Laslett, Peter

views updated



British historian and historical demographer Peter Laslett was a fellow of Trinity College Cambridge, and in 1964 he became co-founder and co-director (with E. A. Wrigley) of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. Laslett was a leading historian of political thought in his early career, but from his late 40s he began to establish his reputation as a pioneering historian of the family and as a historical demographer.

The two careers were linked, since Laslett had edited Sir Robert Filmer's Patriarcha and Other Political Works (1949) at an early stage, and in doing so had accepted the portrayal therein of the seventeenth-century English household as structured around a dominant patriarch and enclosing a large number of kin. Laslett's later work, starting with his most famous book, The World We Have Lost (1965), and using listings of inhabitants that pre-dated the first official census of England and Wales (1801) by two centuries, showed that social reality bore little relation to political theory. These sources showed that pre-industrial English households on average contained four persons, who were most likely married couples with their children. Few villagers were married under age twenty; resident unmarried servants, primarily aged 15 to 30, were surprisingly prevalent; and village populations turned over rapidly from year to year as people migrated across parish boundaries.

Laslett promoted the comparative history of household structure and formation processes. In collaboration with John Hajnal of the London School of Economics, he seeded the idea of a northwest European household formation system that was founded upon late and neo-local marriage, and the circulation of adolescents away from their natal hearth as servants and apprentices for long periods after the onset of sexual maturity. These were features that pre-dated the Industrial Revolution, yet in much of the extant secondary literature were supposed to have emerged only after the shift from an agrarian economy to one in which industry and urban living predominated. Laslett, while keen to promote comparative analysis of co-resident domestic groups, was also suspicious of contrasts drawn between measures of household composition that took little account of stochastic variation. With anthropologist E. A. Hammel and mathematical demographer K. Wachter, he promoted the use of probabilistic microsimulation for the study of household structure, illustrating that many attempts to show stem-family systems in western Europe foundered on the author's failure to think probabilistically.

Laslett also pioneered work on the history of illegitimacy and, in comparative analysis, showed that illegitimacy in England was most common from the sixteenth to the early-twentieth century when marriage was early for women, and least common when it was late–though a contrary relationship held in many continental European countries.

In retirement, Laslett began to research the history of aging and the elderly, long before these subjects were fashionable. He showed that the household formation system in pre-industrial England had not created a context within which the elderly were revered, but one in which they had usually depended upon support from a wider community that extended out beyond the kin group and not infrequently entailed poor relief. Work of this kind, like so much that he published after 1965, made it necessary for social scientists to abandon many of the older certainties regarding the notion of "modernization" and its impact upon demographic processes and family forms.

See also: Family: History; Family Reconstitution; Henry, Louis; Historical Demography; Household Composition.


selected works by peter laslett.

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

——. 1977. Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

——. 1996. A Fresh Map of Life: The Emergence of the Third Age, 2nd edition. London: Macmillan Press.

Laslett, Peter, ed. 1972. Household and Family in Past Time. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

Laslett, Peter, and James Fishkin, eds. 1992. Justice Between Age Groups and Generations. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Laslett, Peter, E. A. Hammel, and K. Wachter. 1978. Statistical Studies of Historical Social Structure. London and New York: Academic Press.

Laslett, Peter, Karla Osterveen, and Richard Smith, eds. 1980. Bastardy and Its Comparative History. London: Edward Arnold.

Laslett, Peter, and Richard Wall, eds. 1983. Family Forms in Historic Europe. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

selected works about peter laslett.

Bonfield, Lloyd, Richard Smith, and Keith Wrightson, eds. 1986. The World We Have Gained: Histories of Population and Social Structure. Oxford, Eng.: Basil Blackwell.

Richard M. Smith