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9-08-2015, 15:01

Family, kin, and community networks

Funerary practices made the links between individuals and their families visible, while marriage brought a husband and wife not only into a relationship with one another and their eventual children, but also into a broader web of family and kin relations. Historians used to describe the early modern era as a time when “traditional” large families embedded in strong kin networks were replaced by “modern” independent nuclear families, but the past several decades of research have indicated there was no uniform pattern of change. Nuclear families predominated as a living arrangement as early as the thirteenth century in many parts of Europe, while kin networks remained important in many matters, such as land transfers and property ownership, far into the nineteenth century, even if kin did not reside in the same household. Economic changes often had the opposite effect on family structure in different parts of Europe. In parts of western continental Europe, for example, the spread of capitalist textile production into rural areas resulted in larger households in which kin lived together, while in England and Switzerland this led to more nuclear households, and larger numbers of unmarried women and widows living on their own. Inheritance laws, traditions, and patterns were also variable across Europe, and do not seem to have correlated with family structure very well. In general, inheritance was either partible, in which the total estate was divided among all the children or among all the sons, or impartible, in which one child, usually the eldest son, inherited all land and, in the case of aristocrats, the noble title. (Inheritance by the eldest son is termed primogeniture.) In areas with impartible inheritance, younger sons and daughters received a settlement in cash or goods, but this was almost never equal to the value of the eldest son’s patrimony. Impartible inheritance meant that the family property stayed intact from generation to generation, but also that the lives and prospects of eldest sons were very different from those of their younger brothers and sisters. Partible inheritance could lead to impoverishment as family holdings became smaller and smaller, and gradually throughout the early modern period many areas with partible inheritance practices changed their laws to adopt impartible systems.

METHODS AND ANLYSIS 2 The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure

