lap.
The post below owes a considerable debt to Raffaella Sarti, Europe at Home: Family and Material Culture (Yale, 2002) and Merry E. Wiesener-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789 (Cambridge, 2006)
In the early modern period the family was the basic unit of society. It was the place of residence and of the pooling and distribution of resources for consumption. For many a small farmer and craftsman it was also the basic unit of production. For most people the place of work was also the place of residence.
Types of family
In most of northern Europe (and in south and south-eastern Spain, southern Italy and Sardinia) the nuclear family was the norm and it was rare for a married couple to share the same roof as the parents of one of the partners. In northern Europe this might have made for a more individualist type of human being (though this clearly did not apply in the south).
The nuclear family was especially long-standing in England, dating back at least to 1400 – rather than to the Industrial Revolution as is sometimes stated. Within this two-generational structure (parents and children) people married relatively late, and this had clear implications for family size. Such marriages produced c. four to five children (excluding miscarriages and stillbirths).
In this family structure, husbands were likely to be only two or three years older than their wives at first marriage, and apart from servants, households rarely contained more than one family member who was not part of the nuclear family.
Historians are not sure why this unusual pattern of the nuclear family developed, but the consequences are clearly important. Couples set up nuclear households only whey they could afford to do so. Because of later marriage women had fewer pregnancies, though not necessarily fewer surviving children. Newly-weds were more economically independent. There were also more people who never married at all. Demographers have estimated that from 10 to 15% of the people of north-west Europe never married.
Some economic arguments favoured the nuclear family. When they were short of hands these families could take on additional labour and this could be a more flexible solution than hiring relatives.
But in other parts of Europe, such as Russia, Ireland, central Italy, and the Auvergne, men who married brought their wives to the parental home. Demographers distinguish two types of extended family: the complex (one conjugal unit plus one or more other kin) and multiple family households with two or more other kin-related family units. Multiple families could comprise up to fifty people and provide a useful labour force.
Because marriage was less dominated by economic necessity, the age of marriage was earlier. In southern and eastern Europe most of the unmarried people lived in convents or monasteries.
Within this apparently simple divide, there could be many variations. Studies into cities in regions in which complex families were widespread like Lyon, Mâcon and Porto and various others in northern and central Italy have shown that in these cities there were more nuclear families than in the surrounding countryside. This was probably because of the shortage of housing and lack of room that were characteristic of urban life.
Not everyone in cities lived in the same way: artisans and the middle to lower ranks in society lived in nuclear families, while nobles and the propertied classes were more likely to live in complex families.
In the countryside landless farm servants and agricultural workers who did not have their own holdings were all more likely to live in nuclear families than if they were working their own holding. For a peasant who worked his own land, it could make sense to have a large extended family.
The term ‘family’
It is significant that the word ‘family’ was rarely used in the sixteenth century, perhaps because it had many different meanings. Note Romeo and Juliet: ‘Two houses [not families] both alike in dignity’. Until the 18th century the word encompassed servants. This meant that children grew up in the presence of people to whom they were not related.
‘Family’ could also imply looser connections only vaguely based on kin such as clans.
A persons’s surname did not necessarily provide a clear indication of kin connections of family membership. The modern western system seems to have developed first among the wealthy Italian families in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and to have spread only slowly to the rest of Europe. By the sixteenth century the nobility of most Europe had surnames taken from the place where they owned land. Slowly common people, especially those attempting to improve their status, adopted surnames from their occupations, physical characteristics, father’s name, or place of residence. These solely became hereditable rather than changing with each generation, a process speeded up by the authorities when they realized it would make tax collection easier. In 1539 Francis I ordered all families to adopt a permanent surname. In most of Europe women kept their surnames on marriage.
Inheritance laws and traditions varied across Europe and do not seem to have correlated tidily with family structure. In general inheritance was either partible, in which the total estate was divided among all the children, or all the sons, or operated according to primogeniture where the eldest son took everything. Both systems had their advantages and disadvantages. Partible inheritance was fairer, but could lead to a diminution of the land and an impoverishment of the holding. Impartible inheritance created problems (and opportunities?) for younger sons.
Families were constantly growing and shrinking. There was a high turnover within marriage because of the death of one partner. Sir Thomas More remarried in order to have a housekeeper. Children were therefore accustomed to stepmothers. Between a quarter and a fifth of all seventeenth-century children had lost one birth parent. As a result the Church’s insistence on life-long marriage was very different from now.
In 1960 a landmark book by Philippe Ariès was published in France. It was translated into English as Centuries of Childhood. Ariès’ book has revolutionized the study of young people. Aries argued that childhood is a very new concept. It did not exist at all in the Middle Ages, grew into existence in the upper classes in the 16th and 17th centuries, solidified itself somewhat more fully in the 18th century upper classes, and finally mushroomed on the scene of the 20th century in both the upper and lower classes. But, on his argument, childhood did not really penetrate the great masses of the lower and lower-middle classes until very late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Ariès claimed that in the Middle Ages a young person of 7 was already an adult. He points out that most young people were apprenticed, became workers in the fields (later, after the industrial revolution, in the factories) and generally entered fully into the adult society at a very early age.
