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.

The message is that household structure has to be seen in relationship to the economic base of a family, and it is brought home here in a wide range of contexts. In various parts of Europe the household adjusted to different economic resources. In early 19th-century Rheims the textile industry called for servants as spinners, and gave opportunities for the retention of girls within their own families longer than boys. Presumably the boys went away as farm labour, but one would need listings from other areas to show this. In a small-holding community in the wine-growing area of Austria there was scope for women as farm possessors, and the pattern of work made it relatively easy for unmarried mothers to find support. Viniculture required management and busy hands rather than muscle power. So also did dairying. The resultant age and sex distribution therefore has a rational base, even if it is too early as yet to be sure of causation. It would be interesting to see the relationship of these areas where it was relatively easy for women to find work to a map of illegitimacy levels.

The studies here from Eastern Europe show remarkably different household types. There is a common pattern of large, complex families, some ‘extended’ – that is, including three generations – others ‘multiple’ – that is, with more than one parent pair. Such households had less need of servants than had the nuclear families of the west. A fascinating Study of an unfree population in Mishimo in early 19th-century Russia shows the extreme state of contrast with the Western type. A low marriage age provided the district with a birth rate of 50 or more per thousand, and the resulting youthful population might be sent away for factory work. Certainly no extra servants from outside young adults were needed. The landowner’s policy was to keep up household size and so guarantee an adequate labour force for the land. The old were thus retained within the large household, even when their low labour capacity meant that they were burdensome, and newly married couples were also bonded-in for at least a few years. Marriage did not, as in the West, mean the departure from home to a new unit, but such departure would often occur later as the strains of living in these large units (average size of nearly eleven) became too great.

Another study here is by Hajnal on the numerical results of ‘joint’ and ‘nuclear’ household systems. He points out that for much of its life a household in a ‘joint’ system would be no different from a nuclear one. It is only for a relatively small number of years that the joint system will show its characteristics. This point is a valuable reminder that all our listings are just sudden trawls on the sea bed of history, bringing up evidence which may or may not be characteristic of the type.

The most interesting development of the new studies is the light that they throw on the long-standing priorities of our ancestors. The need for a household to be self-supporting over a wide range of personal capacities for work has forced families into long-term strategies. It is obvious that children must be cared for until they can begin work, and that even then their contribution to a family economy will usually be less than the demands made on it by their appetites and care. A similar problem, less readily acknowledged, exists with the old, whose work capacity declines in advance of their needs. Where pressure by the landowner has kept up the large household, they can be coped with. But in the nuclear family structure they provide a problem. David Gaunt discusses the systems in Medieval and Early Modern Scandinavia and Central Europe by which support of some kind was elicited for the old. This might be by the mortgaging of the family farm, or by contracts entered into with the younger generation for support. But these solutions presume the aged are propertied. Where no possession of land existed to be bartered with, the old could have a rough time, and the nadir of conditions, a total denial of the concept that ‘the best is yet to come,’ seems to have been produced in 13th-century Norway, where the old were sent out to dig graves and left in them to see who lasted longest and would eventually be let back into the family home. Even the ‘eventide homes’ of our welfare state fail to match this in grimness. Certainly this chapter gives a mortal blow to the myth that earlier societies were kinder to their old. Even within the limited range of Britain in the last three centuries Richard Wall is able to show, in another chapter, that it has become more common for old people to be attached to the household of their children than it was in earlier periods, and of course one of the reasons for this is the increasing number of old people.

The book ends with a paper by Peter Laslett pointing out how far back the Western type of nuclear family can be traced. He reminds us that we simply do not know whether it or the joint household should be considered to be the original family system of our Indo-European ancestors. This is an important point to make in response to some wild generalising about the distant past by unhistorical sociology.

Household forms, whether based on rules or conventions, interact with social feelings and emotions. If the nature of the necessary work-force dictates the structure of the household group, there is still within this the need for a focus of affection. How much of prompt remarriage after bereavement has been based on affection and how much on the economic need of the survivors is an obvious problem. Less obvious but at least as real is the problem of the development of affection within a relationship entered into for need or family advantage. A study here by R. Sieder and M. Mitterauer shows how young children might leave home as servants but return to work there as ‘co-resident kin’ when they could fill the relevant work slot. This may well have led to a low expectancy of family affection, but at the same time a high death rate in young and middle-aged adults kept low any prospect of secure rearing in close contact with a marital pair. Andreis Plakans, on a Baltic province, shows how different household structures followed different economic levels, and goes on from there to show the importance of kin linkages as the basis of new relationships not only within a farmstead but on a wider scale. Outside uncles and aunts must be regarded as ‘putative parent substitutes’ because mortality might make them into nearest supportive kin. Also men would use their kin as agents or allies because of trust, and that trust might be the stronger because of the possible need for substitution. Trust is an important element in affection.