The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure was founded in 1964 at Cambridge University by the late Peter Laslett, a historian, and (now Sir) Anthony Wrigley, a geographer, to study demographic change and family patterns. Records of individual life events such as birth, marriage, and death are generally available for England before they become common for the continent, and the Cambridge Group has made intensive use of them. Scholars associated with the Cambridge Group have studied the structure of households over long periods of time, using a technique known as family reconstitution, which involves linking all records for a relatively small group of people, say one village or one extended family. Through family reconstitution, historical demographers can produce detailed statistics about such issues as nuptiality (rates of marriage), age at marriage, remarriage, fertility, infant and child mortality, and longevity. They can construct longitudinal analyses of change over time on all these issues. The work of the Cambridge Group, and similar study groups in other European countries, has been made much easier by the advent of computer-assisted data analysis, which allows the linking of information gleaned from much larger sets of records. Currently scholars from the Cambridge Group are using early modern demographic data to look at very specifi c questions, including the ways in which “shocks” experienced in the uterus, such as maternal famine, might have affected longevity, and the way position in the family – as oldest, middle, or youngest child – might have affected infant mortality. This chart, based on Cambridge Group family reconstitution data for the period from 1580 to 1837, shows seasonality in infant and child mortality. The deadliest time of the year for both infants and toddlers was the late spring, when supplies of food were at their lowest. Another dangerous time for toddlers was late fall; children had usually been weaned by age two, so they were eating food that might be contaminated by diseases carried by insects, which were active at this time of year. The children had also lost the protective benefi t brought by breast milk. (Chart from E. A. Wrigley et al., English Population History from Family Reconstitution, 1580–1837 [ Cambridge : Cambridge University Press , 1997 ], p. 345 .) This change was not smooth or uncontested, however, and any change in inheritance laws provoked conflicts among legal authorities as well as individual cases challenging the change. Certain aspects of inheritance, such as the rights of individuals to make donations, were governed by church law, so that ecclesiastical as well as secular officials frequently weighed in with opinions and objections. Inheritance provoked bitter conflicts even in areas with one clear system, for laws rarely covered every possible combination of multiple spouses, stepchildren, halfsiblings, and cousins, or clearly set out the limits to which an individual could get around local traditions and choose heirs as he or she wished. The vicious hostilities among family members that emerge in the often voluminous legal records of such cases provide evidence for historians arguing that early modern families were cold and unpleasant, but arguments about money that have ended up in court are not likely to show families in any era in their best light. A second line of criticism of the model of a “traditional” extended family evolving into a “modern” nuclear one has come from scholars more interested in changes in ideas about the family and the meaning of family life than in its structure. They take issue not only with the notion that there was one single pattern of change, but also with the methods and conclusions of the demographers. Just because early modern records were structured according to households, they ask, how do we know that co-residence had the same meaning for family members in the sixteenth century as it does today? One indication that it did not is the fact that co-resident relatives – cousins, nieces, nephews, or even sisters and brothers – were often referred to as “servants” by the household head and the census taker, though they might still have called the whole group a “family.” How do we know which genealogical ties were significant, or whether other sorts of networks might have mattered more? And might this significance be different for women – who were often understood to be part of two families – than for men, or for eldest sons than for younger ones? Scholars interested in such questions have made extensive use of private family records, prescriptive literature such as sermons and advice manuals, letters, and wills to investigate the way that people thought as well as acted regarding their families. A key finding of these studies is that the word “family” was actually used very rarely in the sixteenth century, perhaps because it had so many different meanings. Shakespeare, for example, only used it nine times in all of his writings, and never once in Romeo and Juliet ; the feuding Montagues and Capulets were described as “houses,” not families. Similar feuds – and the group loyalty that made them possible – can be found in many areas of Europe, centering on groups usually termed “clans” in English. Clans – consortia in Italy, plemie in Poland, slachte in northern Germany, fis in Albania, cenél in Ireland – thought of themselves as having a common ancestor, but did not worry about how they were actually related to one another and generally had methods of incorporating non-kin for political or economic reasons. Clans offered their members military support, political patronage, and economic advantages, and usually had ceremonies and symbols denoting clan membership. Until the eighteenth century, fis in parts of the Balkans functioned as fighting units and slachte in northern Germany provided fire and accident insurance; in 1745–6 Scottish clans rebelled (unsuccessfully) against George II, the Hanoverian king of Britain, seeking to put Charles Edward Stuart (1720–88), also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, on the British throne. Thus broad kinship ties retained their power for many people, even if they were not exactly sure how they were connected genealogically with the group. Until very late in the early modern period, and perhaps not even then, a person’s name would not have provided a clear indication of kin connections or family membership. The modern western naming system of an individual fi rst name and a hereditary surname seems to have developed among wealthy families in Italian towns in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but it spread only very slowly. By the sixteenth century the nobility of most of Europe had surnames, often taken from the place where they owned land, or, in Scandinavia, from the designs