Family and Social Trends: Overview

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1350 - 1600: Family and Social Trends: Overview

Reciprocal Relationship. The intellectual and religious changes of the Renaissance and Reformation are often regarded primarily as the shapers of large institutions and structures of society: the churches where people worshipped, the courts where rulers governed, the buildings in which people lived and worked, the schools in which some people were educated. These changes also influenced much smaller structures and institutions as well, including the families in which most Europeans lived, and even people's own bodies, emotions, health, and sense of identity. Conversely, these small and what may seem to be private things—the family and the individual person—also shaped larger developments. Many artists, religious reformers, political leaders, writers, and explorers grew up in a family environment. This fact may seem self-evident, but for many centuries the history of the Renaissance and Reformation has ignored it; ideas were often described as if they were transmitted from brain to brain, with no notice paid to the private life, family surroundings, or even physical existence of their thinkers. Great individuals were discussed as if they never had been children, never married, never become parents, never grew old.

Seven Ages of Man. This ignoring of personal development and private life was not shared by people who lived during the period 1350 to 1600, for they thought and wrote often about their own existence and place in society. In a tradition at least as old as the ancient Greeks, people talked about the stages of life, with some scholars arguing that there were four, corresponding to the four seasons, some twelve, corresponding to the months and the signs of the zodiac, and some three, five, six, eight, or ten. The number that was increasingly accepted was seven, corresponding to the seven known planets (the planets out from the Sun to Saturn, plus the moon), and these were often described as the “ages of man”: infancy, boyhood, adolescence, young manhood, mature manhood, older manhood, and old age. The seven ages of man began with stages of physical and emotional maturing, and then were differentiated by increasing and decreasing involvement in the world of work and public affairs; only in young manhood was family life usually discussed. The “ages of woman” were harder to differentiate, and many Renaissance discussions of the life-cycle never included women at all. When they did, it was a woman's sexual status and relationship to a man that mattered most, for a woman was thought of as a virgin, wife, or widow, or alternately a daughter, wife, or mother. In the last few decades, however, historians have begun to explore family life and personal development for both men and women, and now have a much better picture of the physical and emotional lives of individuals and families in this era, and the ways these were shaped by intellectual, economic, social, and religious changes.

Birthing. Childbirth during the period under consideration took place at home, with the expectant mother assisted by her female relatives and friends. If she lived in a city, a mother might call on the services of a professional midwife, who had been trained by serving an apprenticeship with an experienced midwife. University-trained doctors were largely uninterested in childbirth or other obstetrical issues, and in many parts of Europe the presence of any man in the room where a child was being born, including the child's father, was viewed as unlucky. Midwives and other women assisting in the birth turned to a variety of herbal remedies, nourishing food, prayer, and sometimes magical means to ease the mother's pains and speed the birth along. The risks of dying in childbirth were high compared to today, but not as high as they would be in the nineteenth century when more women gave birth in unsanitary hospitals tended by physicians who did not wash their hands or equipment. Women usually knew someone who had died in childbirth, and they celebrated each successful birth with religious rituals and social gatherings.

Gender-Specific Tasks. Most infants were cared for by their own mothers, though wealthier women might use the services of a wet nurse so that they could more quickly resume their economic and social tasks. Infants were sometimes swaddled to keep them warm and safe, and both boys and girls wore long dress-like garments over cloths used for diapers. Parents began to train their children for adult life and work at an early age, so that by four or five children were expected to perform simple tasks around the household or workplace. This training and these tasks were gender-specific, with girls instructed in household skills and boys in work that would assist their fathers. Parents were also expected to provide their children basic religious and moral instruction, telling them stories about individuals regarded as pious and praiseworthy.

Schooling. By the age of seven, middle- and upper-class boys in urban areas often began to attend school, either in the language spoken in their area (termed the “vernacular”) or in Latin. Wealthier girls might be educated in their homes by tutors, but their opportunities were much narrower than those of their brothers. After the Reformation, more schools that taught basic reading and writing were opened, though never as many as religious reformers hoped, and almost everywhere there were many more schools for boys than girls. School curriculum was also gender-specific, with boys encouraged to study rhetoric and other secular subjects while girls’ lessons focused on religion and morals.

