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 monumental The Family, Sex and Marriage: England 1500–1800 (1977), in which the anecdotal method is supposedly rendered scholarly by the imposition of a remarkable framework. According to Stone, the Reformation terminated an era of relative personal and especially sexual freedom by introducing the “patriarchal” family with its emphasis on restriction, discipline, and obedience to the head of the household. Family relationships lacked all marital or parental affection until the rise of “affective individualism” in the course of the eighteenth century. Before then, despotic fathers oppressed their wives and repressed their children, using both in commercial transactions called marriage. Stone was not the first to take this line, but he gave it substance, theory, and the trappings of learning. In this kind of family history, scholars are hard at work avenging themselves on their fathers, paying homage to feminist movements, and in general blaming all the sins of the world on wicked men who used religion to justify their sadism. The enemy is the puritan, and among white Anglo-Saxons father apparently always was a puritan.

The jargon of liberation—women’s, children’s, and at times even animals’—seeks its legitimation in the denigration of our ancestors; the current and furious hostility to “the nuclear family” (a well-chosen term with quite misleading but heavily accented overtones) finds comfort in a history of the family that denies that comfort, joy, contentment, and satisfaction were ever to be found in it. Revealingly, this concentration on the family in the past coincides with present-day endeavors to remove the family from existence. The historical family is presented as the cause of all personal unhappiness: it prevented people from achieving what is now called their full potential. Only a chauvinist, of course, would wonder whether that potential, when fulfilled, is always all that impressive. Is it the case that the removal of family discipline has made people happier? In this historiography, women “imprisoned” in home and kitchen and nursery appear, as nothing but hapless victims: has emancipation produced contentment? Is there any significance in the fact that liberation movements are strongest in the United States, whose family practices even a century ago shocked Europeans by the undisciplined freedom they allowed their children?


Those, I know, are improper questions to ask; they go counter to the liberal consensus of the day and shall therefore be expunged unanswered. However, the historian should be allowed to ask whether that black picture of private lives in earlier generations tells the truth. Was the past populated by women without rights and aching for rebellion, by children forced to kiss the rod and to marry under orders? And was, as Stone maintains, Protestantism responsible for forcing the straitjacket of the loveless patriarchal family upon its helpless victims?

It has not proved difficult to undermine one main thesis of Stone’s book: ever since it appeared, other historians (for instance, Alan Macfarlane, Nicholas Canny, and Roger Hainsworth) have been inundating us with examples of husbands and wives who manifestly loved each other dearly, with parents deeply and affectionately committed to their children from birth to adulthood and beyond, even with children who, in a most unnatural manner, adored their parents. And all these people did all these unpleasing things in the dark ages of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when religion ruled and before enlightenment came to shed its rays of affection from the lantern of Rousseau (and the practice of the Jacobins). Nevertheless, the weight of Stone’s book, and the climate of the day, continue to exercise their effect: the notion that in those centuries the family equaled exploitation and tyranny remains well entrenched. The argument is no truer than its evidence, which is selective and slanted, but it can level the same charge at the evidence produced for refutation.

Even if “affective individualism” (love among the people) has a demonstrably longer history than the theory supposed, the allegation remains that it was the Protestant religion that created the worst sort of repressive family. This allegation has now moved an eminent historian of the Reformation to reasoned protest. Steven Ozment leaves us in no doubt that his book is in great part intended to combat the effects of Stone’s thesis, though except here and there in footnotes he avoids specific battles and rightly attends to history rather than historians. He argues that the Reformation was indeed what many of its propagandists claimed for it at the time—a liberation for women, no longer forced into nunneries, spinsterhood, or concubinage, and for children, now given proper attention as young human beings with their lives before them and needing guidance. Especially it offered liberation to the men of the cloth for whom the opportunity to create in their families microcosms of godly communities replaced the misery of an unmaintainable celibacy. The Protestant family, so runs this thesis, amounted to a pious humanizing of relationships. Ozment orders his materials under four heads: in defense of marriage, husbands and wives, the bearing of children, and the raising of children. Thus he encompasses all the themes that a discussion of marriage should involve.

In the first section we learn about the Reformation’s endeavor to regulate human sexual instincts in the orderly framework of properly conducted marriages, in contrast to the medieval proliferation of clandestine and often temporary unions; with this went a sensible simplification of the obstacles to marriage posed by consanguinity, so absurdly complicated by the medieval canon law, often (though Ozment does not say it) for the sake of increasing the papal revenue obtained from dispensations. The second section makes it plain that the man’s position as head of the household did not free him from obligatory duties or make him a despot. On the contrary, a good and loving wife could insist on having a good and loving husband; she would find public opinion as well as authority supporting her against neglect, ill-treatment, and even contempt. Popular literature lampooned both wastrel husbands and faithless wives, both wife-beaters and shrews. Despite the inequalities built into a world view which saw Eve as derived from Adam, the Protestant family, we are shown, created effectual equality between husband and wife.

The third section rather revels in the medical details of pregnancy and childbirth and might be bypassed by the squeamish, but it too adds to the picture of affection in the family which Ozment believes to be the truth. And the last gets away from the tyrannical father (corporal punishment, we are told, was used as little as possible) to display the interrelationships of protective and gentle parents with gradually civilized children who commonly were left free to choose their own mates. Love made many marriages, and the concern for profitable connections and the avoidance of wrong husbands owed much to the parents’ anxiety for their offsprings’ well-being.


