Wednesday, 22 October 2008

The ritual year

Above is Pieter Bruegel's 'Battle between Carnival and Lent'. Click to enlarge.

This post is especially indebted to Ronald Hutton, The Rise and Fall of Merry England (Oxford University Press, 1996), Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge University Press, 1991), and Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400-c.1500 (Yale, 1992).

In a largely unlettered world dependent on natural forces people took out insurance against what they could not foresee or control. Religion was a major protective and where official religion seemed inadequate, other rites were used. The Christian church obliged the realities of the agricultural year by turning at least one third of the days into obligatory festivals. A division may be made between rituals of joy, which welcomed in the seasons of the year, and rituals of protection. All coincided with the liturgical cycle of the Christian churches.

The annual calendar began at Christmas. In England the first sign of the new season would have been the decorating of buildings with holly and ivy just before Christmas Eve. There is no evidence that they were chosen for arcane or magical properties but simply because they were green. (Mistletoe does not seem to have had any significance.) When people left the church they could enjoy, if they wished, their first really ample meal for over four weeks, following the very frugal Advent diet.

Candlemas fell on 2 February and marked the formal end of winter, followed by St Valentine’s Day, where men and women sent each other tokens of affection. In southern Europe in particular, Carnival was the big February celebration (see below). Palm Sunday was ‘one of the longest passages of ceremony in the whole ecclesiastical year’ (Hutton). May was a time of celebrating life and fertility; work resumed in the fields. There were two great festivals in June: Corpus Christi (see below) and the midsummer fire rituals of St John’s Eve when in London there were bonfires in the streets and in Chalon-sur-Sâone the canons repaired to a place called L’Etoile-à-Forêt, where they cut down branches, especially willow branches, and took them back to the cathedral. In July the harvest was gathered in, with further celebrations.

The derivation of the word is uncertain, though it can possibly be traced back to medieval Latin carnem levare meaning to take away or remove meat. This is because it was the final feast before the austere forty days of Lent. The historical origin is also obscure, though in southern Europe, it is plausibly linked to the beginning of spring and the rebirth of nature and in other cultures it can be linked to the Roman Saturnalia. However the first day of carnival varied with both national and local traditions.

Carnival was a privileged time - what was often thought could be expressed with relative impunity. It was a release not only from work, but also from society’s norms. It was a favourite time for the performance of plays. It was not merely a popular festival but was integral to the whole culture. As a young man, Philip II habitually took part in the festivities. Carnival was strongest in the Mediterranean area, weakest in Britain and Scandinavia.

Carnival was normally celebrated in the last few days before the coming of Lent. But in the Catalan lands it began the day after Christmas and ended over six weeks later on Ash Wednesday. In Munich the carnival of Fasching began on the feast of Epiphany (6 January) while in Cologne and the Rhineland it began on 11 November.

The place of Carnival was the open air in the city centre: eg in Nuremberg, the market place, in Venice the Piazza San Marco. Carnival may be seen as a huge play in which the main streets and squares became stages, and the city became a theatre, and the inhabitants the actors and spectators. There was no sharp distinction between actors and spectators - the ladies on the balconies might throw eggs at the crowd and the maskers were often licensed to break into private houses.

The action of this gigantic play was a set of more or less formally structured event: massive eating of meat, pancakes and (in the Netherlands) waffles, reaching a climax on Shrove Tuesday; heavy drinking; singing and dancing in the streets; masks, long noses, cross-dressing; violence against animals. In the last days of Carnival there would be processions in which there would probably be floats bearing people dressed as giants, goddesses, devils etc. In some French carnivals husbands who had been beaten by their wives or had recently got married were carried in procession by the officials of `the great prince Mardi Gras' or led through the town mounted backwards on an ass. A second recurring element was some kind of competition.

Corpus Christi
(For a summary of Miri Rubin's book mentioned above, see , ‘Corpus Christi: Inventing a Feast’, History Today, 40 (July, 1990), 15-21).

