Changing “ Family Structure” in Early Modern Europe with “Popular Culture ”

Yazan: Ergun Bakar

What is the element of the any society ? Identity, history, literacy, or another points of the culture can define who or what can be that society. Our culture is what is familiar, recognizable, or habitual. It is “what goes without saying.” What is more, when it comes to talk about the field of popular culture, it can be said that there are various ways to define the term of the popular culture. Clearly, any definition of the popular culture can be bring into play a complex combination of the different meanings of the term “culture” with the different meanings of the term “popular.” In addition to this, we might begin by looking at Strinati’s own “working definition” of popular culture, which he takes from Dick Hebdige: “a set of generally available artefacts: films, records, clothes, TV programs, modes of transport, etc.” [1] Additionally, a different expression of the term of popular culture is that it can be summarized as elusive, perhaps delusive. Even the more careful considerations exclude much that we would like to include or include things that we feel are not somehow really “popular.”

The word of family can be used to mean many things; it has different types of synonymous like ‘household’ -persons living together under one roof- or people who carry same blood in their vein. This examples can be reproducible so it can be said that persons related to blood or marriage. They share same social, emotional and economic conditions under one roof, any of them vary from culture to culture, period to period and class to class.  In this essay, we will study around changing family structure in early modern Europe in the context of “popular culture” and, our main goal in this study is to present a different perspective on this area by explaining the relation of the changing family structure in the modern world thanks to the meaning and effects of the popular culture.

Every discipline has difficulty in its trying to reach a consensus on the labels for the phenomena under study, and on the most definitions of these labels. The controversy generated by the attempts to research these concepts usually arises because various researchers are looking at the same phenomenon from different point of view. It is obvious that the study of the kinship, marriage and the family is a great area in which anthropologists, sociologists, and historians have labored many years. However, researching the phenomenon of the “family” is not easy because it is a construction and there were not-of course- one family, there were numerous families in the history so that researchers must use the generalization and an average that can be very misleading. Over the past forty or fifty years, the history of the family has been one of the main growth areas in the development of social history therefore one of the main goals of this essay is to provide a knowledge for those who want to research or learn the history of early modern Western family and their changing construction in the context of the popular culture in terms of these families’ economies, structures, and approaches to women since 16th or 17th century.


First of all, expectations of the family and family roles in the early modern Europe were very different from its today’s meaning. At this point, information about the family and marriage in the early modern Europe can be attained because of demographic sources such as parish or tax records, wills, and records of land holdings. Also, oral culture like proverbs, folktales and folk songs can be used a source for the history of family in the early modern Europe. Finally, literary sources, paintings, diaries, journals, private letters, or conduct books are other sources to make research on the subject of the family in the historical fields.

One of the reasons why family life in traditional Europe differed from so fundamentally from our own was its physical setting. The structure of households, the size of the domestic group, the occasions within the community for coming together, the excuses to watch the neighbors- all were unlike the world about us today.[2]

What is more, definition of family was not the same as modern nuclear family because anybody who lived in a house (or household) such as farm servants, maids, or apprentices could be defined as a family. This situation means that it was believed to have been larger in size and more complex in its structure, various forms of co-resident “extended” or “joint” family being more commonplace.[3] The traditional or pre-industrial family was more expensive in its functions including a role as the basic unit of production in agriculture and manufactures and a role in people’s education, training, and the provision of social security. On the other hand, kin networks which can be described as blood relatives and the other relatives by marriage which did not people were also important. Marriage, especially amongst the propertied classes, was more a matter of linking whole families and kinship networks than simply the union of the two individuals. It took place a relatively young age and was subject to an arrangement, or least ultimate control by parents and kin. In addition to this, both conjugal and parent-child relations were authoritarian and rigidly patriarchal and the emotional climate of the family was marked by respect and obligation rather than by warmth or intimacy.[4] As it can be seen, people thought in collective mentality rather than as individuals. The medieval and early modern period was even more cruel beastly than one might have anticipated. In here, professor Stone argues that “marriages only lasted for an average of seventeen to twenty years in the Early Modern England” and statistically speaking, a transient and temporary association.[5] In the modern European history, duration of marriage which was not dependent on the affection was very short and unstable. In here, again, professor Lawrence Stone who is one of the earliest English historians to address seriously the history of family in early modern periods argues for:

“… a tripartite shift in family relationships; a decline in the influence of kin and community over the conjugal family unit; the emergence of more freely chosen and emotionally rich marriages; the development of less authoritarian and more empathetic parent-child relationship. The first of these developments exactly involves a form of nuclerisation. The second and third are attributed to the rise of individualism and the growth of emotional affect.” [6]

