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Study of the Family in the Middle Ages

A companion to Britain in the later Middle Ages.
RIGBY, S H (ed)
Published by Oxford, Blackwell 2003.


P. 28-30

It is now an axiom of historical literature that the majority of peasant families or households in the high and late middle ages are neither large, which is to say more than four or five individuals, nor complex, that is, house more than two generations of parents and their children. In this English peasantry conformed to the general experience of almost all populations since, for reasons of demography alone, the majority of households in any population are, at any one time, likely to be simple, two generational units. This is not to say, therefore, that there are no large or complex peasant households in mediaeval England, but rather that the proportion relative to the majority of households was always small. The extent to which that proportion varied across time between regions will need to be considered later.

There is only scant evidence for the structure of the peasant family and household and on, and unsurprisingly, it is not uniform across the periods. Eleventh and twelfth century source have almost nothing to say on the size and structure of the peasant family or household, tending instead, to identify household heads rather than the members of families. Similar problems prevail in the sources from the later centuries but some listings, such as the late thirteenth century Spalding serf lists, do survive which seem to offer direct information on family form. Records of post mortem transfers of property provided in manorial rolls and wills also offers glimpses of family members as heirs and beneficiaries, while archeology obliques views of family form through the excavation of mediaeval houses. However, it is the poll-tax listings of the fourteenth century that provide the most important insights into family size and form in mediaeval England. Extensive national coverage of the poll-tax list has encouraged historians to propose typicalities of family and household forms. Allied to its wide geographical coverage is the fact that, since the poll tax was not a tax on property but on individuals, it should illustrate family and household for amongst a range of economic groups or sub-groups. More than a half-century ago, J.C. Russell proposed that the listings for the first poll tax of 1377 indicated that families were small. He estimated that the average family contained 3.5 persons. Although his estimates have not been universally accepted and questions raised regarding his methodologies, the listings to suggest a preponderance of small, conjugal units. Comparison of manorial records with poll tax data also appears to confirm Russell’s average. At Kibworth Harcourt, the 1377 and 1379 poll tax lists indicate that the largest households were composed of six or seven individuals, whilst the smallest contain just a single person.

Although nothing directly comparable to the poll-tax listings exist for earlier periods, a few, scattered pieces of information suggests the average family size is, at least for the thirteenth century, Late thirteenth century listings of serfs on manners belonging to the prior of Spalding indicate that the family size may have been slightly larger than in the later fourteenth century. The average size of households on three Spalding manors in south Lincolnshire varied between 4.37 persons and 4.81 persons. Interpretation of the source has been shown to be problematic, however, and it is possible that the calculations based on the list overestimate the family size on these manors. That said, the figures do accord with other calculations of late thirteenth century family size. Smith, using manorial court rules, has estimated that the average family size on the Bury Saint Edmunds manners of Redgrave and Rickinghalll( Suffolk) was 4.7 and 4.9 respectively, while, for central England, Razi what were the forces which promoted this polarization of family and household farms, and curry gene a preponderancy of small, nuclear unit set of minority of larger, more complex household? GC Homans, riding in the mid 20th century, that suggested that the complex person household of the mediaeval countryside what's the typical household farm in the 13th century countryside. He ordered a case based upon an assumed relationship has produced the broadly comparable figure 4.7 for peasant families at Halesowen. 

As always such averages hide a potential wide range of family and household sizes and, in particular, obscure the presence of a minority of larger households. As Hallam’s survey of the Spalding serfs suggest, some households in mediaeval villages could have been quite substantial, with more than six persons and more than two generations co-residing. Although we should not risk treating the surf lists as ‘censuses,’ variance a number of individuals per family does suggest that a portion of families on the priory’s manors could have been large and complex, as Hallam’s initial investigations may have suggested. Most telling, however, is the high proportion of families and households that were small, composed of two, three or four individuals. At Moulton (Lincs.) Hallem estimated that 58% of households were smaller than his calculated mean household size, which was, itself, less than five. It is possible that complex households were relatively more common in areas of low population density, pastoral husbandry in certain parts of the country, and where opportunities for alternative employment, which would have encourage out-migration, were limited. In certain parts of the country, beyond the boundaries of champion England, the outlying farmsteads on moorland and rough pasture may also have conformed more closely to the complex, multi-generational household types traditionally associated with a European peasantry. The isolated farmsteads of Ashwater on Dartmoor (Devon) perhaps included two or more generations of the same family but it would also have been bolstered by live-in servants, known as servants-in-husbandry. Archeological evidence also encourages the view that such farmsteads also contained complex household units. And fifteenth century England, similar conditions of economic independence and defacto “isolation’ were also created by market forces that led to a polarized society of landed peasant entrepreneurs and landless or near-landless peasants.  Peasant entrepreneurs are a yeoman and southern and eastern England constructed substantial houses for themselves and their families and implied live in servants are servants and husband tree. The survival of late mediaeval ‘wealden’ houses, with their separated living and servant quarters, reminds us that the wealthiest members of the peasantry could have afforded the complexity of household structures which their poor peers could not. But in all periods, these appear to have been exceptions and it is now generally accepted that complexity was not the norm.

P. 31

Complexity and relative largeness of family size were features more typical of the wealthier peasantry. Landed resources provided opportunities for both heirs and the non-inherited to gain access to land at reasonably early ages. Contrary to the early statements of Homans, failure to inherit did not, as the research of a number of historians has now shown, prevent marriage and household formation. Even if, as is always widely assume, marriage and household formation were dependent upon the prior acquisition of sufficient resources, inheritance was not the only channel through which these resources could be obtained. Opportunities for marriage to heiresses and to widows presented other points of access into landholding, while parents frequently provided non-inherited offspring with land or financial support in the form of doweries for her daughters, sufficient to establish them in married life. Marriage and the onset of child rearing tended, therefore, to be early while the advantage position at these wealthy or peasants may have been some protection against diseases, especially of infants and mothers. Furthermore, the wealthier peasantry were more likely to employ servants-in-husbandry and to provide accommodation for dependents, in particular for retired parents. All of these factors could have boosted household size and increased complexity. Additionally, the resources of the family, which permitted the establishment of family members within the vicinity of the parental household, ensure that, overtime, wide networks of kin would also be established. Familial support was, for the most part, a contingent consequence of the ‘peasant’ or ‘niche’ model; typically the family made available resources which, in some way, could be employed to establish a separate household.