J.P.SOMMERVILLE

 

The Early Modern Family


Portrait of a Boy c. 1619 (Nicholas Rubens, by Peter Paul Rubens).

367-03 (3)

 

bullet

Early-modern England suffered from high infant mortality by the standards of the modern Western World. One in every three or four children born died before the age of 15, and the first year was the most dangerous. (Today in the poorest areas of London only about eight in a thousand babies die in their first year, and the death rate falls off rapidly thereafter).
The high rate of mortality profoundly affected life expectancy statistics. In Shakespeare's England, life expectancy varied between 30 and 40 years. (In the modern West, it is very roughly 75 for men and 85 for women).

"When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field,
Thy youth's proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed, of small worth held:
Then being asked where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say, within thine own deep-sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beauty's use,
If thou couldst answer "This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count and make my old excuse,"
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel'st it cold."

(Sonnets 2).

 

 

bullet

Adult life expectancy was also lower than today's. As many children were orphaned by the death of at least one parent as today are parted from a parent by the divorce of their mother and father.
(There was almost no legal divorce in early-modern England. Legal separation was possible but uncommon; amongst the poor, desertion of spouses was far from unknown.)

bullet

The population of Shakespeare's England was therefore much younger on average than that of the modern West. About 40% were under the age of twenty-one.

 


The Nuclear family


Rembrandt - family portrait

 

bullet 

The nuclear family (i.e. biological parents and their dependent children) was the basic family unit in early-modern England. There were few extended families (i.e. ones that included three or more generations - grandparents, their sons or daughters, and their children - or siblings' families).
[Moral homilies like those of Babington reveal contemporary expectations about the structure and composition of the family].

bullet

A couple generally expected to move into their own home on marriage, and deferred marriage until they could afford to do so.

bullet

Family relationships did extend beyond parents and siblings. These more distant relations were generally called "cousin". Cousinage was relatively unimportant, but it did often reinforce other social relationships - thus the gentry families of a region were often inter-related. Similarly, patronage and business connections often followed or were confirmed by intermarriage.

bullet

Amongst ordinary commoners, family life centered on the home and social life on neighbors. Charity began in the village, and for people in difficulties it was important to have helpful neighbors. Neighborly ties were strained by hard economic times, but even then provision was made for the local poor, whilst strangers were whipped from the parish.

 

Servants


Vermeer - Milkmaid

 

bullet

Very many early-modern English homes included servants. It was commonplace for adolescent children to leave their own home and work as servants in the families of neighbors or in nearby villages.

bullet

Most of England's population lived in small rural villages, but it was not uncommon for people to leave (temporarily or permanently) in search of work. About one in five of England's population visited London for at least some part of their lives. Most people did not settle permanently in the village of their birth. In Cogenhoe, Northamptonshire, for example, more than half of the inhabitants died or left in the period 1618 to 1628 and were replaced by newcomers. In Clayworth, Nottinghamshire, the period 1678-88 saw one third of the population turn over.

bullet

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, about 60% of those aged fifteen to twenty-four were engaged in domestic service. Service formed a transitional stage between the parental and the marital home.

bullet

It was not only the children of the poor who left to work as servants. Gentle and noble children also went to the households of the higher nobility, or to the royal court, where they often formed useful social connections.
[The household of the Earl of Northumberland].
 

"Marry, sir, she's the kitchen wench and all grease; and I know not what use to put her to but to make a lamp of her and run from her by her own light. I warrant, her rags and the tallow in them will burn a Poland winter: if she lives till doomsday, she'll burn a week longer than the whole world."

(Comedy of Errors, 3.2).

 

bullet

The presence of servants in the home may well have led to higher standards of discipline and harder work for children, since people were less inclined to pamper others' children than their own.

bullet

On the other hand, the fact that most servants were little more than children may well have led to less harsh and impersonal exploitation than with ordinary wage laborers.
[Contemporary advice to masters and servants].

 

 

Marriage


Brueghel, The Wedding Dance

 

bullet

The average age of marriage in early-modern England was relatively late - most couples married in their mid twenties. This was not because of legal restrictions - civil and ecclesiastical law allowed girls to marry at twelve and boys at fourteen. However, most couples had to wait until they had accumulated enough money and resources to establish their own household.

bullet

The rich and noble were exceptions to this rule, Money, land, and dynastic considerations often led to arranged marriages at early ages. (This is seen in the case of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, although this was in any case set in Italy, where marriage of young girls was more common).

 

"My child is yet a stranger in the world;
She hath not seen the change of fourteen years,
Let two more summers wither in their pride,
Ere we may think her ripe to be a bride."

(Romeo and Juliet, 1.2).

 

bullet

In Shakespeare's time, a couple could legally marry simply by promising to do so in front of witnesses, and then consummating the relationship by sexual relations. (This was true until Hardwicke's Marriage Act, 1753). However, the church disapproved of such informal marriages and tried to make all couples marry in church, in the presence of a minister, after three weeks of public announcement ("reading the banns").

bullet

In early-modern England, the promise to marry (betrothal or "spousals") was far more binding than a modern engagement. Up to one in four brides were already pregnant at their wedding ceremony because the commitment was held to be virtually equivalent to marriage. (Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway was one such bride).

bullet

However, the illegitimacy rate was very low by modern standards. (About four in one hundred babies in the reign of Elizabeth, and even less under the early Stuarts).

bullet

In general, children were an economic burden rather than an asset. The clergyman, Ralph Josselin, for example spent between one fourth and one third of his income on his children.

bullet

Late marriage and high infant mortality combined to restrict the growth of population. There is also evidence that (despite the absence of modern convenient methods) English couples practiced voluntary methods of contraception to avoid having children they could not properly support.

bullet

Certainly in the second half of the seventeenth century, the population of England stopped growing significantly, and became more prosperous.

