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1The models developed by Hajnal and Laslett [1] to account for the various forms of European family structures over history have been much debated since they were presented in the 1960s and 70s. The studies in this book belong to that line of inquiry; the book bears the name of the June 2010 conference at London University’s Institute of Historical Research where they were presented. Part I offers an overview of the “commonalities and diversities” between family structures in various geographic regions of Europe. Beatrice Moring investigates the notion of family, attempting to grasp family dynamics on the basis of indices other than those generally used – e.g. co-residence as apprehended by censuses. This enables her to examine the mutual economic assistance ability of families in different circumstances such as old age and widowhood. Violetta Hionidou analyses family organization on the Greek island of Kythera on the basis of eighteenth-century population censuses conducted by the Venitian administration and nineteenth-century censuses conducted under the British protectorate. She observes the effect of migration on households, the opposite of what is usually observed: here household composition was metamorphosized to enlarge the family by playing on age at marriage, for example, while preserving the principles of “equitable distribution among sons” that had always characterized family practices on the island.

2The other two chapters of Part 1 concern Serbia. Mirjana Bobić, studies poll tax records to identify and reconstruct households in the region of Branković, under Ottoman rule, in 1455, while critically analyzing Laslett’s categories and the difficulty of applying them to the case under study. Siegfried Gruber draws on data from the 1866 census to examine regional differences in household structure in nineteenth-century rural Serbia. He manages to discern significant regional variations and the factors that may explain them, precisely mapping differences in household complexity from one locality to another. His conclusions are quite stimulating.

3Part 2 focuses on the roles of church and state in family dynamics. Daniela Lombardi retraces changes in marriage practices in Europe and the decisive role played by Catholicism and Protestantism from the late Middle Ages to the start of the early modern period. She emphasizes the importance of reputation as constructed by neighbours’ judgments; reputation could play an important role in lawsuits, which often concerned woman; specifically their honour and respectability (which encompassed that of the family) at the time of marriage.

4Guido Alfani highlights “the divergence in social structures and social behaviours” created by the eleventh-century schism between Catholicism and Orthodoxy and later by the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation followed by the seventeenth-century Counter-Reformation. This long-term perspective enables us to see how the role of spiritual kinship evolved within each religious community. And because godparenthood is a freely chosen tie between individuals and families, it could play a major social and economic role in family strategies. This in turn meant that the religious authorities were at pains to frame and control practices – by drastically limiting the number of godparents a child could have in the case of Catholics, for example, and seeking to abolish godparenthood in the case of Calvinism.

5In the following chapter, Judit Abrus applies Laslett’s categories to data from the “family books” kept by the Calvinist church in Transylvania from the second half of the nineteenth century. She follows changes in household structure over time, also questioning the relevance of that undertaking given that the residential unit did not always coincide with the unit of production or consumption, especially if other aspects, such as surface area available for farming and relations between family members, are taken into account. She also uses the family books to follow developments in such practices as cohabitation before marriage, which she identifies as a sign of weak community social control.

6In the first chapter of Part 3 on family strategies, Piotr Guzowski studies Polish court rolls from the period 1419 to 1609 to explore the circumstances under which Polish peasants put an end to their economic activity. He examines how long they could continue managing the farm and analyses their retirement options, which depended on family situation and property. These included selling their property to children or other family members and ceding it in exchange for housing and care. The author also looks at women’s inheritance and widows’ ability to take over farms.

7Women and their economic activities are also at the heart of Marta Verginella’s contribution. Studying wills made by inhabitants of the region of Breg, near Trieste, many of them Slovenian peasants, she explores the differences between men and women in economic life in the nineteenth century, specifically in connection with property transmission. Early in the period, women enjoyed remarkable entrepreneurial independence as well as the right to dispose of their wealth as they saw fit, including purchase and sale of land and money lending and borrowing. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, under the pressure of industrialization and the church, the model changed: women now had to devote themselves to their household and children. They became legally dependent on their husbands, including in areas where they were previously entitled to make their own decisions, notably wills.

8In the last chapter, Alice Velková draws on population registries, cadastres and other sources to study the impact of a 1787 change in legislation in Bohemia: before that date the family holding was reserved for the youngest child; the new law designated the eldest son as heir. Velková analyses what caused this change, which, combined with longer life expectancy, gave heads-of-household much greater freedom to decide at what moment they would turn over farm management to their heir. Rather than working to the end of their lives, they could now enjoy retirement, often taken on the occasion of their eldest son’s marriage.

9This book undeniably enhances our knowledge of family structures and their specificities. However, the title suggests a comparative history of families and households at the scale of Europe as a whole, when in fact the book presents a set of monographs – often extremely interesting, but never extending beyond the local or regional level. Likewise, the impression left by some chapters is that the author was more attentive to the families themselves than the historical contexts in which they were formed. Family structures and behaviours are closely linked to those contexts, be they legislative, economic, social, etc.

10The real history of European families and households, the one that will move us beyond strictly disciplinary or local approaches to a general synthesis, Laslettian or otherwise, has yet to be written.


  • [1]
    J. Hajnal, 1965, “European marriage patterns in perspective”, in D. V. Glass and D. E. C. Eversley, eds., Population in History, London, Edward Arnold Null, pp. 101-143; P. Laslett and R. Wall, eds., 1972, Household and Family in Past Time, Cambridge, The University Press, 623 p.
Claudia Contente
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