Ancestry and Kinship: Household Structures

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Ancestry and Kinship: Household Structures


Defining the Household. During the Middle Ages all people who lived together, including those not related by blood or marriage, were considered a household. A typical household might include not only parents and children but also other relatives, servants, and apprentices. In the upper levels of society, especially in the homes of the medieval aristocracy, guards and other military retainers, along with the large number of servants necessary to run an aristocratic estate, were also included in the household.

Household Cycles. Several different family structures existed across Europe during the Middle Ages, and it is sometimes difficult for modern scholars to describe them exactly or to do a systematic analysis of their growth and development. Because there were no population censuses or tax assessments for most of the period, documentation is haphazard and allows only limited insights into family structures at various times and places. Medieval households appear to have gone through stages of development over time, according to the life cycle of the family. At one point, a household would be a husband and wife, who then had children. When the offspring grew up, they would leave to form new households. As each son married, he might bring his wife to live with his parents, thus creating a household of two or more married couples. When the parents died, this multiple household tended to break into several conjugal units, at which point the cycle began again. Some households may never have reached the multiple stage. Perhaps the father died before the son married, or no sons lived to adulthood; or the family did not have enough land to feed that many people. Households might also have been extended to include various relatives—such as unmarried children, siblings, and stepchildren—as well as various nonrelatives.

Early Records. In 820 the abbey of Santa Maria di Farfa, near Rome, surveyed the holdings of the estate. The resulting document reveals that the great majority of households were simple conjugal families, with or without children. A father remained head of the household until he died. When a widowed father lived with a married son,

the father was still listed as the head of the household. Moreover, it appears that sons who inherited property were already married or widowed when their fathers died. When a son married, he either established his own household or brought his wife into his father’s house. Married daughters left their parents’ households and did not tend to return when widowed. These findings are quite different from the information provided in a survey made at Saint Germain des Prés, near Paris, sometime between 809 and 839. Here almost half of the households (43 percent) were multiple families; in a few cases, they included three generations. Moreover, this survey lists husbands who were not from the local area. Sometimes the man moved to his wife’s home, rather than taking her to live in his father’s household. Similarly, an 813-814 survey of the area near Marseilles, in southern France, reveals that 35 percent of households were multiple, some comprising as many as five conjugal couples. This particular structure might have been the result of the need for protection from the Saracens, who were then threatening the area with invasion. While these surveys do not allow firm conclusions about medieval households, they do provide important and rare glimpses into the living arrangements of rural peasants in the ninth century.

Stem Families. Another form of family structure, the stem family, has also been identified as part of the familial life cycle. This complex grouping included the conjugal unit of husband and wife, their children, grandparents, unmarried siblings, and servants. In this system only one child would marry and remain at home to inherit the family farm. The other children would have to remain unmarried while living at home, or marry and move away to start a new household. Thus, a man might cycle through three stages of life: son and heir, head of the household, and a retired parent. While this kind of family structure may have been the ideal among the peasant population, the realities of daily life—including high infant mortality, low life expectancy, and the inability of holdings to support many people—often made it unattainable.

Impartible Inheritance. To maintain the ideal stem family required a system of impartible inheritance. To keep the family holding intact, only one child could inherit it. The other children would be required to forgo inheritance and, consequently, were unlikely to marry. Under partible inheritance—in which the estate is divided, equally or unequally, among some or all of the children—the family holding would have become increasingly smaller as each portion was divided and redivided in succeeding generations; ultimately each portion of land would have become too small to support even a single conjugal family.

A Moral Unit. A focus on household structure and inheritance practices should not obscure the fact that the family was a moral, as well as an economic, unit. Members of the household shared the labor on the family holding and developed a sense of solidarity. For example, when a family made donations for prayers on behalf of relatives, they were usually for a person who was or had been a member of the immediate household. Thus, people remembered mothers, fathers, wives, and sons. Less frequently mentioned were sisters and daughters—women who had left the household when they married and were, in some sense, no longer members of that domestic group.


Frances Gies and Joseph Gies, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages (New York: Harper & Row, 1987).

Jack Goody, The Development of Family and Marriage in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

David Herlihy, Medieval Households (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985).

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Ancestry and Kinship: Household Structures

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