By Lucie Laumonier
A look at the size, concepts and members of the family and household in the Later Middle Ages.
What is a family? The English noun “family” comes from the Latin familia, which designated, in classical Latin, the band of slaves attached to a household. By extension, familia signified the household, as in the expression pater familias, used to refer to the head of the house. In the Middle Ages, the noun familia also related to the household – the members of the house, as a moral unit. Strictly speaking, therefore, the medieval familia does not correspond to the modern “family,” a word we employ to talk about our relatives. This article focuses on Western Europe in the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, and attempts to draw the contours of the household and of the kinship in the medieval and modern family.
In medieval Latin, people related by blood or marriage were called parentes (or parents/kin in modern English) and consanguinei (the plural form of consanguineus). Parentes formed a different community than the familia—the household—although some parents did live together with their adult children. The fact that familia, the word for household, came to designate the kinship (the “family”) sometimes complicates our modern understanding of medieval ways of living and perception of kinship.
The medieval familia was open to parents and non-relatives. Sometimes, elders and other members of the kinship also resided in the house. Servants, apprentices, and friends dwelled with the householder.
Degrees of Kinship
Three types of kinship coexisted in medieval culture. Consanguinei shared common ancestors and a common history they could trace back in time. The nobility, whose social status depended on the knowledge of their ancestry, had a much greater awareness of their family tree than most common people.
Kinship was established on alliances – on marriages of which legitimate heirs were born. “Affinity” is the name given to people with whom one became related through their own marriage or through the marriage of a blood kin. Affinity designates ties such as the ones connecting a mother or a father-in-law with the groom or bride, a groom or bride with a brother or sister-in-law, and so forth.
Canon law and secular law framed medieval kinship. Canon law dictated what made a marriage valid, and placed restrictions on unions – for instance, rules against incest. Restrictions on consanguinity changed between the early and the high Middle Ages. Canon law, therefore, defined to some extent what made a family. Other legal frames defined rules of inheritance and of endowment, yielding a vast corpus of family law.
In Christianity, a third type of kinship exists: spiritual kinship. In the Catholic tradition, when children are baptized, they are carried to the baptismal font by their spiritual parents (their “godparents”). The baptized child then becomes the godchild of the godparents (godfathers and godmothers). In the Middle Ages, the number of godparents a child could have was unlimited until the twelfth century. Then, a child could only have two godmothers and two godfathers at one time.
The Church insisted that spiritual kinship was the purest bond of all – it was not tainted by original sin, unlike blood kinship. But sources show that if medieval people valued spiritual kinship as a convenient way to reinforce or create bonds between individuals, it never surpassed the importance of blood ties and affinity. The restrictions on marriage that applied on blood kin to prevent incest also applied on spiritual parents, to the same degrees.
Testamentary sources and other private records are exceptional witnesses
of the familial culture of late medieval people. Besides the nobility, who had a more acute understanding of their lineage, most people only fostered relations with people close to their position on their genealogical tree. Cousins, nephews and nieces, grandchildren, and brothers and sisters-in-law were the most usual people cited in wills.
Medieval demography and household size
Assessing the size of medieval households has been giving medieval historians headaches for decades. The problem is that sources on the exact composition of medieval households are almost non-existent. The modern concept of a population census does not translate well into medieval culture, where authorities usually counted the number of hearths in a community (houses or households) and not the number of people who dwelled within the home.
Even when officials seemed to have been counting individuals – such as in the 1086 Domesday Book, or in the 1377 English Poll Tax records – a number of individuals did not appear in the censuses. Children under the age of 14 and indigent people were, for instance, omitted.
Population estimates for England in the late eleventh century, derived from the Domesday Book, range from 1.1 million inhabitants (as per Josiah C. Russell’s estimate) to 1.8 million people (as per Sally Harvey’s study of the manuscript). Likewise, drawing on the poll tax returns of 1377, Josiah C. Russell contended that England then counted 2.2 million people, while Michael Postan argued that England was populated by 3.2 million inhabitants. A one million difference in such a small population is quite an important distinction.
