Family in the Early Modern European Context


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 The term family has various resonances that are not harmonious in the current society. However, the development of the family concept has evolved through time after being transformed by socio-cultural and economic changes that have been occurring through time. However, the family as a societal unit has been recognized as the building block for the society and nations at large as portrayed in Aristotles work on The origins of patriarchy.

Engels (2004), summarizes the development of family through time into three-phased sequential stages, which are savagery, barbarism and civilization. The first two terms do not literally carry the connotation they may bear currently. Instead they are used to portray mans life at certain stage of development in terms of socio-economic standards. The savagery period denotes a period where mans appropriation of products occurs in their natural state and social definitions and structure in society are vague and least explicitly defined.

The period is marked loose definitions of family and what Engels terms as group marriages, where lineage is only traced through mothers or women (Engels, 2004). The second stage-barbarism-occurred at a time when man started engaging in economic activities of a refined nature such as breeding of animals and cultivating crops as well as increasing sourced natural products through mans activities. In this transformational period man begins to experience the pairing period where the family unit gets a little clearly defined by the pairing of a man and woman.

However, during this stage of development polygamy is still rampant and the ties of the marriage are loose and any party to the union can pull out. The third stage of civilization denotes a period when monogamy strictly defines a family unit and patriarchy takes over, as everything becomes recognized under a patriarchal name (Scott, 1988).

During this period lineages and property can be traced on patriarchal lines. This was a thing that had not existed in the savagery and barbarism period, where family lineages could only be traced through maternal links, because paternity was less significant. However, as we later note paternity takes over and patriarchal lineages become more significant and women get more subordination.

Engels defines family in these three stages through the portrayal of typical families that existed in these periods. He identifies the Consanguine, Punaluan, pairing and monogamous families as the transitional sequence through which families developed (Engels, 2004). In the consanguine family marriage is defined by generational gaps, the punaluan stage defines marriage according patriarchal and matriarchal lines and forbids incest within family and close cousins (1st cousins).

In the pairing family marriage between family members who may be closely or remotely related is prevented, and at this stage polygamy still thrives among men, but not women so as to ensure legitimacy of their children. At this stage the transitions towards patriarchal lineages becomes defined. The transformation whose onset starts with the pairing family is seemingly unfair to women because it curtails their rights to polyandry whilst retaining mens rights to polygamy.

However, it still leaves women with one advantage-the ability to determine whether they can continue to stay in a marriage whether widowed or not as portrayed in Klapisch-zubers work on Maternity, widowhood and dowry in Florence (David & Brown, 1998). At this stage the economics of property come to light as property ownership becomes recognized as a family based transfer.

However, an unfair hand still plays at this stage because when the man-head of family-dies his property is inherited by his gens and not his off springs (Slavin, Shelton & Bullough, 2004). In some societies such as those Florence-Italy-the widowed women were also able to leave the children and take their dowry back to their families of origin. In such cases the children were greatly marginalized and they could end up suffering (David & Brown, 1998).

These early stages of family development clearly portrayed Engels claims of a family as a coercive unit that was a source of oppression for some members, rather than a protective and caring unit. The ownership of property which began having explicit definitions at this time offered men an economic advantage over women because they could not claim property from their husbands at separation for their children-who officially became their own at separation or death.

This created a great division between the male and female genders where the women became inferior in the family set up (English, 1977). As civilization dawned the family moved towards being a monogamous family, which was a derivative of the pairing family. At this stage paternity became a culturally important symbol of identity used to define ones lineage. Paternity was greatly demanded because later the sired children were to inherit the property of their father upon his death, and the property was never to be passed to the gens.

At this stage the womans ability to terminate the marriage at will got limited and this was only possible with the husbands will. At this stage monogamy was still not in its strictest sense among men because they could still have extramarital sex, however; this seemed to taint a mans reputation when it came to the light of society. The emphasis of legitimacy in the family culture led to the solidification of the monogamous family.

Property played a major role in defining a monogamous marriage and the ability to get into a relationship of marriage or not. The bourgeois class had rules that dictated entry into a marriage, inheritances and relationships. The preservation of inheritance was always kept in mind in the establishment of relationships among this class and as such their class was never entirely free to select a partner. According to Engels, such relations that had considerations of property rights and compelled monogamy led to the increase of prostitution and immorality (Engels, 2004).

The only class that may have been free from such property restraints was the proletariat because they had no financial means which define the marriage of the bourgeois. Monogamy among them is thus a guarantee because of a love relationship. However, according to Engels (2004) predicted that the occurrence of a social revolution would do away with these social classes and eliminate elements of women inferiority, enslavement and prostitution.

But for prostitution, trends within the late 17th century showed achievement on these lines. This led to a family with ideals as per Herlihys definitions (1995) where a family was approaching the state of being a protective unit. According to him if men were concerned with sex-love rather than property then the monogamous family would automatically emerge.


 The women in the 15th to 17th century were highly marginalized and oppressed because they had little say over their own life, bodies and property, in fact they were treated as part of property. However, the onset of civilization has transformed these views through socio-economic and cultural changes that have seen women get more control over their life. However, all this can be attributed to the transformations that the family unit has undergone over the years as a unit and institution of society.


 David, C. R. and Brown, C. J. (1998),. Gender and society in Renaissance Italy; Longman Publishers

Engels, F. (2004),. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Resistance Books Publishers

English, J. (1977),. Sex equality, Prentice-Hall Publishers

Herlihy, D. and Molho, A (editor) (1995),. Women, family and society in medieval Europe: historical essays, 1978-1991, Berghahn Books

Scott, W. J. (1988),. Gender and the politics of history; NY: New York, Columbia University Press

Slavin, S. Shelton, B. and Bullough, L. V. (2004),. The Subordinated Sex: A History of Attitudes toward Women, University of Georgia Press

Nancy Morgan is the Author of this paper. She is a senior academic writer and an editor and she offers Dissertation Writing Service. Thus, people that doubt their own writing abilities can use the best custom paper writing service and forget about their fears and lack of confidence by visiting EssayWritingBay.Com

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