Early Modern Households in England: Structures, Priorities, Strategies, Roles

The Medieval Manor House of Stoke Trister. / Ivy Leaves, Creative Commons

By Dr. Keith Wrightson / 09.10.2009
Randolph W. Townsend, Jr. Professor of History
Yale University

The Household

Today I want to look at the most fundamental unit of society, the household, the unit in which most people spent their lives and which governed most of their daily activities.

So let’s begin with some definitions. The household can be defined in the first instance as being a unit of residence, of course, but also, as I indicated last time, it was a unit of authority. It’s a group of people, some related, some unrelated, living under the same roof under the authority of a household head; usually a man, sometimes a widowed woman. And in addition the household has been described as a unit that was ‘geared for work’, the work which was necessary to satisfy its needs as a unit of production and of consumption and of reproduction. So all households have that much in common but they vary greatly in their size, their composition, and the complexity of the relationships contained within them.

If we go to the top of the social scale, the households of the nobility and the gentry could be very large institutions, indeed sometimes vast institutions. They were organized to maintain not only a noble family at an expected level of magnificence — and to be magnificent was one of the qualities of a nobleman in contemporary thought — but also they were the centers for administering landed estates; they were the centers for conducting local government; they were the centers often of the exercise of political power. To give just one example, at Pontefract Castle in the — more or less in the center of the country in South Yorkshire, up here — Pontefract Castle was the home of Lord Darcy, and a list of his household as it was in 1521 survives. There were eighty people in Darcy’s household — eighty: his family, members of his extended family who lived with him, his household and estate officers. He had living with him a bunch of young men who were the sons of his clients amongst the local gentry and numerous menial servants. When he was called by Henry VIII to go to war against the Scots in 1523 he took with him twenty-three young men who were members of his household as his personal guard, wearing his livery. So such people as Lord Darcy had a style of life to maintain which necessarily elaborated their domestic establishments and these were the great households of the age.

Those of lesser people were of course much smaller and much less elaborate. Usually, basically they were nuclear family households — husband, wife, and children, rarely co-resident relatives living with them — and that’s a matter of some significance. It reflects the common cultural assumption that every newly married couple should set up its own independent household and indeed that you should not marry until you could do so; you should not cohabit with your relatives. Well, in many ways that sounds very modern, but one mustn’t forget that a large minority of households in this period, although their central core was a nuclear family, were also much larger than average not because they had kinsfolk living with them but because they came to include people who were linked to the household not by blood or birth but by contract; servants, apprentices. So if sixteenth-century households look familiar in some ways, a large minority of them were also very different and one could say they differed from modern households in three essential respects.

They differed structurally in that a substantial number of them contained people affiliated to the household by contract, the servants and apprentices. They differed conceptually in that when people talked about their family in this period they meant not their immediate blood relatives as we use the term. They meant all members of their household. Servants and apprentices were regarded as members of their family; they referred to them as family. So they’re different conceptually. And they’re also different functionally because these people were usually taken on for reasons which go beyond the usual functions of a modern household. Whereas we tend to think of a household as a unit of residence and consumption, child rearing, and provision of emotional support — all of that was true in the sixteenth century too — but the household in the sixteenth century also had more extensive functions which we don’t associate with the household today. They were units of production. They were farms. They were workshops. They were also places of education and training where the young were trained in particular tasks, and that’s what I mean when I say they were geared for work for all this larger range of functions.


Edward Taylor Huswifery Illustration Spinning Wheel / Public Domain

As working units and as units of residence all households were also spheres of interdependence. Their maintenance and their survival depended on the contributions of all their members. As we saw last time, this was in its ideology a patriarchal society, of course, in the sense that authority was conventionally located in the persons of adult males in general and adult male householders in particular, and these assumptions about the structure of authority were also embodied in law. Remember the law of property I mentioned last time with regard to women. But despite these constraints of ideology and law, women’s role in the household was of course indispensable and this was fully recognized. It was the duty of the householder to maintain his family by his labor, to exercise his authority in managing its affairs, to play a part in training servants and apprentices and so forth. The duty of the mistress of the household was generally summed up in a contemporary word, “huswifery.” It’s on your sheet. “Huswifery” or “housewifery.” And that comprised a range of activity very different from the modern notion of the housewife or the homemaker.

