Happy Families

When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe

by Steven Ozment
Harvard University Press, 238 pp., $17.50

Once upon a time, a man could bury his wife, and she her husband, in quiet confidence that that was the end of it. If the marriage lacked perfection, if it pulsated with sexual bliss, no one would ever hear any more about it. Once upon a time a conscientious father could wallop his disobedient child and, provided he prevented him or her from waxing autobiographical on paper, he would never have to answer for doing his duty. Only people who in life had attracted fame and power had cause to fear that their private lives would be dissected after their deaths; and fame and power, it is widely agreed, compensate for such comeuppance.

But things have changed. The dedicated social historian, second cousin to the tabloid journalist, now pursues even the obscure into parlor and bedroom. Tired eyes light up as details of sexual practices or malfunction rise from the record. Eager hands tremble as the veils drop from privacy. Unhappiness becomes a statistic in a graph. Men who said boo to the goose are pilloried. Women who had worked hard enough, bringing children into the world and raising them to manhood, now face the threat of posthumous analyses of their premarital pregnancies, their ages at marriage, and their rates of fertility. Centuries after the event, men of humble lives are called to account for their treatment of wives and children, so normal in their own day as to be then unworthy of comment but judged wholly unacceptable by censorious moderns. Prurience and disgust parade under the banner of social studies. The practice is known as family history, and it is riding high just now.

This fashionable exercise tends to come in one of two forms—analytical and anecdotal, or plodding and frivolous. The former concentrates on money: money leaves a record behind and is quantifiable. Thus we get such collections of studies as those edited by Peter Laslett and Richard Wall (Household and Family in Past Time, 1972) or Jack Goody and others (Family and Inheritance, 1976). The latter concentrates on misery, as in the much-admired study of childhood by Philippe Ariès, founder of a genre which diligently avoids historical accuracy in the service of a cause, or the unhistorically sociological effusions of Edward Shorter. Analytical family history reduces people to points on a chart; anecdotal family history responds to the human desire to discover other people worse off than oneself and also, in a curious way, satisfies the even more human urge to find a scapegoat for present discontents. Both, for fairly obvious reasons, like to draw in sex: one of the attractions of family history arises from the fact that a family can be created only by sexual intercourse. (A warning: another of the collections edited by Laslett, Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations, 1977, promises rather more than it performs.) Still, bastardy is a favorite theme: “Now God stand up for bastards.” Contraception is another.

All these strands came together in Lawrence Stone’s…

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