Love, Loss and Family Advantage

Rosalind Mitchison

  • Family Forms in Historic Europe edited by Richard Wall
    Cambridge, 606 pp, £37.50, March 1983, ISBN 0 521 24547 8
  • Servants in Husbandry in Early Modern England by Ann Kussmaul
    Cambridge, 245 pp, £22.00, December 1981, ISBN 0 521 23566 9
  • The Subversive Family: An Alternative History of Love and Marriage by Ferdinand Mount
    Cape, 282 pp, £9.50, July 1982, ISBN 0 224 01999 6

Family Forms in Historic Europe is a collection of local studies from different parts of Europe, mostly based on ‘listings’: that is, on descriptions of the occupants of a local unit on a specific date, usually by household. Who is resident at any moment in a household depends on traditions of family structure, on birth, marriage and death rates, on the employment prospects of the inmates, or the needs of the family occupation, and sometimes on the active pressure of governing bodies, the landowner or the state. It also depends on the day of the year when the list is made. I am aware of this from the fact that my own conceptual household has never managed all to be present at any one of the last four census enumerations. Which is the more relevant information to a subsequent historian – the enumerator’s facts about who was actually there, or my own concept of my normal household? This is merely an illustration of the fact that one of the first problems of research is to identify the information as either factual or conceptual, and then to decide which category is wanted. Human beings are infuriatingly mobile.

Behind this group of studies lies an important earlier collection, the work published in 1972, edited by Peter Laslett and Richard Wall, as Household and Family in Past Time. This book established the remarkable constancy of average household size in England since the 16th century, despite people’s mobility, with a norm of a little under five persons until the low birth rate and the disappearance of resident servants lowered the figure in the 20th century. It also stressed the need to look at any single pattern of family structure over time.‘Complex’ households – households containing more than one pair of parents and their children – may exist for only a few years altogether in a society where the complex household is a norm. But as that book showed, the family life of Western Europe has been determined by what has come to be called the ‘Hajnal’ pattern of marriage. Marriage, J. Hajnal showed in a fundamental article of 1965, in a tradition of separate home and economic base for the nuclear family, has been relatively late in the age at which it was undertaken, and left a sizable proportion of the population unmarried. The insistence on economic independence for the married couple meant that marriage involved saving, and so maturity.

The nuclear family system could exist among the peasantry because of the existence of a large body of servants. It was the norm for children in much of Western and Northern Europe to leave home under the age of puberty and work in another household. Sometimes this position was formalised by apprenticeship, but often not. These ‘servants’ were only occasionally assigned simply to housework: they were there to work on the farm or in whatever special economic base sustained their new household. Ann Kussmaul’s Servants in Husbandry in Early Modern England sets out their life pattern and prospects. Service was, for young folk, they hoped, only a period in their lives before they would be promoted to tenancy. In the agriculture of the day many tasks were held as suitable for specific age groups. After working at a boy’s task an adolescent would graduate to harder manual labour in another household, and eventually by saving and gaining skills might with maturity graduate to a higher status of farm occupancy or headship of a household. At some stage of the life of the family which he would then be able to found there would be a need for one or more servants to carry out tasks as yet beyond the powers of his own children. The nuclear family and the servant class were systems in symbiosis.

A point made by the earlier volume was the difference in household structure between Eastern Europe, where various types of complex household can be found, and the West. Another was the individualism created by the system of land disposition in England. This individualism has since been traced back into the Middle Ages; it is also shown in other countries. For instance, the community which Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie revealed in Montaillou seems in this sense to have been individualist. The peasants there hoped to put together enough resources to set up a family home: if not, they stayed in service – in some ways, freer and more irresponsible, but with this basic ambition unsatisfied.

In England, a potent modifier of the nuclear family was the new 19th-century pattern of industrialisation and urban growth. In the earlier volume Michael Anderson showed from a study of Preston in 1851 how this occurred. Early marriage was made possible by the new job structure, and the disappearance of family-based economic activity allowed the young to stay at home longer: meanwhile the lure of urban work brought other kin to lodge with their relatives in the town. All these forces combined to enlarge household size and alter its structure. By contrast, P. Schmidtbauer here shows that in some parts of Austria the presence of outlier kin diminished sharply with industrialisation. This fact reminds us that we can understand the processes of human movement and aggregation only when we look at them in a wider context: over a long span of time and a wide spectrum of social conditions, and in a geographical sample big enough to present varieties of economic experience. The pursuit of kinship in the surviving historical material forces the long time-span on the research worker, for it is only by continued observation that family links can be perceived. Movement to a new occupation is a form of migration, and the elements controlling the choice of their destinations by migrants are known to be complex. The lesson of the new work is that the whole field is as labour-intensive for the worker now as were the occupations of these servants in the past.

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