Moreover, in north-western Europe and to certain extend in the southern parts of the France, the tendency was for a couple to set up their own home together, in other words, providing that they could afford it. In addition to these, Peter Laslett had argued, on the basis of his analysis of early census-type listings that the nuclear family household had been the predominant family form in England since at least the late 16th century.[7]

When it comes to study on the structure of family in early modern Europe many people married at a young age. According to this portrait, people have spent their lives in large, patriarchal, households which composed of two or more related nuclear family units. It can be seen that marriages could be stable and prolific; in other words, they were dissolved only by deaths and people must have a lot of children. In these domestic groups wife, children and grandchildren were exactly subordinated to an o0lder man of the family. Furthermore, marriage could be counted as a social and economic strategy that cannot be identified as a concept involving emotional or romantic thoughts. The emphasis on emotional bonds between husband and wife set the modern family off from its predecessors. The modern family is expected to be emotionally self-sufficient. Other relatives become peripheral, while the bonds among nuclear family members grow more intense and emotional. However, before the modern era, it could not usually be composed of emotional or romantic union. On the other hand, this fact did not mean that every people were without emotions or incapable of love. At this point, it is clear that feelings between couples developed after marriage, letters between married couples often showed great loves, but they worked together as a team, pooling their resources to work for family interest. Considerations that including emotion or love must be a secondary requirements of making a life. Also, amongst the artisanal classes marriages were often arranged within trades. What is more, the family in the early modern Europe, was fundamental importance to happiness of the individual, society, and even the state because of the fact that families’ the most important function was raising children. According to William Gouge in “Of Domestical Duties”, the task of the parents was threefold;

  1. To nourish their children with food, clothes, and other necessities
  2. To nurture their children with use of discipline (or authority)
  • To instruct their children in academic matters, spiritual affairs, and good breeding.[8]

On the other hand, another crucial point is the role or conditions of the children in the early modern European families. In these families, the task and responsibility of the raising children was usually on shoulders of the mothers. Women, tended to stay closer to home, taking care of the children but also working non-stop at other activities such as providing meals, washing, tending vegetable plots, making and mending clothes or fetching water. Also, the modern notion of children is different from adults with their own special requirements. In the early modern era, children were seen as a necessary for the family survival, and they have a primary duty to the family rather than to any notion of development of the individual. Most children worked as soon as they were able to work, and they dressed in adult clothes, and not sheltered from the adult world. Some scholars assert that children in the past were often ignored by their parents who did not even mourn for the death of their children. It can be said that child abuse, abandonment, and infanticide occurred during the past. In this period, children were un differentiated from adult society of harshness. Also, the mortality rates of the children were high in early modern Europe because of dangers which have experienced during this births. This is obviously complex and controversial issue, but many scholars are reluctant to view shortage of food as the primary cause of the high mortality rates in the pre-industrial periods.[9] They prefer to link mortality to epidemiological cycles which, to a large extend, exist independently of the state of nutrition of the population.[10] Finally contraception was seen as immoral because the churches of Catholics and Protestants alike, asserted that the purpose of the sexual activity was for procreation. There were some barrier methods existed but these were more to avoid “veneral disasters” rather than babies. Furthermore, some women procured abortions or resorted to infanticide, especially with illegitimate babies. Generally, most couples once married, carried on producing children at regular intervals throughout the women’s childbearing years and this situation entailed exhaustion. On the other hand, interestingly, children were viewed as gift from God, treasures to be valued and a potential source of comfort and support.[11] According to Lawrence Stone and knowledge which is gained by us from his book ‘The Family, Sex and Marriage’; family can be summarized as a social system, and the nuclear family has two castes-male and female and two classes-adult and child. The male caste always dominates the female, and the adult class the child, but the latter, if he lives, is guaranteed upward social mobility since in time he becomes an adult.

The last subtitle which is necessary to study was approaches to women in early modern European family structure. The role of women in provincial nobility was likely to live quietly on the family estates. Business of maintaining household took most of their time. They also involved much more closely in overseeing household management and overseeing the servants. Furthermore, in bourgeoisie, women involved in the same kinds of activities as the provincial nobility they have. The wives might also be involved in the same kind of household activities with professional men and merchant classes like book keeping. Moreover, in artisanal household, women were working in towns which were organized on the basis of guilds. On addition, possibilities of women’s work in an industry which was covered by a guild were exactly limited to those areas where the journeymen themselves did not want power. For different example can be used in here; in the textile trades, tendency was largely restricted to girls. On the other hand, since many activities in textiles were mainly performed by women; young adult males continued to seek employment in agricultural sectors and left the parental home relatively early.[12] Another point of the approaches to women in this period was violence to women within marriage. In the family, in this period, beating his wife for a husband could be considered as correct if it was considered as not excess. Moreover, there were exactly double standards in terms of chastity as women were expected to be chaste in the society. What is more, another subject has importance to think about is possibilities of divorce for women during the early modern history of Europe. Divorce for women was very limited. For instance; in France an annulment can be because of the proven impotence. In addition to this, in England, divorce was available by private act of the parliament. There were great numbers of separation or desertion in Europe generally by men, however it only really available for those who had no property especially for military types and those who worked in towns. Also, bigamy which is called as having two or more views can be possible if people could go to the place where people living there or neighbors of them cannot know or meet these families.