As evidence he cites art work. There are no children, only babies and little adults. The musculature, dress, expressions, and mannerisms are all adult. On Aries' view, once the institution of childhood began to emerge the situation of the young person began to change in society. First they were named children. A theory of innocence of the child emerged. Children were to be protected from adult reality. The facts of birth, death, sex, tragedy, world events were hidden from the child. Children, the new creation, were increasingly segregated by age -- the very fact of having an age became important, whereas in the ‘ancien regime’ peoples ages were virtually unknown.
Ariès’ arguments were applied to the family in general by Lawrence Stone. According to his analysis, the modern ‘affective’ family did not come into being until the 18th century. But much of this evidence was derived from the (inevitably) better documented elite families, especially in England, where family formation was often a commercial transaction. But in fact there is abundant evidence of affection between husbands and wives, parents and children. By the time they reached the age of 4 or 5 many children had considerable parental time and energy invested in them and their progress had given much pleasure. Deaths later in childhood were especially hard to bear. Luther was devastated by the loss of his 14 year old daughter Magdalena in 1543.
But, however bitter their bereavements, Christians believed that the deaths had a meaning. Often the death of a child was ascribed to the sinfulness of the parents.
For women the best marker of old age would be the onset of the menopause, which usually occurred in the forties. For men there was no clear biological marker. In eastern and southern Europe older people often lived in three-generational multiple family households, or moved from the household of one married child to another. In northern and western Europe older people lived on their own for as long as possible. The elderly lived with their married children only among the poor.
Was there a golden age when the old were valued for their wisdom and experience? In many parts of Europe parents made formal contracts with their children to assure themselves of a certain level of material support, such as ‘twelve bushels of rye and a place by the fire’.
The houses of the rural poor have on the whole not survived. Where they have survived, they have been changed out of recognition and we are therefore heavily reliant on illustrations, inventories, archaeological findings or literary descriptions.
It was common for the houses of peasants to be set partially in the ground or carved out of the rock. A peasant house was usually rectangular in shape and had an earth floor sometimes covered with sand or straw. It consisted of one or two rooms and there were often no windows. The house itself was built of wood and organic material mixed with mud or clay, with a roof of straw or reeds. During the early modern era these buildings were gradually abandoned or used as byres or storerooms. Stone was the basic building material in the Mediterranean because of its abundance, wood in the Alpine areas. From the middle of the 17th century brick became more common in England because of the depletion of woodlands.
The absence of non flammable materials was one reason why the central fireplace was often little more than a hole in the ground. The fireplace in a side wall appears to have been an Italian invention probably introduced in Venice between the 12th and 13th centuries.
Not everyone could afford the luxury of windows. Window glass began to be used in the houses of Genoa and Florence in the 14th century. During the early modern era glass windows ceased to be found exclusively in churches and the houses of the rich and began to be more commonplace.
The Fire: Lighting a fire became an easier operation with the invention c. 1530 of the first rudimentary matches. They were little pieces of wood, cane, hemp, rolled paper or cotton which had been coated with wax. To light them a piece of steel and a flint shard were struck together hard in a laborious operation which was generally entrusted to servants. The range of fuels varied from region to region, with poor people often reliant on dung.
The fire had a symbolic as well as a practical significance. In Sardinia the fire was only put out in the event of bereavement. In various languages fire was a metonym for household (feu, fuoco, both derivatives of the Latin focus). The English expression was home and hearth’.
From the Renaissance there was a new type of rural building – the villa – a fashion which spread from Italy to the rest of Europe. In the late Middle Ages and early modern period, the nobility in most of western Europe shifted its principal residence to the city and the grandiose villa was a secondary residence. England provided the exception to this rule as ownership of a country residence was an essential condition for belonging to the local elites.
Most European cities were surrounded by walls and as the population grew, this created problems of space. During the 16th century high rise apartments increased in number in Venice, Genoa and Naples. Families of high social rank lived on the piano nobile and families of lower rank on the other floors.
The disposal of refuse was always a major problem and the streets were piled with human and animal excrement. The cleanliness of the brick-paved towns of the Netherlands drew admiration from other Europeans. Travellers from the east commented on the lack of public baths in Western Europe. Cesspools became increasingly common in courtyards.
Another major problem was the water supply. In Venice each campo (as in the Campo Santa Maria Formosa, right) contained a well, but in England the urban inhabitants relied on collecting rainwater or making an often inconvenient journey to a well or fountain where they might have to stand in a queue. In Rome the popes revived the Roman aqueducts that had fallen into disuse during the Middle Ages. By European standards London was an advanced city. From 1582 there was a machine operating on London Bridge that raised water from the river.
Shakespeare famously left his wife his second best bed. Beds were differentiated into a wide range of types and during the 15th century bedsteads became imposing pieces of furniture in wealthy houses, often replacing the straw mattresses on which the family had previously slept. But even in better off houses there was a lack of beds and sleeping was not considered and entirely private activity.
Tables and chairs were becoming more common, replacing benches and stools. But there were often too few to go round and access reflected family hierarchies).
Among the wealthy there was a growing concern for privacy. The owner of the house received his guests in his bed, which was perhaps the most important space in the building. But this came to be seen as too public and the result was the development of the antechamber, in which guests could wait, possessions could be stored and servants could sleep. Smaller associated rooms were built next to the bedroom, such as lavatories, studies and closets. In the Italian palazzo this gave rise to the private apartments of the master and mistress, a house within a house. The same trend to greater privacy can be seen in the English country house where the hall (as in Penshurst, left) lost its traditional features in the 17th century and became a simple entrance area, while the family dined more privately.