Plakan’s paper is one of those in this book which show the new type of concern for the family in history. He looks at the type of household a child was likely to grow up in. In the big and complex households in his sample, it would be common for a child’s father not to be the head of the household. The bare bones of the listings do not tell us whether the various family groups within these households would be under one roof or in separate buildings grouped into a farmstead. In either case, there were usually other kin in close association besides the parents of the child, and more kin in other nearby farmsteads. The child would live with his or her parents for several years, but probably would seek work and life later in a nearby household, but here again it would probably mean living with kin. The developing consciousness of the young man would early on recognise the reality of a wide range of family links.

Other aspects of household development can be found by careful tracing of families. Sieder and Mitterauer’s study, for lower Austria, shows that children, whether legitimate or illegitimate, might be fostered by grandparents if the family was well-off, while their mothers worked elsewhere. Poverty might make this impossible, and the combination of poverty and illegitimacy was likely to lead to a child having a disturbed and broken environment, since economic insecurity would force its mother to take whatever work there was, and would often mean the child going out to work early. This observation has a bearing on the ‘bastardy prone subsociety’ shown by Peter Laslett in his book, Bastardy and its Comparative History, to have developed in Early Modern England.

The need of a farm for able-bodied labour meant that the modern feature of the ‘empty nest’ household did not exist in earlier days. Returning children or incoming servants would prevent it happening. Such incoming servants might, in the absence of obvious heirs, stay on to receive the headship of the household eventually. We need not regard such a transfer as equivalent to the headship going to strangers. Service was a period of life rather than a permanent status. This sort of study shows how the bare bones of household listings can be used to enlarge our understanding of personal relationships and family formation, and reveal the emotional links, obligations and dependencies, which dictated personal choice.

It is still too early for the quantitative study of household types and patterns to break fully into the topic of the levels of family affection and expect to get clear answers, as though, as this book shows, progress can be made. Many hundreds of hours of labour lie between the ‘now’ of this book and the answers to some of the questions we would like to put. This has not stopped various historians from sounding off on such topics. Ariés has declared that there are few signs of maternal affection in traditional societies, Lawrence Stone has allowed conjugal and parental love to develop within the upper ranks of English society only in the 18th century, Shorter has argued, forcefully but with surprising gaps in logic, for the non-existence of parental love before modern times, basing his opinion on the fact that urban families in 18th-century France made systematic use of baby-farming, sending newborn infants out to rural wet-nurses with high attendant morality.

These voices cannot be said to have proved their cases, but they are valuable as the source of ideas. The conventions about how you treat children and wives, in particular the amount you beat them, have varied considerably over time. This must be obvious even to the middle-aged among us from personal knowledge. Yet the reduction of punitive activity within the family which has affected many social groups has not necessarily seen the establishment of marital or parental affection at a new level. In the 20th century the economic determinants which had a strong influence on marriage decisions in the past are going, and the economic contributions of children to families have been dispensed with even earlier. Reduction of the economic restraints may have given more generous opportunities for the expression of love, but this is not to say that love did not exist in a condition largely dominated by economic necessity. The ending of the restraints can reduce the need for discipline, but this, if it lapses into casualness, may suggest less love, while if it changes to the sharing of decision-making, it may suggest more.

A similar problem of interpretation may lie in understanding the frequent habit of past parents of giving the name of a dead child to a new infant. Some have labelled this a sign of indifference to personality, but it may equally be evidence of feeling for the dead child, or the member of an older generation from whom the name was first taken, or of the general sense of family continuity. It may, more crudely, reflect the fact that the range of generally accepted Christian names was remarkably small. It is much too early for judgments on this topic, or many others, to be made with any hope that they will stand. These areas of human experience demand from the historian, not only laborious study, but also a sensitivity to the varied possibilities of human relationships.

One of the interesting areas of change in family structure is the development today of a pattern in which children of a couple by various marriages may be joined within a household. This existed in the past, but differently, and was the result not of divorce but of bereavement. The difference lies in the fact that some children today have ‘first-class’ and ‘second-class’ parents: in other words, those with custody and those with more limited rights. Divorce has still not yet gone so far in the creation of step-parenthood as did death in the days of low life-expectancy.

We need also to evaluate the psychological effect of the early departure from home of many children in the past. This departure was often permanent, for the labour they might have to offer might never come to be what the parental unit needed. But in some cases it would be only for a space of years. The loss of contact with parents is one part of the assessment we will have to make, but in part it may have been balanced by the fact that the child would know his labour was valued, and in subsequent moves he might come to a new household more as colleague than as simple employee. Living and working within the family he had joined would inevitably set up personal links.