The main issue historians face is the assessment of the “household multiplier,” which is the average number of people counted in one household, and by which historians multiply the number of hearths in a community to appraise the size of its population. In the case of the Domesday hearths, household multipliers range from 3.5 to 5 people per household.
But a household multiplier is a mean—and means can be rather meaningless. Urban households were usually smaller than rural households. In Florence, c.1430, the household multiplier was 3.8 people per hearth, according to detailed fiscal sources called the catasto. When taking into consideration the Florentine countryside, the household multiplier climbs to 4.4. Likewise, in the city of Prato, households counted an average of 3.7 people; in Prato’s countryside, the average was five people.
A number of other factors, such as wealth, influenced the size of households. At the top of the social ladder, households were usually large. Open to a number of family members, they were also populated by servants, handmaids, wet-nurses, and other domestic employees. At the bottom of the social ladder, households were much smaller and usually of the “nuclear” type.
Types of Households
What historians agree on is that, at least in the High and Late Middle Ages, the majority of urban households and a good chunk of rural households were nuclear. “Nuclear family” is the name given to a home occupied by a married (or remarried) couple and their underage children.
In rural settlements, historians contend that “stem families” were relatively common; they were also attested, although less frequently, in urban settings. Stem families are households where an elderly couple dwells with one of their married adult children and the latter’s own children. Multigenerational households could count more members, with two or more siblings cohabitating with their spouses, children, and parents, forming an extended household.
Finally, medieval demographers distinguish a third type of household. In the “horizontal family,” two or more siblings live together with their spouses and children but without the presence of elderly parents. The “paternal authority” was either wielded by one of the siblings or shared among them.
While in appearance a convenient system of household organization, this typology is artificial and does not take into account the mutable and composite nature of hearths and families.
Mutable and Open Households
The concept of a “nuclear” family can be misleading. First, what sometimes looks like a “nuclear” family can actually be a blended family, with one of the spouses being a widow or widower who remarried.
Second, while a number of households in urban and rural Europe were based on a conjugal couple and their children, other people could reside in the house. If the family had some financial means, they would have domestic servants doing household chores and residing with the family.
If the householder was a master craftsman, he would have apprentices and employees living at home. In rural settlements, seasonal workers were hired when necessary—for the harvests, for instance. They dwelled, even if temporarily, with their employers. The presence of workers in medieval households changes the picture we have of what a “nuclear” family really was.
Third, the size and nature of households changed in time. While a married couple with children may have started off as a nuclear family, they would at some point grow old. If their children left the house, then the household was no longer of the “nuclear” type, for it only counted two people.
If one of the children, once an adult, decided or was forced to stay with their parents, then the household became a stem family when the adult child married and begat offspring. At the parents’ death, the household turned again into a nuclear family. And if several children stayed with the parents, the household would go from nuclear to extended, before becoming a horizontal household at the parents’ death.
The mutable nature of households is called the “family life cycle”. Taking into account the family life cycle when reflecting on medieval households is important to better assess the dynamics of changes that transformed the family unit. At the core of living arrangements was usually the nuclear family, around which gravitated other kinspeople (older relatives, orphaned children) and household employees. The plasticity of medieval households is probably their most enduring feature and the one we want to keep in mind when reflecting on the nature of medieval families.
Carlier, Myriam, and Soens, Tim (eds.) The Household in Late Medieval Cities: Italy and Northwestern Europe Compared (Garant, 2001)
Hareven, Tamara K. (ed.), Transitions. The Family and the Life Course in Historical Perspective (Academic Press, 1978)
Cohn, Samuel K., Steven A. Epstein, and David Herlihy (eds.), Portraits of Medieval and Renaissance Living: Essays in Memory of David Herlihy. (University of Michigan Press, 1996)
Grace, Philip, “Family and Familiars: The Concentric Household in Late Medieval Penitentiary Petitions,” Journal of Medieval History, 35:2 (2009) 189–203.
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: Bodleian Library MS. Douce 353 fol.31v