It wasn’t so focused on the maintenance of the domestic environment. Housing in this period was very simple. Most people seem to have lived in houses with two or three rooms and furnishing was exceedingly sparse. When people died inventories of their goods were drawn up and from them we can learn every single possession that they had, and it’s striking how sparse domestic interiors were in this period. To give you one example, a craftsman from Lincolnshire, which is up here, who died in 1540: his inventory survives and he possessed only twenty-two items in all, twenty-two items, and they were items connected with the three basics of household life: places to sleep, places to sit, and things to eat with, horn spoons, wooden bowls; twenty-two items in all, not untypical. So huswifery as they understood it in the sixteenth century was concerned not so much with managing a domestic environment as with managing the daily consumption needs of the household. Food preparation of course was central but also making and mending clothes and bedding and general provision for the maintenance of the household.

In 1523, a man called Anthony Fitzherbert wrote a book called The Book of Husbandry and in it he describes the domestic tasks of a rural woman, and what he describes is a myriad of activities involving the self-provisioning of a household at this time: keeping the pigs and the poultry, running the dairy, growing hemp and flax, spinning it into yarn for making the linen for the family, preparing the wool clip, laboring in the fields and in the barn when needed, and marketing. Women seem to have taken care of most of the regular marketing of the produce of the household: the eggs, the poultry, the pigs, the grain, and of course buying necessities which couldn’t be produced at home. In the households of urban craftsmen and tradesmen, things were a little differently organized. Women were formally excluded from the apprenticeship which would enable them to learn one of these trades, but very often they learned many aspects of it informally and the records reveal many glimpses of women active in various aspects of their husbands’ trades, assisting their husbands as bakers and butchers, carrying water and sand for husbands who were in the building trade, buying raw materials on their husbands’ behalf, selling the finished goods and so forth. How do we know about things like this? Well, lots of records that survive from the many courts which governed many aspects of local life give us little glimpses of what people are doing. We know that women in one city — well, in Norwich actually — might be down at the water side buying wood for husbands who were carpenters because on one occasion a fight broke out and what they were doing happens to be described in the records. You get these kinds of glimpses of people’s activities.

The wives of laboring men were less able to participate in the household-based production of a craftsman’s family because their households were not productive units. They went out to work for others, but you also find these women engaged in all kinds of wage labor to make their contribution to the domestic budget. They might do seasonal agricultural labor. You might find them spinning for wages, producing the yarn for the cloth industry. They took in sewing and knitting and washing and all kinds of other activities outside the home. In the city of Chester, up here in the northwest, for example, at the docks they had a crane which was operated by a treadmill. Someone had to stand inside a wheel and tread it to make it turn to make the crane operate. Who was inside the wheel? Women.

You also find many women engaged in various forms of petty dealing. One glimpse survives of a woman called Rose, Rose Hearst. She lived in Maldon on the coast of county of Essex, and we learn that twice a week on market day she went fifteen miles to the county town to sell oysters. I hope she had a pony. [Laughter] Carrying a basket of oysters fifteen miles would be no joke. But Rose Hearst sold oysters twice a week.

So overall women’s tasks extended well beyond the domestic sphere to include a host of forms of self-provisioning or supplementary earning according to the circumstances of different kinds of household. The mix would vary, but the common characteristic of their gender role was flexibility and adaptability in what was expected of them. Mary Prior, who’s written an excellent article on women’s work in this period, sums it up. She says, “what men did was definite, well defined and limited [to their craft or trade]. What women did was everything else.” In a way that’s slightly unfair to men. They worked very hard too, but it’s essentially true.

Well, this constant round of duties of huswifery were conducted in the context of a further role, women’s reproductive role, which is worth dwelling on a little. Most couples in this period got married in their mid- to late- twenties. They married relatively late when they were ready to set up their own household. Historical demographers who researched the parish registers, which give us the details of people’s marriages and the baptisms of their children and so forth, they’ve revealed that the average woman could expect to have her first child within eighteen months of marriage, and she could then expect on average to have another child at intervals of two to three years for the rest of her fertile life, if she lived that long. Think about it. That means that the average woman in sixteenth-century England was pregnant for a quarter to a third of her entire adult life and that they were constantly besieged by the needs of small children. These births being spaced across an entire adult life meant that when some children were teenagers and ready to go out into service others were still toddlers and so forth — constant demands of small children. So it’s not surprising that, as Thomas Tusser said in the mid sixteenth century, “huswives’ affairs have never none ende” — “huswives’ affairs have never none ende” — and despite their legal subordination it was of course on the performance of these complex roles — adapted to circumstances — that women’s standing as individuals depended amongst their neighbors, within their families, and from the performance of these roles doubtless that they derived their self-esteem.