All in all, especially nowadays, people commonly think that the family has always consisted of a father, a mother and children. However, have families always been structured in this way? Many people feel threaten by changing this model of the family. Also, it is clear that the study of kinship, marriage and family is the most important and difficult field for historians in the area of research, especially for the historians of today. However, throughout the history families have not always been with just a father, a mother, and children. In the past, specifically during the early modern periods of the Europe and before the industrialization process, the concept of the family was exactly different from its today’s construction in terms of its economic perspectives, structures which emotion or love between couples, roles of the family members or sexual morality, its approaches for women involving violence to females, rights of divorce and the roles of the women. It is clear that the characteristics of early modern European countries such as political structure, modes of economic transactions, agriculture methods, level of the developments, human relationship, and the religious beliefs have crucial effects on the basic forms of the family structure in European countries from the 1490s to the period of industrial revolution. And to sum up, every people should know the fact that the early modern period of Europe may have much to reveal about that. However, it does not hold the key to the making of that elusive entity as “the modern family.” If  any people wish to discuss the origins of the some of the central characteristics of the family relationship –in all their present diversity and plasticity- they surely need to look elsewhere; to other times and maybe to the other criteria. Such considerations help provide some perspective on the debate over the family life can be liberated from the burdens of the “hypegiaphobia” that can be summarized as a fear of the having responsibility. It can be said that the dynamics of the change in the family structure continues and it will continue not only in Europe but also in the Middle East, Anatoli, or Turkey which is took part in the region of the Mediterranean Sea, therefore in order to improve different research techniques and to train experts about the subjects of the Republic of Turkey should provide more scholarship for its students. If the candidates of historian, researchers, academicians, or students to go study around the such topics, and relationships with the most advanced universities in the world such as universities of Cambridge, Oxford, or Yale researchers, sociologists or historians can be appear in Turkish society for the understanding the development of social history, especially history of family or history of the sexuality before the Turkish Republic, or during the Ottoman Empire, even before, during the Seljuk empire.



Family Life in the Early Modern Times 1500-1789, Ed: David I. Kertzer and Marzio Barbagli, Yale University Press, London: 2001.

Goode, J. William, World Revolution and Family Patterns.

Gouge, William, Of Domesticall Duties, London, 1622.

Grubb, S. James, Provincial Families of the Renaissance, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Laslett, P., Mean Household Size in England Since the Sixteenth Century, in Household and Family in the Past Time, Ed. P. LAslett and R. Wall, Cambridge, 1972.

Lavine, David, Family Formation in an Age of Nascent Capitalism, New York: Academic, 1977.

Perrenoud, Alfred, La Mortalita, edited by Jean – Pierre Bardet and Jasquets Dupaqyier, Paris: 1997.

Shorter, Edward, The Making of the Modern Family, Fontana/Collins.

Stone, Lawrence, The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England 1500-1580, 1977.

Strinati, Dominic, An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture, New York: Routledge, 1995.

Wrightson, Keith, The Family in Early Modern England: Community and Change, 1998.

[1] Dominic Strinati, An introduction to theories of popular culture, New York: Routledge, 1995.

[2] Edward Shorter, The Making of the modern Family, Fontana/Collins: 197, 31.

[3] Keith Wrightson, The Family in Early Modern England: Continuity and Change, in S. Taylor ET al, 1998, 2.

[4] William J. Goode, World Revolution and Family Patterns, pp: 6-7.

[5] Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England 1500-1580, 1977, 55.

[6] Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England 1500-1580, 1977.

[7] P. Laslett, Mean Household Size in England Since the Sixteenth Century, in Household and Family in Past Time, Ed. P. Laslett and R. Wall (Cambridge, 1972), 125-158.

[8] William Gouge, Of Domestical Duties, London, 1622.

[9] Family Life in the Early Modern Times 1500-1789, Ed: David I. Kertzer and Marzio Barbagli, Yale University Press, London: 2001, Vol:1, 160.

[10] Alfred, Perrenoud, La Mortalite, edited by: Jean-Pierre Barted and Jacques Dupaquier, Paris: 1997, 298-300.

[11] James, S, Grubb, Provincial Families of the Renaissance, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 1996.

[12] David Lavine, Family Formation in an Age of Nascent Capitalism, New York: Academic, 1977.


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Ergun BAKAR / TESA Tarih Masası Araştırmacı Yazarı

Boğaziçi Üniversitesi 

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