Skip to main content Accessibility help

Family, kinship and collectivity as systems of support in pre-industrial Europe: a consideration of the ‘nuclear-hardship’ hypothesis

  • Peter Laslett


  • An abstract is not available for this content so a preview has been provided below. Please use the Get access link above for information on how to access this content.



Hide All


1 The clearest exposition of the phrase will be found in Smith, James E., ‘Widowhood and ageing in traditional English society’, Ageing and Society 4 (1984), 439.

2 Smith, Richard M., ‘Some issues concerning families and their property in rural England 1250–1800’, in Smith, Richard M. ed., Land, kinship and life-cycle (Cambridge, 1984) 73.

3 Laslett, Peter, Family life and illicit love in earlier generations (Cambridge, 1977) 22–3; Wall, Richard, ‘Regional and temporal variations in English household structure from 1650’, in Hobcraft, John and Rees, Philip eds., Regional demographic development (London, 1977) 89113. Extended households in the nomenclature used here are those in which coresiding relatives do not make up a further family. If they do compose a further family, the household is termed ‘multiple’: complex households are those which are either extended or multiple, whilst ‘solitary’ and ‘no family’ households are self-explanatory.

4 Work on the structure of households in a northern Chinese village in the eighteenth century being undertaken at Cambridge by Zhongwei Zhao of the Institute of Population, University of Peking. On welfare and the complex household, see Chapter VIII of Laslett, Britain, be your age!, a book in course of publication. For Kenya in 1983 see Khasiani, S. A., ‘The role of the family in meeting the needs of the ageing population in Kenya’, Genus 43 (1987) 12, 103120. Khasiani makes the conventional assumption that it is ‘modernisation’ which has brought about the plight of the elderly, but he refers to no evidence on the situation before ‘modernisation’.

5 Laslett, , Family life and illicit love, 34, 43–5, 164–5; Hajnal, John, ‘Two kinds of pre-industrial household formation system’, in Wall, Richard, Robin, Jean and Laslett, Peter eds., Family forms in historic Europe (Cambridge, 1983) 92–9; Wall, Richard, ‘The age at leaving home’, Journal of Family History 3 (1978) 181202; Kussmaul, Ann, Servants in husbandry in early-modern England (Cambridge, 1981), esp. 74–5. For the relationship of life-cycle service to welfare in Iceland, where servants were more numerous than in any other country, see a study by Loftur Guttormsson, of the University of Iceland, forthcoming in the Italian journal Quaderni Storici, and on service as an institution see Laslett's contribution to that issue.

6 Laslett, Peter, ‘Family and household as work group and kin group: areas of traditional Europe compared’, in Robin, Wall and Laslett, eds., Family forms, 513–63.

7 These principles were first formulated in Laslett, Peter, ‘The family and the collectivity’, Sociology and Social Research 63 (1979) 432–42. They have been extended since then; see Laslett, Peter, ‘Demographic and microstructural history in relation to human adaptation: reflections on newly established evidence’, in Ortner, D. J., ed., How humans adapt: a biocultural odyssey (Washington D.C., 1983), 356–8; Laslett, Peter, ‘The family as a knot of individual interests’, in Netting, R. McC., Wilk, R. R., and Arnould, E. J. eds., Households: comparative and historical studies of the domestic group (Berkeley, 1984), esp. 368–74; Laslett, Peter, ‘Familiale Unabhangigkeit im Spannungs-feld zwischen Familien- und Einzelinteressen’, in Borscheid, Peter and Teuteberg, Hans J. eds., Ehe, Liebe, Tod (Münster, 1983) 150–69.

8 Laslett, , ‘Family and household as work group and kin group’, 556–60.

9 Czap, Peter, ‘“A large family: the peasant's greatest wealth”: Serf households in Mishino, Russia, 1814–1858’, in Robin, Wall and Laslett, eds., Family forms 105–51; Laslett, , ‘Family and household as work group and kin group’, 517; Laslett, , Family life and illicit love, 22–3. Now that work has begun on Chinese household structure in the past, an even greater contrast may establish itself.

10 Laslett, , ‘Family and household as work group and kin group’, 524; Morassi, Luciana, ‘Strutture familiari in un comune dell'Italia settentrionale alia fine del secolo XIX’, Genus 35 (1979) 197217; (for Central Italy) Kertzer, David I., Family life in Central Italy, 1880–1910 (New Brunswick N. J., 1984). For general overviews of recent advances in the study of the Italian family, see Barbagli, Marzio, Sotto lo stesso tetto: Mutamenti della famiglia in Italia dal XV al XX secolo (Bologna, 1984), esp. 29262; Barbagli, Marzio, ‘Sistemi di formazione della famiglia in Italia’, Boletin de la Asociacion de Demografia Historica 5 (1978) 80127, and Kertzer, D. with Bretell, C., ‘Advances in Italian and Iberian family history’, Journal of Family History 12 (1–3) (1987), 87120.