The Role of Children

Early Modern Child Labor / Hutton Archives, Getty Images

In an agriculturally dominated, labor-intensive, low-productivity, pre-mechanized and pre-contraceptive age it could hardly be otherwise, and for the same reasons children were expected to play their part too. Only a small minority of children would have formal schooling in the sixteenth century — it’s been estimated perhaps 10% in the early sixteenth century. Most children would learn their life skills practically at home or as servants and they were expected to begin that and to participate in the domestic economy as soon as they were able to do so. That may sound exploitative but one mustn’t exaggerate. Such participation was an essential part of their education for life and children tended to be introduced to tasks at an appropriate stage. There’s also plenty of evidence of them playing, but from the age of about seven or eight you find them regularly engaged in tasks that they were able to manage: herding sheep and cows, reaping, gathering fuel, fetching and carrying, picking fruit, scaring birds in the fields, and so on and so forth.

There’s a remarkable study by Barbara Hanawalt of Ohio State University of children, children’s working activities in this period which is based on the records of coroners. When someone died an untimely death it had to be investigated by the coroner just as today; they already had that system. And the records of coroners which survive which deal with the deaths of children reveal what they were doing at the time that they suffered an accident leading to their death, and so you can look at this and you have their age and you can see what tasks they were engaged in. So for example, a little boy is helping his father to cut down a tree when the ax head strikes him and sadly he’s killed, or a little girl is fetching water when she falls down a well and so on and so forth. From evidence like this an imaginative historian can reconstruct the way in which children were gradually introduced in to their working life. Sustained, repetitive labor of the kind we associate with exploitative child labor was relatively rare — though it existed, especially in the areas which were heavily involved in the cloth trade. That’s where you find children carding wool, spinning wool for long hours.

So the household in the sixteenth century was a unit geared for work and its members’ roles varied according to contemporary ideas and values regarding the proper roles of men, women and children. So let’s turn now to the priorities of households and the strategies by which they achieved them.

The Priority of Survival

Early Modern Urban Society / University of Warwick

The first priority obviously enough was survival. That meant maintaining the flow of resources on which the household depended. Today that would be your salary. In the sixteenth century it meant various combinations of self-provisioning on one hand and engaging in markets on the other. Most rural households were still heavily weighted towards providing their own basic subsistence. It was still essentially a subsistence economy of small producers relying primarily on family labor and consuming most of their produce in their own houses. Of course, that would vary regionally and socially. In most areas there was a minority of those large yeoman farmers I mentioned last time. They were attuned to supplying medium- to long-distance markets with agricultural produce, provisioning the towns and so forth, and they were producers on a substantial scale heavily engaged in marketing. But it’s been estimated by the agricultural historian Mark Overton that about 80% of English farming in the early sixteenth century was actually oriented towards the subsistence of the farm family itself and only a small part of their produce being marketed. Well, whether the flow of household resources depended on self-provisioning or on selling in the market it provided people with their living and often quite a bare living.

Overton, whom I mentioned, has also calculated the incomes that could be expected by farmers in this period. A big yeoman who had a hundred acres of land growing wheat could not only feed his family but would probably earn, Overton reckons, about seventy pounds a year — quite a substantial income — from his production. On the other hand, a small husbandman with only about ten acres would probably have only enough left to sell to yield him two or three pounds a year — so an enormous difference in the cash income that they could generate. So for many of these families, the smaller husbandmen, they had a fairly narrow margin and that was in normal times. These estimates have to be transformed when you get the event of a bad harvest. If the harvest failed a big farmer, a big yeoman farmer, would still be able to feed his family and prices would shoot up because of shortages, so he might still make a considerable income. But in such circumstances the small farmer might not be able to feed his own family; he might fall behind on his rent; he might have to buy grain in the market at inflated prices. It could be a disastrous circumstance. And for landless wage earners it could be even harder. They didn’t produce their own food, they would have to buy it at very high prices. Well, bad years like that were relatively rare but they were unpredictable. In the 1520s, there were two very bad years like that. In the 1550s, there were three. There was another run of very bad harvests in the 1590s and so one could go on. It was one of the hazards of life. One can understand why people sometimes in the diaries that they left behind them are looking anxiously at the weather as the harvest approaches.

