Recovering the Medieval Family

[This review first appeared in the July 1988 issue of Chronicles.]

Hatred of the past ill becomes a historian. Yet it is hard not to detect this disfiguring animus—paired with an overweening love of contemporaneity—in the works of many modern historians of family life. In recent decades, men such as Philippe Aries, Edward Shorter, and Lloyd DeMause have alleged—on the basis of scanty evidence—that in premodern Europe, marriage was strictly an economic arrangement devoid of affection and that parents were usually cold, indifferent, or even cruel to their children. After looking at medieval infant mortality rates, Aries reasoned that "people could not allow themselves to become too attached to something that was regarded as a probable loss." Shorter averred that "maternal indifference to infants characterized traditional society" and that "good mothering is an invention of modernization." DeMause goes even further: "The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken. The farther back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized, and sexually abused."

Fortunately, truth will out. Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages is the latest in a series of scholarly investigations exposing Aries et al. as defenders of yet another of modernity's self-congratulatory myths. The Gieses' volume, in fact, comes hard on the heels of a valuable 1986 study on family life in colonial New England by John Demos, in which DeMause's views on child abuse were thoroughly exploded (Past, Present, and Personal: The Family and the Life Course in American History, Oxford University Press). Finding it virtually unknown in 17th-century Massachusetts, Demos contends that child abuse is a distinctively modern phenomenon, caused by the rootlessness and alienation of 20th-century life by the decline of "the 'providential' world-view of our forebears."

Medieval sources similarly contradict the Aries school of family historiography. In this new volume, a distinguished pair of medievalists, Frances and Joseph Gies, explore and discard "the hypothesis . . . that medieval families led impoverished emotional lives." The Gieses found that although children in early Europe did have to endure "a harsh environment with high mortality . . . severe discipline, and early consignment to work," their family life was "by no means bereft of parental concern and affection, or a 'concept of childhood.'" Documentary evidence for the emotional life of medieval lower classes is rare, but Church penitentials, gravestone inscriptions, and royal correspondence all provide abundant confirmation of Cicero's declaration that "nature implants in man above all a strong and tender love for his children." A bishop during the sixth century, Gregory of Tours expressed the prevailing attitude when he lamented the effects of an epidemic: "So we lost our little ones, who were so dear to us and sweet, whom we cherished in our bosoms and dandled in our arms, whom we had fed and nurtured with such loving care." The Gieses conclude that parents during the Middle Ages "felt toward children the same mixture of tenderness, amusement, and wonder that they feel today." In sum, the evidence is clear: "Children were valued and well treated" long before anyone supposed otherwise.

Nor were medieval marriages the loveless arrangements that some modern historians have postulated. Economics did heavily influence matchmaking during the era, but the latest research suggests that "amid dowries and dowers, morning gifts and jointures…affection, romance, and even passion managed to flourish." "Send for me," wrote a typical medieval English lady to her lord, "for I think it long since I lay in your arms."

Besides showing that warmth and love are not modern additions to family life, this painstakingly researched volume traces the family's gradual loss of earlier functions as the Church, state, and marketplace assumed greater prominence. In the early Middle Ages, the family and the "supra-family" (the Roman gens or the Germanic Sippe), exercised nearly absolute authority over members through regulation of worship, marriage, punishment, and inheritance. Even as late as the 15th century, the extended kinship group remained vitally important in mercantile Italy, while family lineage retained critical importance in France and England. Despite the greater importance of extended kinship during the Middle Ages, however, it would be a mistake to consider the nuclear family—father, mother, and children—an aberration peculiar to modern life. Although the people of the Middle Ages often regarded a larger family unit as ideal, high mortality rates and economic pressures combined to insure "the prevalence of the conjugal family (married couple, or parents and children)." By the end of the Middle Ages, this conjugal family "dominated the social landscape at all levels."

Curiously, while religion is generally counted as a defender of the family in the modern world, its effects upon the medieval family were ambiguous. On the other hand, the medieval Church did stress the sanctity of marriage while deploring the evils of divorce and concubinage. Yet on the other hand, the insistence upon priestly celibacy often led to a doctrinal bias against marriage, with one standard commentary using the parable of the sower (see Luke 8) to set the value of virginity at 100, widowhood at 60, and marriage at only 30. Further, the Church's impossible eighth-century definition of incest (finally abandoned in the 13th century) outlawed marriage even between those "spiritually related" through godparents and between very distant blood relatives who shared a great-great-grandfather. Greedy clergymen also weakened the family through their frequent practice of promising salvation to dying fathers who would will their possessions to the Church, thus impoverishing their heirs. Understandably, Martin Luther took the defense of marriage and the family as one of his key themes when he launched the Protestant Reformation at the close of the medieval era.

Today, though, a deep crisis in family life confronts both Protestant and Catholic religious leaders (as well as Jews and Mormons). The Gieses indeed concede that medieval changes in family and marriage appear slight compared to "the changes that have shaped and shaken them since." Divorce rates have skyrocketed in our century, while marriage and birthrates have declined to perilously low levels. More than 40 years ago, Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin extrapolated current trends to predict a progressive degeneration of American domestic life, "until the family becomes a mere incidental cohabitation of male and female while the home will become a mere overnight parking place." The consequences he foresaw were "suicide, mental disease, and crime. . . . Weariness will spread over larger and larger numbers of the population." Only a spiritual renewal effected by "new Saint Pauls, Saint Augustines, and great religious and ethical leaders" could defeat the forces undermining the family. At least until the spiritual renascence that Sorokin hoped for occurs, praise for the superiority of contemporary family life will serve only to hide our predicament.


[Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages, by Frances and Joseph Gies (New York: Harper & Row) $22.50]

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