In 1216 the Fourth Lateran Council sanctioned the word ‘transubstantiation’ as a correct expression of Eucharistic doctrine to describe what happens during the central Catholic ritual of the mass and how the words ‘Hoc est corpus meum’ were to be interpreted. Using Aristotle’s categories the Council moved that while the accidents (outward appearance) of bread and wine remained after the words of consecration, the substance has changed to the body and blood of Christ. (This doctrine was to be elaborated by subsequent theologians and to become extremely controversial in the 16th century.)

The Council also recommended annual communion after due confession and penance. For all the other Sundays in the year, people did not go to mass to communicate but to observe the key moment of consecration. From the end of the twelfth century this was accompanied by the gesture of elevation. At the elevation, bells pealed, incense was burned and candles were lit. English parish inventories of the fifteenth century record the expenditure on bells and their maintenance. The Council of Exeter of 1287 ordered that at least one of the candles should be of (expensive) beeswax.

One consequence of this enhancement of the mass was that it became more clearly the preserve of the clergy. From the twelfth century the chalice was increasingly withdrawn from the laity. In 1415 the Council of Constance decreed that only the clergy could communicate in both kinds.

From the thirteenth century the Franciscan and Dominican friars taught eucharistic doctrine through sermons and stories, many of them focusing on the miraculous. One popular story was that of St Basil and the Jew: a child appeared in Basil’s hand at mass, bits of it were distributed to communicants, and the Jew was converted.

The doctrine was received with particular enthusiasm in the diocese of Liège among the beguine community. Beguines were women who came to live lives of poverty and chastity and to follow a penitential life of prayer, supporting themselves by their own labour. These communities were guided in their religious practices by monks and priests and depended on priests for confession and the reception of communion. They were particularly numerous in the Low countries and the archdiocese of Cologne.

The beguines developed a particular spirituality which focused on Christ’s Passion and by association with the Eucharist, with the consecrated host becoming an object of desire. Some women wished to eat nothing but the host, others saw miracles and experienced visions. One of these beguines the prioress Juliana (c.1193-58), who served at a leper-hospital in Cornillon near Liège, experienced a repeated Eucharistic vision, the meaning of which was only revealed to her after twenty years. Her dream of the moon with a little break in part of its sphere stood for the absence of one feast in the Church that Christ wished to be celebrated. Her vision was conveyed by her confessor to the new bishop Robert de Turotte in 1240. In 1246 Robert ordered the festival of Corpus Christi to be celebrated in his diocese and the first celebration took place in that year. He died shortly afterwards, and Juliana died in 1258, but by this time the Dominicans had taken up the initiative with enthusiasm, seeing it as a useful weapon against the Cathar heretics.

In 1261 Jacques Pantaleon, formerly archdeacon of Liège, became pope as Urban IV and he brought with him to the papacy the wish to complete the project begun fifteen years earlier. In 1264 he ordered the whole church to observe the feast.

This was the first time that a universal feast was founded by a pope, which obviously makes it an event of considerable significance. A later attempt was made to link the foundation of the feast with the alleged miracle of Bolsena, but this is a tradition dating only from the fourteenth century and is therefore in Miri Rubin's opinion (p. 176) misplaced.

Because Urban died soon after the institution of the feast, it did not become secured immediately. There was not yet a well-developed papal bureaucracy to ensure that the pope’s orders were carried out. Only a handful of copies of the papal letter were issued. The Corpus Christi liturgy was composed by Thomas Aquinas, but the feast was not universally observed.

But Urban's order was confirmed by the Avignon Pope Clement V at the Council of Vienne in 1311-12 and in 1317 Clement’s his successor John XXII promulgated a bull introducing the new feast to every province of Christendom. By 1318 the new feast was celebrated at St Peter’s monastery in Gloucester. By the15th century it became, in effect, the principal feast of the church, observed on the Thursday (or, in some countries, the Sunday) after Trinity Sunday (the first Sunday after Pentecost). This meant that it could be held at any time between 21 May and 24 June - a time of year when the weather was likely to be warm even in northern Europe.