Other sources of insecurity could be equally unpredictable. The high mortality rates of the period could pose a real threat. The worst circumstances would be the outbreak of an epidemic, usually an epidemic of bubonic plague. When an epidemic hit a city, as they periodically did, you might get 20 or 30% of the entire population dying within a period of months. The city of York, the greatest city of the north of England — up here — York suffered no fewer than seven epidemics of bubonic plague between 1485 and 1550. So this was another hazard of life which would periodically strike, devastating the households that were infected. Besides epidemics, though, there was also the constant threat of infectious diseases which nowadays would be cleared up in a matter of days with antibiotics. This meant that death rates were fairly high for adults. Very few people lived ’til sixty, and also you have the hazards of death in childbed for women and of course accidental deaths. These threats could hit the prosperous and the poor alike and the accident of death at a bad moment in any household could prove absolutely disastrous. This was a period that had no life insurance. It was a period which had no pensions for those who were left behind. Average life expectation at birth in the sixteenth century was actually about thirty-three. That’s average. If you made it to twenty, you would probably live ’til your forties but most people died in their forties or fifties.

Okay. All of these somber realities add up to an environment of risk for the household, threatening its viability and survival, and that inevitably influenced people’s mentalities. It’s been suggested that people in this period tended to value security and stability over change and growth. Their economic strategies in particular were often very defensive, designed to minimize risks rather than to maximize opportunities. So, their first priority was survival.

Providing for the Future

Industry and Idleness, William Hogarth. Finished Drawing for Plate 1 of (1747), The fellow ‘prentices at their looms. British Museum, Binyon 1, Croft-Murray (unpublished) 25, Oppe 41. /  © Trustees of the British Museum.

The second major priority was to provide for the future well-being of the members of the household and their future capacity, if they were young, to be able to form and sustain households of their own when they reached the appropriate age. And in this process there are three crucial moments in the life of the household: there’s the ‘putting forth’ of children into the world as they put it; there’s marriage and the arrangements associated with it; and there was the transmission of property to the new generation through inheritance. These were all aspects of the way in which households were gradually dispersed.

Let’s look first at the aspect of dispersal involving young people, their leaving home to enter the households of others as servants and as apprentices. The institution of service was well attuned to accommodating the needs of different households. At any one point in time some households, often the poorer ones, would have children who were coming to an age at which they were capable of a fuller working role but there wasn’t really enough to usefully employ them at home; their labor wasn’t needed. Other households, however, would require additional labor either temporarily because their children were young, too young to work, or permanently because their children had grown and left home. If you look at the back of your handout you’ll see a couple of examples of sixteenth-century households.

Now that’s sixteenth-century handwriting at the bottom. This is from a census which was made. These are households of yeoman farmers and you’ll see that there are no children in those households but there are lots of servants. Some of them are described as husbandmen. They’re farm workers living in the household with these yeoman farmers and most of them, as you’ll see, are pretty young; they’re in their late teens or early twenties. That’s what sixteenth-century households of this particular type would have looked like. Well, the basic logic of the system, then, was the transfer of children from one household to another according to need, but there was also more to it than that.

Service was also a way in which young people learned skills. It was a way in which they gained experience and of course they earned a small wage which they could often save. It also served to kind of redistribute the young across an area from the village in which they were born. They would move from master to master around the area in which they lived, and they would become familiar with the economic opportunities available to them in their region — gradually, when they reached sufficient age and maturity, getting a notion of where they might settle permanently, marry and set up their own households. They would often be hired annually at the servant’s hiring fair, and there’s been a very good study of a hiring fair done by a woman called Ann Kussmaul who has written an excellent book on servants. And she shows how you would have a little town where the hiring fair was and servants who might be placed in households scattered around the area would come in to get hired, and then they might be hired by a master which would take them out to the other side of the particular catchment area of this hiring fair. So as year gave way to year servants would be whizzing backwards and forwards around this area, and she shows from year to year how that happened, and then eventually they’d settle.

Well, a lot of this was relevant to apprentices also, but with the apprenticeship system, of course, the advantaging mechanism and the skill training aspect was much more prominent. Families invested in the children who went out as apprentices. They paid a fee to their masters and they expected that in future, when they had finished their apprenticeship, they would set up as master craftsmen themselves. So service and apprenticeship were the conventional ways of preparing young people for the future assumption of adult responsibilities, and for most of them that came with marriage.


