Family Reconstitution

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Family reconstitution is the process of reconstructing historical data on family membership, the relationships among family members, and family change over time from often incomplete registers of vital events and similar sources. The techniques of family reconstitution are an important part of the tool kit of historical demographers.

Historical Development of the Practice

The genealogical renaissance of the late-nineteenth century provided the modern starting point for reconstituting families. Of course, the practice has had a much longer lineage: In the Old Testament there are long lists of family trees and lines of descent. And in later periods, whenever the issues of descent and origins were considered to be of particular importance, genealogies were traced back through the family archives. Much of this early study was one-sided: It usually considered only the male line of descent through first-born heirs (only for royalty and princely houses was a much wider root system considered to be of interest). The late nineteenth century saw the democratization of this practice when it was realized that the vital registers of Renaissance and Reformation states provided a way to study the origins of whole populations. Much of the early effort in this field went to the preservation of records that could be analyzed in a more individualized fashion by private researchers. Any large university library is likely to hold proceedings of nineteenth-century local record societies, along with privately published books detailing the archival rescue work of concerned social investigators from that time.

Before World War II the demographic analysis of these records was a very marginal pursuit. To be sure there was a small controversial literature among economic historians of early industrial England, who argued about whether the population rise of the period from 1750 to 1850 was the result of rising birth-rates or falling death rates. But this research was based on aggregative analysis, not the reconstitution of families. The flourishing Ortsippenbücher (local kinship books) studies in Nazi Germany, which were concerned to glorify Blut und Boden (blood and soil) and thereby enhance the vanishing ties of an increasingly urban society with its landed past, are something of an exception to such a generalization, although the rationale of this first-stage effort of family reconstitution was the concern with racial purity rather than insight into demographic change.

Louis Henry's Pioneering Work

The major breakthrough in the study of historical vital records came in France and can be linked directly to the pioneering work of Louis Henry (1911–1991). In his capacity as director of research at the Institute national d'études démographiques (INED), Henry was asked by French President Charles de Gaulle to determine why Frenchmen (and women) were raising so few children. (This faiblesse de berceau [failure of the cradle] had long been an issue in French military thinking.) Henry realized that at least part of the answer to de Gaulle's question called for an understanding of pre-Revolutionary (that is, prior to 1789) demographic dynamics–about which the parish registers of the ancien régime (the pre-Revolutionary political order) provided a unique source of information. Henry set out to exploit these registers, with an eye to demographic issues rather than genealogical ones. He devised a method to rework these primary data by reallocating the vital events recorded by the church into what might be termed demographic units of reproduction.

The first family reconstitution studies were labor intensive. Every baptism (birth), burial (death), and marriage was encoded on a separate piece of colored paper. Henry had chosen the Norman village of Crulai, near the cheese-making town of Camembert, to be his test case. It was a fortuitous choice, because Crulai's vital records ran in an un-broken series from the middle of the seventeenth century until the Revolution. Crulai's vital records were also kept in an exacting manner. For each birth event, for example, not only was the child's name and date of baptism recorded but the village clerk also noted the father's name and occupation and place of residence as well as the mother's father's name, occupation, and place of residence. Even if there were two or three young women called Jeanne Mance living in Crulai at the same time, the chance that they shared all these other individualizing characteristics was virtually nil. Ambiguities of individual identification were all but nonexistent.

The many thousands of color-coded pieces of paper were sorted according to family name, event, date, and so on. Henry (and his research associate, Étienne Gautier) then laboriously assembled these data into family units of reproduction. Each family was assigned its own starting date–the date of a couple's marriage. (Those married outside the village were discarded, wastage that was seen as a necessary cost in establishing a reliable core sample.) Subsequent events were added to the family record until the stacks of color-coded pieces of paper had been reassigned into new units of analysis–units that could answer demographic questions.

Crulai was a propitious choice for substantive reasons, too. Surprisingly, the average age at first marriage for both men and women was the midtwenties; only 10 percent of all brides were teenagers–the same as the percentage of women who married for the first time after their thirtieth birthday. Henry also discovered that for the cohorts marrying before 1740 there was no discernible difference in age-specific fertility rates between those marrying earlier than average and those marrying later than average, but for the post-1740 cohorts the later-marrying women had higher fertility in their thirties than did their sisters, cousins, and neighbors who differed from them only in marrying earlier than average.

Using the labor of INED students, a national sample of reconstituted village populations was soon created. But if it was thus a fairly straightforward matter to establish the quantitative parameters of ancien régime demography, explaining the results proved to be a far more complicated matter. Indeed, the history of family reconstitution studies in most European countries has followed a similar course: first the establishment of quantitative parameters, then arguments about the meaning of the results.

The statistics derived from family reconstitution studies have provided a veritable mountain of facts. The interpretation of these facts, however, has not–and indeed cannot–be addressed within a purely demographic form of analysis. In parish register demography of the early modern period the time has clearly come to acknowledge the truth of the twentieth-century English poet Stephen Spender's point:

Of course, the entire effort is to put oneself

Outside the ordinary range

Of what are called statistics.

See also: Family: History; Hayami, Akira; Henry, Louis; Historical Demography; Laslett, Peter.


Dupâquier, Jacques. 1988. Histoire de la population française, Vol. 2: De la Renaissance à 1789. Paris: Presses universitaires de France.

Gautier, Étienne, and Louis Henry. 1958. La population de Crulai: Paroisse normande. Paris: Presses universitaires de France.

Henry, Louis. 1967. Manuel de démographie historique. Paris: Presses universitaires de France.

Laslett, Peter. 1965. The World We Have Lost. London: Methuen.

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

——. 1998. "Sampling History." Journal of Inter-disciplinary History 28: 605–632.

Wrigley, E. A., and R. S. Schofield. 1997. English Population History from Family Reconstitution, 1580–1837. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

David Levine