The Procession
Though the papal bull made no mention of a procession, the procession became (and still is) the feast's most prominent feature and was a pageant in which sovereigns and princes took part, as well as magistrates and members of guilds. The Council of Sens in 1320 decreed:
Around the solemn procession which takes place on the Thursday after Pentecost octave, clergy and laity should attend the carrying of the said sacrament which was instituted by divine inspiration, and we hereby enjoin that nothing in the devotion of clergy and laity should be left out.
Because it was a new feast, requiring help and encouragement, fifteenth-century popes granted indulgences attached to the procession.

In the processions, the host was carried in a costly and ornate vessel, carried by the clergy and often covered by a canopy of rich material held up by staves which were handled by prominent laymen. By the late fourteenth century most urban processions were controlled by the secular civic authorities. The eucharist could not be handled by a lay person, so its receptacle was always carried by priests, but the canopy and flags were carried by lay people, making the procession a symbol of power in the community.

The Mystery Plays
As the procession gradually moved from a predominantly religious sphere to the public and secular space, it acquired a variety of arrangements ordering political groupsround the symbolic power centre. In most English towns the unit for organization became the craft guilds and the regulating body the town council. By 1453 the Norwich Corpus Christi procession was ordered by craft: the smiths, tillers, masons and lumberman under a banner; carpenters, joiners and wheelwrights; woollen-weavers, linen-weavers, fullers and shearmen; fishmongers and freshwater fishermen; and finally haberddashers, cappers, hatters, pinners and pointmakers . After the processions more informal ceremonies followed as parishes, fraternities and religious houses withdrew from the public scene to have their dinners.

All this demonstrated hierarchy rather than civic harmony as most working people, women, children, servants and visitors were excluded.

In York in the 15th century the procession was customarily followed by the performance by guild members of miracle plays and mystery plays. The 48 York plays date from the 14th century (the first possible mention dates from 1376) and are of unknown authorship. Some of them are almost identical with corresponding plays in the Wakefield cycle, and it has been suggested that there was an original (now lost) from which both cycles descended. It is more likely, however, that the York cycle was transferred bodily to Wakefield some time during the later 14th century and there established as a Corpus Christi cycle. There was also a Chester cycle of between fifteen and twenty-five plays and there are fragments of cyclical plays from Coventry, Norwich and Newcastle.

The plays were given in York on one day, in chronological order, on pageant wagons proceeding from one selected place to another. The cycle covers the story of man's fall and redemption, from the creation of the angels to the Last Judgment; six plays are peculiar to York (the play of Herod's son, of the Transfiguration, of Pilate's wife, of Pilate's majordomo, of the high priests' purchase of the field of blood, and of the appearance of the Virgin to the Apostle Thomas).

In the last revision of the York plays, about 14 plays (mainly those concerning Christ's Passion) were redacted into powerful alliterative verse, the work of a dramatic genius, often referred to as the York Realist. The York plays have been preserved in the Ashburnham Manuscript, in the British Library.


As Catholic eucharistic teaching came under attack from Lollards and later from evangelicals, much criticism came to focus on Corpus Christi. Martin Luther: ‘
There is no feast which I detest so much as Corpus Christi’.
Other feasts
Corpus Christi was merely the best example of a wider phenomenon - the growing number of feasts in late-medieval Christendon. There were many other feasts that also had their special days. From 1383 the cult of St Anne was observed on 26 July. Feasts already observed, such as the Nativity of the Virgin (8 September) were raised in solemnity by having a new vigil, involving fasting, attached. In England in the 1480s and 1490s other new feasts were established: the Holy Name of Jesus (various dates in late December and early January), the Visitation of the Virgin (2 July), the Transfiguration (6 August).

One of the most popular saints was the (fictional) Catherine of Alexandria, whose feast day was 25 November.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Henry VIII: a virtuous prince

In today's Observer, Hilary Mantel has a very good review of David Starkey's Henry: Virtuous Prince.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Women and gender

The beliefs and practices of the sixteenth-century were very hostile to women. Woman was blamed for the fall of man and medicine and political science asserted her unreliability, and her unfitness to exert authority. At the same time, however, female saints figured largely in popular culture and in the real world women did not always live according to the prescriptions in the text books and conduct books.