Early Modern Marriage / Public Domain

Marriage was the point at which they were transformed into householders and, like leaving home, it was a point of transition at which individual desires and individual ambitions had to be reconciled with the larger strategies of the households they belonged to. The making of a marriage was quite a complex process. It’s left a lot of records and quite a few excellent studies have been done of it. It was rarely simply a matter of parents arranging the marriages of the young. That was certainly known. Parents were more than happy to present potential candidates to their children and amongst the aristocracy arrangement of matches amongst their children was very common. These were families in which marriage might have great social and political significance and it was too important to leave to the young people themselves. But in general young people were permitted a considerable degree of personal choice in selecting their marriage partners provided they did so by choosing within a pool of people who were considered acceptable; that’s to say a pool of eligible partners of appropriate social and economic standing. They had an ideal of parity in marriage; like married like.

When they talk of a ‘match’ they mean exactly that; they’re matching social equals. And, whether the courtships were initiated by the young people themselves or whether they were responding to initiatives and suggestions taken by their parents or their guardians, the successful completion of a match was subject to what one historian has called “multilateral consent.”1 It’s not a unilateral matter for the young people alone. It’s not a unilateral arrangement by the parents alone. It’s a matter of multilateral consent, that is to say the agreement and support of all interested parties, notably their parents but also their close kin, sometimes their brothers and sisters, anyone who had an interest. That could — that kind of influence could — sometimes be exerted quite sensitively, but sometimes it could be asserted quite brutally. William Perkins, the famous puritan preacher, advised one young woman who was worried about the marriage that had been proposed to her by her father. He advised her:

“thy virginity is not all thine to dispose of. In part it is thy parents. Thy father hath a stroke in it; thy mother hath another, and kindred a third. Fight not against all, but be his whom they would have thee.”

Well, in that case all that’s required of her is her consent, but it may have been very unwilling.

Among families that had little or no property, agreement, or the ‘good will’, as they often put it, of others was largely a matter of simply moral force. Young people from the poorer ranks had a good deal more freedom of movement. They provided for their own independence largely from their own earnings and their own savings, and often it took them years to do so, but they were under less pressure from their families. One young woman who was preparing for her eventual independence was a young woman called Isabel Fowler who died unmarried around about 1550 and whose goods were listed when she died. She was still a servant at the time. She had a chest, and in her chest she had some clothes and some domestic utensils and some bedding. Her master was holding three pounds of accumulated wages for her. He was kind of acting as her banker, and in addition she had three cows which her master was allowing her to run with his herd. So Isabel was clearly sort of getting it together for a potential marriage and sadly she died; she never made it, but she would have been a good catch if she had. [Laughter]

Well, amongst people with property whether they were small farmers or higher up the social scale the economic arrangements were somewhat more complicated. One contemporary observer said, “young folk be come together for love, but parents must cast how they shall live.” Together the two families would provide a conjugal fund. The groom was expected — it was expected that his family would help to provide a dwelling and a means of livelihood. The bride would bring what was called her ‘portion’, her portion of goods or money or perhaps even land with which her family would endow her. These resources would be partly accumulated by the young people but depended crucially at this social level upon parental help through either inheritance or transfers of property, and the sums involved could be quite substantial. In 1500, for example, one study shows that the portions which were given to daughters of the gentry in the county of Kent, which is down here in the southeast, averaged around 280 pounds. It was quite a lot of money in the early sixteenth century which these gentry families had to find for their daughters.

Villagers in the same county, of course, provided much lower sums but it could range up to twenty or thirty pounds. But, whatever the level, settling these matches involved some pretty hard bargaining amongst the families concerned. There’s a lot of evidence of the way in which people calculated what their families could afford, how the families of the bride and groom hammered it out and negotiated over the portions, and all of this of course had its implications for the younger children in the family. What would be left for them? They had a say. And they also needed to calculate what the family could afford if it was to remain itself viable economically. So it involved a lot of strategic thinking when a marriage was proposed, and if all of that was successfully resolved a match would be concluded, a new household would be established and endowed. If not, the denial of parental support could be catastrophic for the marriage hopes of the young people concerned. If these things interest you, I recommend in particular a book on the reading list by Diana O’Hara, Courtship and Constraint. It’s a wonderful study of sixteenth-century courtship.

Well, putting your children forth as adolescents and then matchmaking at the time of marriage were also linked in different ways to the question of inheritance, the way in which resources were transferred between the generations. It’s generally true to say that sixteenth-century English society favored primogeniture, the lion’s share going — of the family property — going to the eldest son. But they also believed that an equitable provision should be made for younger children; they should receive some portion of goods to help them into adult life. One Tudor lawyer said that in his view “a good and natural loving father” would exercise “care and providence to advance every of his children, according to his ability, with a portion of living or substance”. And nor was it a matter for the fathers alone because if they laid down in their wills the division of their goods amongst their children it’s also very clear that the successful completion of these family strategies usually depended upon the sustaining of the household economy after the father’s death by their widows. It was usual in people’s wills for the widow to be named executor with full control of the family property until either her death or the age of majority of the eldest son. It was simply assumed that these women had the experience and the capability to do all that was required, and that leads us to a final aspect of the household, the question of authority and power within this structure of relationships.

