History of the English family between 1600 and 1800. A short essay

Essay, 2017

6 Pages, Grade: 2.0


The history of the English family has long been marked by a dominating male patriarchy. Until well into the eighteenth century this ideal of a family prescribed and widely accepted by society was lived and applied. Above all, the social ‘order’ of a family had economic consequences in particular for women, who had to subordinate themselves financially to their husbands. This wide-ranging and one-sided orientation of the English family meant that daily life was mainly male-dominated. Nonetheless, there are several historical approaches to when family and social change took place, improving the situation for families in general but in particular the status of women. For historians, this is an ongoing debate. The following essay will discuss the main developments and continuation in the history of the English family c. 1600 and c. 1800. Firstly, an overview about the circumstances and the structural changes in social and economic perspective in England between 1600 and 1800 provides a starting point to the topic. Secondly, a deeper analysis and discussion on the development of the English family gives insight into the social change. Thirdly, a weighting of the used and studied material shows the difficulty in objectivity of primary and secondary sources. Finally, the main points are summarised with a conclusion about the effects of the changes on the English family.

The years between 1600 and 1800 were marked by many political upheavals and changes. The beginning of the English Civil War (1642-1651) to the trial and execution of Charles I (1649) in the 17th century, the founding of the Kingdom of Great Britain (1707) and the American War of Independence against Great Britain (1775-1783) in the 18th century indicates a timeline shaped by many conflicts. Naturally, these historic events had an existential impact on the English population, affected by civil unrest and social deficiencies (Tosh, 2015). Recent studies show, however, that before the ground-breaking Industrial Revolution reached its climax in the 19th century, in England preceded an agricultural revolution that began earlier than previously thought. While many historians argue until today that only after 1750, an agricultural revolution due to political and economic circumstances was only possible, growing population rates from 1650 onwards show a different development. Mark Overton argues that “one reason output grew was through new farming systems involving the rotation of turnips and clover, although these were part of the general intensification of agricultural production, with more food being produced from the same area of land. Intensity was also increased by land reclamation, especially the draining of the fenlands of Eastern England, from the 17th century onwards, when a low-intensity agricultural system based on fishing and fowling was replaced by a high-intensity system based on arable crops” (Overton, 2011, p. 2). The implementation of the new ‘high-intensity system’ affected about 30 per cent of rural England between 1650 and 1850. As a result, the average farmer produced more food to feed himself and his family. Workers in agriculture were therefore also significantly affected, as output increased more farmers found work in new industries and services (Overton, 2011). This development in the pre-industrial era shows that in particular the English countryside changed as more families moved to other sectors and thus challenged the previously lived male patriarchy in the family. Among other things, the change in patriarchy will be outlined in the next paragraph.

