The Family in the Western World

Historians began paying significant attention to families, especially those of ordinary people, only within the last several decades. Beatrice Gottlieb offers a distillation of that recent scholarship in addition to her own insights in this popularly written volume. Much of her work consists of debunking commonly held beliefs about families of this time period. Most of her discussion generalizes to all of Western Europe, but she frequently cites examples from specific areas and explains when customs, such as that of partible versus impartible inheritance, differed across regions.

Large households were not the norm during these centuries, as is commonly supposed. Wealthy and politically powerful households tended to be larger, particularly so if servants are counted as household members, as Gottlieb suggests. She illustrates how servants were treated much the same way as were children — in fact, many families, even among the wealthy, took in children as servants or apprentices while at the same time sending their own children, as a means of educating them, to serve in other households. Gottlieb makes it clear that servants often held high status within their communities, tied to the status of the households in which they worked.

Gottlieb also presents evidence on the debate concerning care for children. Although children were likely to die young, prompting parents to avoid emotional attachment, Gottlieb offers examples of strong bonds. Even...

(The entire section is 424 words.)