All of the household strategies that I’ve been talking about had a certain sort of collective element you could say, the quality of jointness. The interests of the different individuals intersect. You have to accommodate the collective interest of the household as a unit with that of the individuals who comprised it and had their own expectations and perhaps ambitions. But one might well ask whether decision making within households was truly collective. Households, like society in general, were organized on a principle of hierarchical differentiation. People’s duties and people’s entitlements were conceived of in accordance with their place within that hierarchy. The household economy, as we’ve seen, involved interdependence, it involved complementary effort, but the contributions of members were not necessary of equal weight; they weren’t necessarily of equal value in contemporary views. One could say that in many ways the household was, in a sense, a sphere of altruism in which the interests of others were taken into consideration, but at the same time there could be clashes of personality and there could be competition over resources.

The law and contemporary ideology left no doubt about where ultimate authority lay in managing all of this. It lay of course with the household head. But it’s equally apparent when one has glimpses of households in action that the personal dynamics of the household were often far more complex than that stereotype. We have the stereotype of uncontested patriarchal domination. The reality turns out to be far more variegated. The fact that women were subordinated as a sex didn’t preclude recognition of their competence; it didn’t preclude recognition of their judgment. Such qualities were expected of them and they were daily displayed in the conduct of household affairs as we’ve seen. Accordingly, you find in the evidence that wives were very often far from being the silent spectators of the decisions that were made regarding their family’s well-being.

The evidence of matchmaking shows that they had a very real voice in either negotiating the terms of the marriages of their children or in opposing or approving particular candidates. The evidence we have regarding the making of people’s wills shows that women were often heavily involved, advising their husbands on the terms of their wills and sometimes indeed disputing them. They were the ones who would ultimately have to administer and execute those wills and they had a voice in their making. And they appear elsewhere making their voices heard and indeed being listened to. Outside the context of the household most women could of course exercise little public authority, but within it they clearly had a recognized role and that recognized role conferred certain rights and certain entitlements. Anthony Fitzherbert in The Book of Husbandry advised that both wife and husband should from time to time make what he called “reckonings” with one another. He was thinking of their economic activities, that they should make reckonings of their activities with one another, and he went on:

“for if one of them should use to deceive the other he deceiveth himself and is not likely to thrive, and therefore they must be true eyther to other.”

That’s just one statement of an ideal of mutuality within marriage, within the management of the household, which of course found its immediate expression every day in the day-to-day activities of households. That certainly didn’t transform them into spheres of equality of course. But it could and did involve the development of working relationships of mutual support and mutual respect in the pursuit of priorities that were essentially shared. So, in short, the household was certainly a sphere of power, it was certainly a sphere of authority, but it was one in which their exercise was also constantly influenced by the play of the individual personalities of those involved. And I think if one wants to work on this kind of problem one needs to be sensitive to the balance between these various elements.

So, to conclude, society and economy in the early modern period has been described by one historian, David Rollison, as a “culture of households in a landscape.”2 The household was certainly fundamental and it was fundamental to both continuity and change in the social history of the period. A lot of the characteristics that I’ve been describing endured throughout the whole of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but some aspects of household life did change. They changed with changing circumstances.

Some of the changes which took place in this period in a variety of spheres — in economy, in population, in social structure, in culture — had their influence upon household relationships. Some of them threatened the viability of household economies, some aspects of economic and population change for example. Some changes provided new opportunities, new opportunities for the consumption of household goods, new opportunities for the education of children and other things which we’ll see in due course in later lectures. In general, one could also say that the course of change in this period and the outcomes of change crucially involved the responses to changing circumstances of thousands of households, and all of their members had a hand in those responses.

It was never just a matter of impersonal social forces acting upon households. Individuals and families made their decisions, adapted their strategies in accordance with their values, in accordance with their priorities in meeting the various changes of the period, and thinking about it that way is helpful, I think, because when we think about it that way we can give some of the abstractions and generalizations about the great processes that took place in the early modern period something of a human face at the level of the household, and in many ways it’s the capacity of historians to recapture the shifting expressions on those faces which makes these things worth studying.