Ferdinand Mount’s book on the family is a skilful piece of popularisation. Its content is much what can be found in the relevant parts of social history courses – a look at the family over time, and the recognition of its remarkable consistency in structure and purpose. He also takes a swing at popular myths, setting up a series of ‘standard errors’ about the past, which he then proceeds to knock down. Down goes the belief that the small nuclear family of the modern world is a recent invention, and the assertion that it is the industrial revolution which led to the disintegration of larger co-resident groups, ‘extended’ or ‘multiple’ families. Mr Mount also knocks other myths: that of teenage marriage as a norm in Western society, that of courtly and adulterous love as the only romantic element in the Middle Ages, that of the indifference of parents to each other or to their offspring, and the widely held belief that in the modern World the family is weakening. Reformers and doctrines, social, economic and religious, have all denounced the claims of the family to allegiance, and the author’s list of hostile quotations extends from St Paul, of course, to, rather surprisingly, John Paul II, with a side swipe at the father figures of Marxism. It is, he claims, only after a reformist group, whether based on church or on state, has been defeated by the resistance of the family and its resolute, ‘selfish’ adherence to its own values that the reformers change tactics and pretend that they were supporting the family all along, thereby trying to gain strength from their opponent. He gives instances of the quality of family life in past eras, quoting examples of marital love from Chaucer, the Paston letters, the Lisle papers, Henry VIII’s letters to Ann Boleyn (hardly a typical marital relationship, I would hope), and presents a similar batch of quotations illustrating maternal love. The family, he asserts, is based on biology and backed by enduring emotional strength. He implies that it has remained much the same over time, at least in the views of its members. Its aims and structure certainly have been persistent. It is those whom he calls ‘the historians’ – a pejorative word to Mr Mount – who have thought otherwise.

These are a selected bunch of theorisers, and their theories are set up to be disagreed with. Most of us who work in the field of social demography, and the development of social institutions, regard ourselves as historians, and do not accept Aries, Shorter or Stone, for instance, as authoritative voices: the value of their work lies not in putting over new dogmas but as stimulants, sources of new ideas with which to illuminate study, hypotheses against which to test our own evidence. Work on family structure is technically dreary – this is clear in Richard Wall’s book: it gains interest only if the worker can bring himself to raise a range of questions. He is more likely to be able to do so if he keeps in mind wider possibilities than the orthodoxies already established.

One of the weaknesses of the studies carried out by Mount’s ‘historians’ is the transposition of our own statistical knowledge into an earlier period. We today may know that sending a child out to wet-nursing in the country from Paris was in most cases to ensure its death, but to a generation lacking statistics of comparative mortality this may not have been apparent. Even if it had been apparent, the dispatch of infants might still have occurred in the interests of the survival of the family as a unit. Certainly the use of baby farming cannot be taken as evidence of lack of affection, though the practice itself made it more difficult for affection to grow. We cannot, in this and in other cases, take the fact of the decisions made as indisputable evidence of the feelings involved. The surrender of a child for adoption by an unmarried mother, or by a working-class wife afflicted with twins, both of these being 20th-century practices, does not tell us that these mothers lacked maternal feeling. It reminds us rather than if there is one thing which has dominated the policy of families under stress it has been the determination to keep the unit going. And sometimes this has had to mean the sacrifice of a child. More often it has involved thwarting or postponing the satisfaction of the wishes of the young. Sometimes it has meant the abandonment of the old.

Mr Mount does not categorically commit himself to the statement that the family has been unchanged over time. He is well enough coached, particularly by Peter Laslett, whom he apparently does not classify as one of ‘the historians’, to recognise that there are still large areas of ignorance about the past. Also it is one of his doctrines that flexibility is a large part of its strength. But he looks too much to its adjustment to pressures from without and not enough to its internal dynamism.

The shape and structure of the family and its relationship to further kin groups are not simply determined by the traditions of a society and the preferences of married couples with the options available to them. They are influenced also by the basic demographic determinants, marriage, fertility and mortality. For a generation now we have had relatively young marriage, for two generations low fertility, for three low mortality. These characteristics, if they continue, will produce a new pattern of relationships. The young may well come to be more liberally equipped with grandparents and great-grandparents, not to mention great-great-aunts and uncles, than with first cousins. In China, if the bureaucrats get their way, there won’t be any first cousins at all, but that is merely an extreme case of the general trend. The mechanisms for atavistic influence may become stronger than the family links with contemporary society. Certainly the nature of kinship is changing. As yet we do not know for sure that the change is to be permanent, nor what people will make of their new types of relationship. How will the young, when there are only a few of them, treat the more numerous old? It may well be true to assert that the family embodies long-standing preferences and values which are resistant to change. But it also embodies dynamic forces of its own, and it would be unwise to assert that these cannot change its priorities.

Ferdinand Mount has learnt a lot from historians, even from ‘the historians’ whom he denounces. But the potential dynamism over time of the institution he discusses is becoming apparent only now. Potentially the small family of today with its suppressed fertility is social dynamite. If, for instance, all the young, unemployed couples decided in a single year to find occupation by breeding, the surge of births would overwhelm all existing structures of child care and education. It would be interesting to see what Mount made of the topic if he returned to it in ten years, and to hear whether the family then shows more in persistence or in change. As always with demography, there are important questions which can be answered only by waiting.