11 Barbagli, , Sotto lo stesso tetto, 4850. Share cropping and complex households have been very closely associated in other accounts of Italian social structure.

12 Wall, Richard, ‘Introduction’, in Robin, Wall and Laslett, eds, Family forms 634.

13 Czap, , ‘The peasant's greatest wealth’, 141; see also Czap, Peter, ‘The perennial multiple family household, Mishino, Russia, 1782–1858’, Journal of Family History 1 (1982) 18. Mitterauer and Kagan describe and discuss the complex Russian household in a different context, showing that it was not confined to serfs on the land, but was found among those who worked in ‘factories’ as well. They go on to compare the Russian household system with those of Austria and central Europe. See Mitterauer, Michael and Kagan, Alexander, ‘Russian and central European family structures: a comparative view’, Journal of Family History 1 (1982) 103–31.

14 Czap, , ‘The perennial multiple family household’, 24.

15 Ibid., 22. The number of kin available to an individual depends upon the characteristics of the demographic régime under which he or she lives; see below, section IV.

16 Ibid.; Todd, Emmanual, ‘Seven peasant communities in pre-industrial Europe: a comparative study of French, Italian and Swedish rural parishes (18th and early 19th centuries)’ (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge University, 1976) 144; Kertzer, , Family life in Central Italy, 36–7, and especially chapter 6, 131–161, on the life-course of share-croppers living in complex households as compared with that of others. This remarkable study provides unique information on such topics, Kertzer, Family life chapter 7, ‘Kinsmen beyond the household’.

17 For the domestic groups of the Baltic states, see Plakans, Andrejs, Kinship in the past: an anthropology of European family life 1500–1900 (Oxford, 1984), 5275; Plakans, Andrejs, ‘The familial contexts of early childhood in Baltic serf society’, in Robin, Wall and Laslett, eds., Family forms, 167206; Plakans, Andrejs, ‘Peasant farmsteads and households in the Baltic littoral 1797’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 17 (1975) 235. Plakans' studies have made these domestic conditions the best known of those outside the simple-family régimes characteristic of so much of Western Europe.

18 The issue of how and why southern Italian, Spanish and Portuguese household patterns resembled those of north-western Europe is very complex and still remains largely an open question. Detailed information on household patterns in these parts of southern Europe will be found in volume III of Asociacion de Demografia Historica and Societa Italiana di Demografia Storica, Proceedings of the first Hispano, Luso and Italian Congress of Historical Demography (Barcelona, 1987), and in Kertzer and Bretell (see note 10).

19 For discussion of differing opinions of the strength of kinship in England, and for kinship, turnover and migration, see Laslett, ‘La parenté en chiffres’, cited in endnote 24, and compare the statements on the subject in Kertzer, Family life.

20 Ogilvie, Sheilagh, ‘Corporation and regulation in rural industry: woollen weaving in Wiirtemberg 1590–1740’ (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge University, 1985), 270–7; Goerke, Michael, ‘What made household sizes different? A case study of family forms in Spenge, Westphalia, in the mid-nineteenth century’ (unpublished paper, 1987, available in the library of the ESRC Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure). There are indications, however, that at the lowest social levels in England interaction with kin, and even the disposition to co-reside with them, were commoner than among those somewhat better off, though this may be owing to some extent to the actions of poor-law authorities. See Wall, Richard, ‘The household: demographic and economic changes in England, 1650–1970’, in Robin, Wall and Laslett, eds., Family forms 505, 509–10. More recently, Thomas Sokoll has suggested that the households of the poor could be larger and more complex than the households of the non-poor and that many of the lists of paupers that appear to indicate small pauper households do not in fact record households, but only families and individuals for whom the Poor-Law authorities were responsible. See Sokoll, Thomas, ‘The pauper household: small and simple?’, Ethnologia Europaea 17 (1987) 2542.

21 See Laslett, Peter, ‘Introduction’, in Laslett, Peter and Wall, Richard eds., Household and family in past time (Cambridge, 1972), 19 and references there. The Le Play school of research seems to have assumed rather than demonstrated such welfare-directed behaviour on the part of heads of stem-family households.

22 Wall, , ‘Introduction’, 24–7. For an excellent discussion of kin support on emigration, see Cressy, David, Coming over (Cambridge, 1987), especially Chaper 11.