It is, on the whole, a sunny scene, darkened only by the ever-present threat of illness and early death—a threat which itself led to much preaching about the consolations to be found in shared lives. Ozment has no difficulty at all in showing that the many preachers and moralists who in sixteenth-century Germany wrote on the problems of marriage and childhood chose the side of virtue. Luther himself, while denying that marriage was a sacrament, became responsible for giving it the high respect that finds expression, for instance, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer: to him it was “an honorable estate”—a condition of life by entering which men and women could please God and gain His approval. Many of Luther’s pamphlets touch on the problems here discussed, and they always do so in a “liberal” way. The man who, to choose but one example, wrote an influential exhortation to parents enjoining them neither to force their children into marrying nor to hinder them from doing so quite evidently answered many of the charges leveled by such as Ariès and Stone. The Lutheran doctors recognized that marriages could fail and advocated easier, though not automatic, divorce. And in their teaching on the upbringing of children by love and care and very moderate discipline they learned much from Erasmus and more from experience—no signs of deliberate repression there.

Two possible points strike one in modification of this happy picture. In the first place, the combatants once again do not really meet head-on. Ozment employs evidence drawn from Lutheran Germany and hardly looks elsewhere; Stone really never steps outside an Anglo-Saxon world whose religion was predominantly Calvinist. Ozment tends to concentrate on the clergy, while Stone deals predominantly with the laity. It might be that in these matters Calvinist Puritanism dealt with people more harshly than Lutheranism; certainly Calvin and his leading followers did not share the earthy sensuality with which Luther infused his religion. It may be deeply significant that the denunciations of the patriarchal family draw heavily on American experience and on the darker corners of nineteenth-century evangelical practice. (Samuel Butler and Edmund Gosse, both of whom hated their fathers and told the world so, have much to answer for.) Moreover, it seems very likely that financial and dynastic motives played a smaller role in the marriages of German pastors and burghers than in those of the English landed classes: possibly this meant that the former led pleasanter and more relaxed lives.

Secondly, Ozment’s evidence comes overwhelmingly from the literature of instruction and exhortation, not from the testimony of actual experience. How safe is his argument that though we cannot be sure to what extent practice obeyed advice, “it would defy experience to believe that an age that wrote and taught so much about companionable marriage and the sharing of domestic responsibility utterly failed to practice what it preached”? It may not seem impossible that the flood of generous advice resulted precisely from the failure of people to behave in accordance with it. We know for certain that many town magistrates in Protestant Germany and Switzerland treated sexual misbehavior far more harshly than the preachers wished them to: maybe husbands needed to be told to be companionable to their wives because too often they merely oppressed and exploited them.

No simple answer can be given to these questions. It is a pity that Ozment has not tried harder to pin down actual behavior by collecting more evidence from such things as letters exchanged between husbands and wives. His one case study is somewhat inconclusive. This deals with the autobiographical writings of a citizen of Cologne, a Catholic (which in the context robs the story of an essential point). He certainly was a very “normal” being, neither macho nor masochist, much troubled about relations with women but generally respectful toward them. He married twice, but on each occasion a woman older than himself. Hermann von Weinsberg adds some interest to the story, but he cannot be treated as “typical” any more than can any other person. Accumulation of case studies carries better weight—especially in conflict with theories that are equally based on the anecdotal. It is clear that the attitudes of religious leaders do not bear out the charges that have been leveled against the Reformation by the dominant school of family history: in this, the essence of his contention, Ozment has made his case. It is not clear whether these leaders were describing reality or prescribing against what was actually going on: to that extent the dominant school will be able to ride over him.

They will be very unwise if they do so. Ozment may not have found time or room to document actual behavior, but (as was said above) a great deal of that sort of work has in any case already been done. The much-used diary of an English puritan parson, Ralph Josselin, demonstrates the almost obsessional love he bore his wife and his children; he does not fit the stereotype at all. The letters that Thomas Knyvett wrote to his wife in the 1630s and 1640s are awash with the deep conjugal love and respect that this very ordinary country gentleman felt for one whom he manifestly treated as an equal. That fiercely masculine character, Thomas Wentworth, earl of Strafford, in whom no one has ever found sentimentality, was completely prostrated by his wife’s death. The recent publication of the early-Tudor Lisle letters astonished many by the evidence it presented for the independence of women and the true affection felt in that extraordinary household in the midst of what is widely regarded as an exceptionally harsh and materialist society. And so forth. Of course there were bad husbands and selfish wives, ill-treated children and tyrannous parents, but they no more constituted a norm than they do today.

Some of us still remember the family that emerged from the Reformation and could be seen predominant, in England as well as in Germany and France, until at least a half-century ago—a family in which fathers did indeed reign but mothers ruled, and in which the relationship between the generations was solid enough to overcome the inevitable ructions of adolescence with its search for independence. Like all human institutions it had its faults and could on occasion go disastrously wrong. As a rule, however, it provided fulfillment for both parents and a safe start in life for their progeny, and among the religious it often had that quasi-sacramental quality which Luther accorded to it. No doubt it was bound at some time to pass away, though at the present it must remain very doubtful whether its passing has bettered anything. Depending on his personal view of life, the historian may dislike it as smug and bourgeois, object to it as too constrainingly conditioning, distrust it as inimical to much freedom and potential development.

In doing any of these things he takes his stand with the present and should remain aware of the standards of that very different society which he presumes to judge. Above all, he should not traduce historical reality under a banner inscribed with one of the many slogans of the later twentieth century. An age that accepts single-parent families, homosexual unions, total freedom for children, rights only where no duties are discharged, and all the other preferences of a bewildered generation should not try to justify its faiths by distorting those of the past. In the experience of the vast majority of men and women, especially in Protestant countries, the family as it existed from the Reformation to about the middle of the present century was on the whole a good institution—neither too oppressive nor too repressive, not a tyranny but a comforting haven. It also now deserves to be left in peace. Even in social history there are more interesting topics to talk about.

This Issue

June 14, 1984