Youth. Though there was no word for “teenager” in European languages during this era, people did think of “youth” as a distinct phase of life, marked by sexual maturity but not full adult responsibilities. Religious and political authorities often worried about and attempted to control the activities of young men, including drinking, fighting, and other wild behavior. The activities of young women were controlled also by their parents and by cultural norms that sharply distinguished between respectable and unrespectable women, for the sexual double standard was accepted throughout Europe. If a woman did engage in premarital sexual activity and became pregnant, she came before a church or secular court for trial and punishment, which in many places grew increasingly harsh during this period. Thus women who became pregnant out of wedlock often attempted to hide the fact as long as possible or took desperate measures to end the pregnancy, knowing that it might be impossible for them to gain employment or a husband if they became unwed mothers. If they were not able to end the pregnancy, they sometimes left the child at one of the foundling homes opened by cities or churches, though a child's chances of survival in these institutions were slim.

Prostitution and Homosexuality. Religious and political authorities also regulated or penalized other types of sexual activity. Before the Reformation, prostitution was widely tolerated, and most cities had official brothels that were taxed and licensed. After the Reformation, brothels in Protestant cities were generally closed and those in Catholic cities regulated more strictly; women who were arrested for prostitution were harshly punished. In many places, authorities attempted to prohibit other activities they saw as immoral, such as dancing or flirting, though such prohibitions were never rigorously enforced. Homosexual activity was also harshly suppressed, and became a crime punishable by death in some parts of Europe. The number of actual executions for homosexuality was small, but the methods of death, such as burning alive, could be grisly. Despite these measures, however, male homosexual subcultures with special behavior, styles of dress, and meeting places began to develop in Europe's largest cities.

Marriage. Most people's sexual activities took place inside of marriage rather than outside of it, and opinions about marriage generally became more positive during this period. Learned and popular writers discussed the purposes of marriage, which they generally saw as companionship, children, and the avoidance of sin, and people heard these ideas in wedding sermons and homilies. The ideal marriage was hierarchical, with the husband clearly in charge of his wife and the rest of the household, but not tyrannical; husbands were encouraged to show affection toward their wives and consult them on major decisions. Wives were instructed at great length on the importance of obedience, which was to be cheerful and willing, a reflection of their obedience to God. How many marriages actually conformed to this ideal is difficult to determine, as the marriages likely to show up in court records or other historical sources are those in which there were problems. There is evidence of strong affection and close relations between spouses and between parents and children in many families, but also many references to coldness, authoritarianism, and even violence. It was extremely difficult or impossible to obtain a divorce, however, so spouses simply had to make the best of whatever situation in which they found themselves. Marriage was the goal of most people, for it brought social adulthood and the opportunity to be independent from their own parents, though there was always a significant minority of men and women who did not marry, but supported themselves on their own or joined religious communities.

Family Unit. Families in the United States today are primarily residential and emotional units, but during the Renaissance and Reformation families also worked as a unit, raising crops or producing items together. Religious and vocational training occurred within the family, and significant events such as weddings, baptisms, and funerals were often marked by feasts and celebrations. Individuals also socialized with their peers, however, with young men and young women congregating in certain spots, adult men at taverns, and adult women at the neighborhood well or at each others’ houses. Perhaps because families spent so much of their work time together, what little leisure time they had was enjoyed apart from the rest of the family.

The Elderly. Statistics often give the average life expectancy in premodern Europe as twenty-five or thirty, which might make it seem as if there were no older people around. Such statistics are skewed by the fact that about one-half of those born died before they were five, however, and a large number of people lived into their sixties or seventies. Death did come at a more-variable age, so that the loss of a spouse was not necessarily linked to being older, and there were large numbers of widows and widowers of all ages. Because women often married men who were older than they were, widows outnumbered widowers. Widowhood often brought a decline in a woman's economic status, though it also gave her greater control over her property and circumstances than she had had when her husband was still alive. Widows thus balanced their needs and independence when choosing whether to remarry, and tended to remarry less frequently and more slowly than did widowers. The elderly of both sexes relied generally on their families if they were no longer able to support themselves, though sometimes this support had to be legally guaranteed with a formal contract between an aging parent and adult child. Some people were active in their work or making family decisions well into their eighties, though the stereotype of the elderly in this period was one of physical and mental weakness.

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Family and Social Trends: Overview

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