The Family, Sex and Marriage in England: 1500-1800
by Lawrence Stone
Harper & Row, 800 pp., $30.00
Professor Stone may be the boldest historian alive. Certainly he seems almost recklessly brave by the timid standards of the profession. He can write large books or short ones, but he cannot write a book about a trivial theme. His first large book, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641, analyzed by dexterous use of social as well as economic history the collapse of the English aristocracy before the Civil War. It is an immense book, crowded with detail; here and there it may be faulted on minor matters, but it has established itself as a classic and its major thesis concerning the “rise of the gentry” is universally accepted.
Stone brought to bear the same qualities of rapid assimilation, analytical skill, and clarity of exposition to the causes of the Civil War in England, to the origins of the Industrial Revolution, to the questions of literacy, and to the history of the universities, in books of great power and vigor. He has also written with authority on medieval sculpture and eighteenth-century architecture. In all of his work one senses an almost feverish desire to master more and more fresh material. So a new major book by Lawrence Stone is always awaited with the most lively anticipation.
During the last decade, a new social history—one undreamed of by Trevelyan—has grown prodigiously: a history of birth, marriage, death, sex; of family relationships; of the role of the aged and the young within communities great and small. A multitude of subjects rarely touched on by historians of previous generations are now cluttered with active young historians. They delve into such arcane matters as homosexuality in Switzerland, breast-feeding in New England, coitus interruptus in Old England, swaddling in France, death not only in Venice but anywhere and everywhere. It is all fresh and exciting, and already the literature is immense.
Furthermore, immense sums are being poured into lavish computerized projects in the hope of settling statistically the problems of family size, age of marriage, the frequency of births, the age at death of children and adults, and the numbers in a household in seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century England. For this at least, there is evidence of a kind in bulk. But for the way the members of these families felt about each other or about their own fate, and about their hopes, their aspirations, their satisfactions and frustrations, the evidence is thin, slippery in nature, and scattered here, there, and everywhere in autobiographies, diaries, prayers, confessions, household books, and family correspondence.
Imaginative literature—plays, novels, and poetry—is another source, plentiful in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and a flood in the eighteenth. And finally there are medical treatises, the handbooks of etiquette and advice, sermons, the propagandists of educational theory or of political philosophy. Yet the more voluminous the evidence becomes, the less reliable it is, particularly when it derives from the world of the imagination or the realms of theory and exhortation. Probably family correspondence is one of the surer guides …