Women’s work was essential to the economy though frequently under-reported. In Martin Guerre's village of Artigat women hoed, trimmed the vines and cut the grapes. They rented the land, sheared sheep and took cows and calves in contracts. They were also midwives and healers and market traders.

The job of the mother was to give her daughter survival skills and to start her on the path of capital accumulation. In most of Europe (though not in Italy, Spain and Portugal) this usually meant leaving home between the ages of 12 and 14, almost invariably as a domestic servant. This was a broad term encompassing farm servants as well as household servants, and would involve residence as a respectable girl had to live under someone’s roof. The demand for domestic service was enormous as the first luxury any family permitted itself was the services of a maid of all work to take on the drudgery of carrying water coal or wood, going to market, or performing laundry services. Country girls employed in domestic service in the towns were a significant long-term feature of the European labour market, accounting for 13% of the population of any city north of the Loire. Though they were excluded from most professional activities by the guilds, women’s work was vital in other aspects of the urban labour market. In the textile town of Leiden in the 1580s 10% of the labouring population were independent women workers and a further 20% were women in menial employment.

As Olwen Hufton points out, the twelve or fourteen year old girl had before her a service stint of a further twelve to fourteen years, her lifespan over again. As a servant she acquired a wide range of useful skills, which would improve their marriage prospects, especially in the great dairy farming regions of Britain, the Netherlands, Flanders and northern and western France. In Britain after a few years she might take her career into her own hands and proceed at the relevant time of year to a hiring fair, usually held at Martinmas (11 November). At the end of the period of service many girls returned to their home villages with their accumulated earnings.

In the early modern era women were continually spinning. In many areas the spindle and the distaff were the signs of the hard-working woman. The distaff was probably given such significance because it was possible to spin in intervals between other tasks or even in carrying out other tasks – or in the evening while being courted.

Artistic representations of women underplayed their work and emphasized instead the importance of matrimony. Marriage was the norm even though many women never married. In the ‘northwest European pattern’ a high proportion of females, possibly up to a fifth, abstained from marriage. A high proportion were widows (see below) and in Catholic countries a large proportion were in convents.

Women’s bodies
In medical terms male sexuality was the baseline for any perception of human sexuality and the female sex organs were regarded as the male turned inside out. This meant that there was no precise nomenclature for some female genital parts. The female body was regarded as imperfect and incomplete, female humours were viewed as cold and moist rather than hot and dry, and women were seen as more prone to disorders such as hysteria.

Rights in law
European law was either church law, Roman law or customary law (often a mixture of all three). Roman law was especially strong in Italy, Spain, Portugal and France south of the Loire, and it became stronger still as Roman law was revived among jurists. But throughout Europe a person’s legal status depended on gender. Both tradition and common practice gave a commanding role to the husband. In 1587 a jurist of Tours commended ‘domestic discipline where the father is as a dictator’. Husbands and fathers were responsible for the conduct of their womenfolk. This included the husband’s legal right to chastise his wife, though in north-western Europe a beaten woman could call her husband to account. In general, women had more rights in the areas of customary law and this could be reflected in the social mores. Foreign visitors to England were often struck by what they saw as the surprising degree of freedom allowed to English women. This was in marked contrast to the seclusion of women in the Latin countries.

The model wife was the obedient wife. The double standard of morality was condemned by the church but recognized in law. In the criminal codes based on Roman law, a woman taken in adultery by her husband could be killed by him in the spot. But the state was ceasing to tolerate the power over life and limb that husbands had once exercised over their wives. Community pressure was also brought to bear on husbands that were seen as cruel or unreasonable.

The law also confirmed the idea of woman as the more lustful sex. Under most European codes a woman could not claim that rape was responsible for her pregnancy since it was assumed that conception could not occur without her active consent.

The marriage bond was not always seen as indissoluble. Like any secular contract it could be broken if the terms were not met – for example if the full dowry was not paid. In France and Spain the state and Church courts granted ‘divorces’ or legal separations when the wife could prove a systematic beating. Over 70% of the divorce petitions in the archdiocese of Cambrai in the early 18th century came from women, the majority citing marital violence as a cause.