on their heraldic shields; the most powerful seventeenth-century Swedish chancellor, for example, was named Axel Oxenstierna (“Ox Forehead”). Slowly common people, especially those attempting to improve their status, adopted surnames from their occupations, physical characteristics, father’s name, place of residence, or some other distinguishing feature. These slowly became heritable rather than changing with each generation, a process speeded up by church and state authorities who saw that such a system would make recordkeeping and tax collection easier. In 1539 King Francis I of France ordered all families in the territory he ruled to adopt a permanent surname, though similar ordinances were not passed in Denmark until 1771 and in Austria until 1776. Peasants were generally the last to adopt permanent surnames, and in Iceland and a few parts of Scandinavia surnames never became heritable. Women in most of Europe kept their own surnames on marriage until the eighteenth or nineteenth century, though Christian women would often be identifi ed in legal documents also as “wife of so and so,” while Jewish women were identifi ed as “daughter of so and so.” Jewish men also generally used the name of their father as an identifi er, as did Muslim men; prominent men might add the name of their grandfather and sometimes a long string of male ancestors to their given name in certain situations. Clans were not the only type of group in which genealogical connections blended with non-kin ties. With the gradual adoption of infant baptism in late antiquity, Christians introduced the practice of godparentage, in which adults other than the parents sponsor a child at baptism. This creates a spiritual bond between the godparents and the child, and between the parents and godparents. In canon law, relatives by blood or marriage are prohibited from marrying; by the fi fteenth century, this prohibition had been extended to seven degrees of kinship, which meant that individuals who shared a great-grandparent were offi cially prohibited from marrying one another. This prohibition extended to spiritual kin as well, so that marriage between godparent and godchild was forbidden, as was that between a godparent and a natural parent, and even between two unrelated godparents of the same child. This last prohibition was often ignored, especially as the number of godparents, especially in wealthy families, multiplied in the fi fteenth century. In some parts of Europe, blood relatives were usually chosen as godparents, with children sometimes serving as godparent to younger kin. Peasants in England, France, and Germany more often chose a local notable, hoping that he or she might provide patronage or protection for the child later in life. Protestants limited the prohibited degrees of kinship in terms of marriage for blood relatives and in-laws, and rejected the idea that spiritual kinship should create any sort of barrier to marriage. Most Protestants retained the practice of godparentage, but limited the number of godparents and emphasized their spiritual, rather than practical, importance. The bonds between whole families created by godparentage ( compaternitas , compadrazgo ) became more signifi cant in southern, Catholic Europe than in the north. Along with godparentage, Christians were often linked through confraternities, voluntary lay groups organized by occupation, devotional preference, neighborhood, or charitable activity. Confraternities expanded rapidly in larger cities and many villages with the growth of the mendicant orders such as the Franciscans and Dominicans in the thirteenth century. Some confraternities specialized in praying for souls in purgatory, either for specifi c individuals or for the anonymous mass of all souls. In England they were generally associated with a parish, so are called parish guilds, parish fraternities, or lights; by the late Middle Ages, they held dances, festivals, and collections to raise money to clean and repair church buildings and to supply the church with candles, altarcloths, and other liturgical objects. Membership in a confraternity gave individuals spiritual, social, and charitable benefi ts, and in the case of male confraternities limited to members of the elite, political ones as well. Before the Reformation in the English town of Coventry, for example, only men who were members of the Trinity Guild could hold an offi ce in the city government. In sixteenth-century Portugal, nobles and other wealthy men were often members of the Misericordia confraternities that monopolized most charitable activities and gained the support of the monarchy. Most men in confraternities were not members of the elite, of course, but the groups still gave them regular opportunities to reinforce their devotional life, express their faith outwardly, assist others, and get together with their peers. Across Europe, women had fewer opportunities to establish, join, or lead confraternities than did men. They appear more often as benefi ciaries of the confraternities’ welfare measures than as members, for some confraternities provided dowries that would allow poor girls to marry or enter a convent, opened institutions for repentant prostitutes ( convertite ), or established asylums for women who were felt to be at risk of turning to prostitution or losing their honor, such as orphans, poor unmarried women and widows, or battered wives. Occupational groups such as craft guilds and journeymen’s guilds provided additional opportunities for men – and in a few cases, women – to associate with their “brothers,” so that by the sixteenth century a good share of the urban population would have been part of one fraternal organization or another, or perhaps several different groups at the same time. These groups took over some functions that kin groups had earlier performed, such as arranging funerals or providing for orphans. Both religious and occupational groups carried out tasks together, but they also offered opportunities during festivals and holidays to socialize and break up the daily routine of work. For some people, religious or occupational groups augmented strong kin ties, while for others they may have offered an alternative to reliance on blood relations. Neighbors and friends provided still more possibilities for association, assistance, and economic exchange, though these have left fewer traces in the sources than family connections or formal associations. In fact, relations with neighbors generally made it into the records only when they broke down, when legal authorities were called in to reconcile disputes. All of these groups created webs of obligation, reciprocity, emotion, and dependence, and helped individuals understand and negotiate the wider world through every stage of life.

 

 

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