For a long time there has been disagreement among historians in which way the ‘classic family’ changed and developed between 1600 and 1800. Historians, such as Lawrence Stone, argue that starting from the 16th century, the kin was characterised by an early and high mortality rate within the family. Human aspirations for freedom, self-determination and happiness were therefore not relevant characteristics of a person of the then society. Life was rather purposeful and emotionless in the households, since feelings and romance even by moralists and theologians was called a mental illness. Consequently, the relationship within the nuclear family between husband and wife, children and parents was comparable to neighbourly contacts, in other words a friendship. This kind of friendly relationship had its origin in the arranged marriage. A marriage was first and foremost not performed for the sake of love, but had the purpose of an economic collective community, which was decided by the parents of the bridal couple. Above all, it was ensured that only people of the same class married and had legitimate children. There was virtually no privacy for the individual family, as the general community intervened in marital problems or in raising children. The main task of parenting was to prevent the individual will of a child through physical force in order to prepare the children for their alter life as servants or apprentices and in some cases for school (Stone, 1977). As mentioned in the introductory paragraph, Stone argues that life was dominated by an authoritarian and patriarchal society that made the family work as ‘prescribed’. The nuclear family was characterised above all by the male-dominated patriarchy, under which all other family members had to subordinate themselves. As a result, no feelings and close ties of a familial nature could arise. The patriarchy was further reinforced by the strict alignment of the state and the church, which upheld their own traditional and conservative principles. In Stone’s further analysis, changes in state, church and society after 1640 also saw a change in the family structure, which he calls the ‘Closed Domesticated Nuclear Family’. This new form, which lasted until the 18th century, brought more liberal ideas into the classic family structure. Marriages were no longer made solely for economic reasons, couples were allowed to select their preferred partner and more energy and love was spent on raising children. At the end, the male-dominated patriarchy declined, putting more emphasis on individual freedom and hence, tolerated more female independence also (Stone, 1977). The family situation in preindustrial England was undoubtedly shaped by religious values and a ubiquitous power of the state, which also forced the principle of authority into families. Nonetheless, Lawrence Stone’s interpretation of a callous and calculating family structure raises some doubts. Stone’s text only gives a very limited overview of the pre-industrial way of life in England. Alan Macfarlane argues that Stone takes for granted that change in family life was based solely on the transformation from a pre-industrial society into a capitalist system. Above all, the ideological influence of the writings of Karl Marx and Max Weber becomes clear (Macfarlane, 1979). Marx argues that social change was caused by industrialisation. The increasing development and opening of large factories in cities attracts poverty-stricken rural residents, who are then employed as contract workers in the factories. Family members are thus torn apart or entire families are forced to move to the cities. From this Marx deduces a change in the family, in that the change of economic conditions makes the traditional family to give up their previous lifestyle (Marx, 1960). The use of Marxist paradigms in the context of family change between 1600 and 1800 poses some difficulties. On the one hand, the Marxist thesis is determined by the influences of the Industrial Revolution in the second half of the 19th century and, on the other hand, it is partly based on assumptions that are historically quite difficult to verify. Stone’s “[…] massive effort to fit the material into an inadequate scheme provides a compendium of the distortions produced when a tenacious but false paradigm blinds the historian” (Macfarlane, 1979, p. 106). Emma Griffin emphasises that while the structural transformation of the classical family took place mainly during the Industrial Revolution in the second half of the 19th century, changes within the family can still be recognised as early as the end of the 18th century (Griffin, 2013). However, social changes can only be analysed more conclusively if there are enough primary sources available, which can be called trustworthy. Stone’s approach of a cold-blooded family, which preferred just a normative material relationship with its members, is untenable. Macfarlane goes even further to argue that “the supposed growth of love, particularly in the eighteenth century, does not fit with any known changes in the expectation of life or duration of marriage. Thus one of the fundamental axioms upon which much of Stone’s speculation is based is of dubious value” (Macfarlane, 1979, p. 107). Rather, it can be seen that even before 1650, the classical family certainly aroused feelings and sadness. A good evidence is the ‘Diary of Ralph Josselin’. A seventeenth-century father describes the sad death of his daughter Mary and her last days in May 1650. Full of fear of God and grief he takes leave of her (Macfarlane, 1976). This contradicts the thesis of Lawrence Stone’s cold and calculating description of the general 17th century family. Nevertheless, it cannot be ruled out that Stone’s claim is partly correct. It may be true that some families lived by this approach and cultivated superficial relationships with their own family members. From this, however, no general conclusion can be drawn due to a lack of sources. Rather, it will be isolated cases. The behaviour of individual citizens towards their family members certainly also related to their social status and their individual financial security. The demographic change up to 1630 in the village of Terling in Essex shows an increase of population of up to 75 percent, suggesting an established rich elite of families (Slack, 1980). Therefore, it can be assumed that richer families could spend more time for themselves and their relatives, as they could afford more staff to do the necessary work. Nevertheless, here too the authors name a certain ambiguity about the meaningfulness of their study. “[…] first, that the overall network of kinship ties between Terling householders in 1671 was relatively loose […]” (Wrightson and Levine, 1995, p. 187) and “[…] second, that the recognition accorded to kin in the wills of the parishioners was genealogically narrow and shallow […]”(Wrightson and Levine, 1995, p. 187). Here lies the central problem, how the collected data and sources are prepared and interpreted.

As I pointed out in the previous paragraph, sources reveal their weaknesses as far as the information is misinterpreted or superficially interpreted. Using the example of the development and continuity of the English family, the difficulty lies in not only having and interpreting the correct sources, but also verifying their content as trustworthy. Primary sources are often the most informative but not always sufficiently preserved or available. Secondary sources may well be used as evidence to formulate an argument; however, the author also refers to other sources and evaluates them by his/her standards. Depending on their political and contemporary orientation, authors will incorporate social science theories into their interpretation, as exemplified by Lawrence Stone’s text.

England was shaped by much political unrest between 1600 and 1800. The English Civil War, the trial and execution of Charles I, the founding of Great Britain and the American War of Independence against Great Britain had a severe impact on England’s soil and its population. Before the Industrial Revolution began an agricultural revolution took place with the development of a new farming system which increased the output of food remarkably. As more food was available than before many farmers started to work in other fields. There has been a long disagreement between historians about the change and development of the classic family between 1600 and 1800. Lawrence Stone argues that the kin was characterised by a high mortality rate which did not allow feelings and a sophisticated family life. Life was rather purposeful and hard. Furthermore, the traditional family was dominated by male patriarchy who decided all family matters. However, Stone admits that life changed after 1640 significantly, improving the life of a family including the rights of wives. Alan Macfarlane criticises Stone’s approach as he sees him too influenced in social theories of Karl Marx and Max Weber. Marx, for instance argues that all societal changes are shaped by a material determinism. Hence changes in an economic system will change the lives of human beings consequently. Nevertheless the ‘Diary of Ralph Josseline’ shows that love for a dying child was not uncommon. Additionally the behaviour of certain households was depending on their personal wealth. Primary and secondary sources have their advantages and disadvantages. Primary sources are not unlimited available and are open to different interpretations while secondary sources are shaped by the authors argument. The main developments and continuities of the English family between c. 1600 and c. 1800 were indeed influenced by political upheavals followed by the agricultural revolution and ended with the beginning of a new industrial era.


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History of the English family between 1600 and 1800. A short essay
Oxford University
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British History, History, Local History
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Mark-Oliver Morkos (Author), 2017, History of the English family between 1600 and 1800. A short essay, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1008652


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