 

      "Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all"

(King Lear, 1.1).

 

A revolution in family life?

In 1977, the English historian, Lawrence Stone, suggested that the period 1500 to 1800 saw a massive shift in family life and attitudes to sex and marriage. He argued that the changes centered on a shift from a family characterized by deference, coldness and patriarchal authority to "affective individualism" (loving personal relationships).

 

bullet

Stone summarized the pattern of change as:

bullet

Open lineage family, 1450-1630
Nobles and gentry identified themselves with their kin (i.e. all living relatives) and lineage (i.e. their ancestors) as well as with their immediate family. Attitudes to close relatives were formal and even cynical by modern standards. Society was violent and callous. Upper-class couples were remote and unfeeling towards each other, and their union was merely a business relationship aimed at consolidating land and property.

bullet

Restricted patriarchal nuclear family 1550-1700
The importance of kinship declined and that of immediate relatives (especially spouse and children) grew. The Tudor monarchy's attack on the power of the landed aristocracy increased the importance of links within and between nuclear families. The Reformation led to a preaching campaign that stressed the importance of companionship in marriage, and attacked marriages arranged without regard to the compatibility of the couple. Nonetheless, the father's power to rule the family was largely unchallenged.

bullet

Closed domesticated nuclear family 1640-1800
Patriarchy declined and loving relationships became more important. More grief was felt and shown at the death of immediate relatives, and children were showered with affection.  Individual privacy and personality assumed more importance. Marriages were based on mutual affection far more than on economic calculations. Romantic love - embodied in and disseminated by the romantic novel - became key to marriage happiness, in which (freed from Puritan constraints) sexual passion was now allowed a legitimate part.
 

 'It is impossible to stress too heavily the impermanence of the Early Modern family, whether from the point of view of husbands and wives, or parents and children. None could reasonably expect to remain together for very long, a fact which fundamentally affected all human relationships.'

'it is fairly clear that the relative lack of concern for small infants was closely tied to their poor expectation of survival and that there is on the average a rough secular correlation between high mortality and low gradient affect.'

Stone, Family, Sex and Marriage.

 

bullet

Stone's thesis provoked many attacks. One of the most important was launched by Alan Macfarlane in 1979.

bullet

Amongst the many criticisms of Stone's thesis were:

  1. Overlapping periods made it possible to account for conflicting evidence at any one period (having his cake and eating it too).

  2. Many of the ideas - such as patriarchalism, and sex as primarily procreative in purpose - that Stone identified with the Reformation, were traditional Roman Catholics ones, long predating early-modern developments.

  3. The idea that before the sixteenth century people lacked affection for their spouses and children is extremely difficult to sustain. Evidence from medieval literary sources such as Chaucer and manuscript sources, such as the Paston letters, strongly suggest that there could be deep affection in family relationships. It is peculiarly difficult to understand how Shakespeare could have written such plays as Romeo and Juliet, or Twelfth Night, or how his audience could have appreciated them, if he and they were unfamiliar with romantic love.

  4. Stone argued that the high mortality rate discouraged people from emotional investment in relationships with people who might die at any moment. But in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when he contends that affection was growing in importance, mortality rates were still high.
     

    Ben Jonson, On My First Son (1616)

    Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
    My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy:
    Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
    Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
    O could I lose all father now! for why
    Will man lament the state he should envy,
    To have so soon 'scaped world's and flesh's rage,
    And, if no other misery, yet age?
    Rest in soft peace, and asked, say, "Here doth lie
    Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry."
    For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
    As what he loves may never like too much.

    The poet, Ben Jonson seems not to have appreciated the foolishness of loving a child who might die.
    Compare the sentiments of Moliθre,


  5. Stone's book concentrated primarily on the aristocracy and gentry - largely ignoring the lower classes. Yet many of his assertions are contradicted by evidence in local records on ordinary people and their families, whose basic relationships seems to have been largely unchanged throughout the period.

bullet

Alan Macfarlane in Marriage and love in England: modes of reproduction 1300-1840 argued that views of marriage were remarkably constant between 1300 and 1840. Affection was always the norm between marital partners and between parents and children. Parents naturally tried to exercise influence over their children's marriages, and economic considerations always played a part in the choice of spouses. Nevertheless, except in the case of royalty and the very wealthy, companionship and attraction were crucial.

"I must confess when I first saw my Mistress, I loved, but could not till now say I was in love with her… I do now begin to be of the Lady Oxinden's belief that marriages are made in heaven, and what is concluded there all the wit of man cannot hinder, and this I say, because, though I ever loved my Mistress, yet I endeavoured not to be in love with her, at least wise so as not to marry her. Not because I did not think her virtuous or beautiful or of descent good enough for me, but because I did (and yet do somewhat) fear and tremble to think of entering a married life in which I can do nothing measurable but beget children, and that every fool may do as well as a wise man:…"

(Henry Oxinden to Elizabeth Dallison. December 1641)

Previous section Next section