There were two principal grounds for separation in a Catholic country: (1) if either spouse threatened the life and honour of the other; (2) if the spouse refused to give economic support. Impotence tended to be cited not in pleas for separation but in pleas for nullity.

Catholic practice was that couples might be separated but could not marry again. Protestants (except in England) gradually, though reluctantly, came to accept remarriage after divorce.

Women were disadvantaged in the transmission of property. In France, England, parts of Germany and Italy the laws of primogeniture passed the estate down the male line only. When feudalism broke down many aristocrats entailed their estates through a single male heir in order to keep the estate intact.

When a woman married, her property passed into the management of her husband – unless a trust fund was set up to secure it. In countries of both Roman and customary law the widow had a right to whatever she brought into the marriage (the dowry) or to the income from this sum. In Languedoc custom, for example, the widow was guaranteed the return of everything she had brought to the marriage as a dowry, plus an ‘increase of one third of the value of that dowry’. She could also claim the clothes, jewels and furniture she brought with her and whatever her husband had settled on her at marriage, a third or half of what they had communally owned and anything else the husband cared to bestow on her in his will.

Recent studies on men’s and women’s wills show that women had an emotional relationship with domestic furnishings and personal effects, whereas men spoke of them in a detached manner without referring to them individually. Women appear to have developed a different, more individual relationship with objects.

Noble women, who married young, were more likely to spend much of their married life pregnant and so were more exposed to death in childbirth. Working women spent a much smaller proportion of their lives pregnant. Two years could elapse between the first and second births – perhaps because of lactation, perhaps because of poor diets. A range of herbs was used to procure abortions.

Pregnancy was always an anxious time. The French proverb ran ‘Femme gross a un pied dans la fosse’. The problems of childbirth arose less with the birth itself than with complications. In Britain on average probably about 25 women in a thousand died in childbirth – the rate for France was probably higher. Three of the four wives of Philip II died as a consequence of childbirth complications.

In large households the birth occurred in a warm, darkened room with a blazing fire. In all households, childbirth was a communal event – friends, neighbours and relatives came before the midwife arrived. Depictions of the birth of the Virgin are populated with women helpers. Catholic women had a Marian girdle placed on their stomachs.

Childbirth was a strictly female event. The licensed midwife was a person of good repute. In Catholic societies the midwife bore the responsibility of baptizing a puny infant. However, although some accounts suggest midwives had high status, there were many complaints about untrained and ignorant midwives.

After the birth villagers called bringing cake and eggs or a caudle drink. The childbed helpers were ‘gossips’ in England, though the term also applied to godparents. A christening was a time of celebration and thanksgiving and friends and neighbours were invited to the feast. But the infant’s mother would not be present.

Only poor women breastfed their children. One reason for this was the belief that sexual relations had a bad effect on the quality of the milk and therefore the health of the baby. The decision to use a wet-nurse was generally taken by the father, who would negotiate her working conditions with her husband.

Because of the age difference between spouses (especially in southern Europe), women were often widowed while relatively young. Under customary law it was normal for the widow to be seen as the natural guardian of the progeny until they were of age. In Italy the widow was due nothing more than her own property, and was not regarded as the natural guardian of the children. But in his will the husband could name his wife donna e madonna of his property as long as she remained unmarried. This provision gave her enjoyment of the full usufruct of all that was left and the right to live in the marital home with the children. But if he ignored his wife in his will, she was either forced to leave the conjugal home and surrender her children, having repossessed her dowry, or she was whisked away after the funeral by her own family.

The death of a husband often brought financial hardship and widows were more likely to be dependant on charity than married women. The poorest households in towns were those headed by elderly widows. However, in parts of northwest Europe widowhood could be an economic advantage for propertied women: they could receive back their dowries and invest them as they chose - see Bess of Hardwick.

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
(a) Nuclear
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.

(b) Extended
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.

Old age
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’.

Rural Homes
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.

Urban Homes
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.