23 Smith, Richard M., ‘Transactional analysis and the measurement of institutional determinants of fertility: a comparison of communities in present day Bangladesh and pre-industrial English communities’, in Hall, Valerie ed., Micro-approaches to demographic change, in course of publication.

24 An article by Peter Laslett, with the collaboration of James E. Smith, is scheduled for an issue of the French journal of social history, Annales E.S.C., probably to appear early in 1988 under the title La parenté en chiffres. Table 1 above consists in extracts from the four sets of CAMSIM results appearing in that article, which contains a full discussion of kinship and kin support as a subject of historical enquiry, along with a description of the CAMSIM technical methods. All calculations are for the uterine kin of a female individual, which is why cousins in the table would have to be doubled to give the total of cousins on both sides. A larger study in English with many more sets of figures and further expansion of the topic, especially of the limitations of kinship as to welfare, is planned for early publication. References for this developing subject are given in the Annales article, but see especially Bongaarts, John, Burch, Thomas and Wachter, Kenneth eds., Family demography, methods and their applications (Oxford, 1987), particularly the contribution of James E. Smith ‘Computer simulation of kin sets and kin counts’.

25 Woolf, S. J., The poor in Western Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (London, 1986) 161, 163.

26 King, Gregory, ‘Natural and political observations and conclusions upon the state and condition of England 1696’, 48–9, reprinted in Laslett, Peter ed., The earliest classics (Farnborough, 1973). It should be noted, however, that recent research revises King's 1,300,000 down to circa 1,020,000 (18.5 per cent): see Lindert, Peter H. and Williamson, Jeffrey G., ‘Revising England's social tables 1688–1867’, Explorations in Economic History 19 (1982) 385408.

27 See the definition by Herlihy, David and Klapsich-Zuber, Christiane, The Tuscans and their families: a study of the Florentine Catasto of 1427 (New Haven and London, 1985) 19.

28 See the contribution by John Henderson to this issue of Continuity and Change, which argues that the sums granted to the poor by confraternities in late-medieval Florence often represented little more than token payments in monetary terms.

29 Keith Snell, for example, has shown that payments under the poor law to families headed by lone parents in the Essex parish of Terling in the early nineteenth century could exceed the average earnings of male-headed families. See Snell, Keith, ‘Lone-parent families and the Welfare State: past and present’, Continuity and Change 2 (1987) 408. In the late nineteenth century, however, according to David Thomson the poor law authorities shifted the burden of maintaining the old on to their ‘families and friends’: see Thomson, David, ‘Provision for the elderly in England, 1830–1908’ (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge University, 1980) 350.

30 King, , ‘Natural and political observations’, 48–9. The revisions suggested by recent writers (see Note 26) do not affect this issue.

31 The sentences quoted come from a judgement made by King in the last years of his life in 1710/11, and are discussed in Laslett, , ‘Gregory King, Robert Malthus and the origins of English social realism’, Population Studies, 39 (1985), 351–62. The point made there is the superior realism of King in recognising the importance of transfers for the working of English society.

32 Such policies may be reconstituted from Sokoll, ‘The pauper household’, and from Jean Robin, ‘The relief of poverty in mid-nineteenth-century Colyton’ (unpublished paper available in the library of the ESRC Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure).

33 These cases are detailed in Laslett, , Family life and illicit love, 60, 180.

34 For these principles see Laslett, , Family life and illicit love, 177; cf. Wall, Richard, ‘Work welfare and the family: an illustration of the adaptive family economy’, in Bonfield, Lloyd, Smith, Richard M. and Wrightson, Keith eds., The world we have gained: histories of population and social structure (Oxford, 1986) 282–9. A solvent person could not even be made to contribute to the upkeep of his distressed step-parent because the relationship was not a natural one.

35 Rowntree, R. Seebohm, Poverty: a study of town life (London, 1901) 171.

36 Smith, , ‘Some issues concerning families and their property’, 74–8, 84–5; Wales, Tim, ‘Poverty, poor relief and the life-cycle: some evidence from seventeenth-century Norfolk’, in Smith, ed., Land, kinship and life-cycle, 351404; W. Newman Brown, ‘The receipt of poor relief and family situation: Aldenham, Hertfordshire, 1630–90’, Ibid. 405–22.

37 The demographic implications of these facts are worth pondering. See Laslett, Peter, ‘King, Malthus’, Population Studies (1985) 361, where it is concluded that an appreciable proportion of all our English ancestors must have spent their earliest years in families aided by the collectivity. Cf. also Sokoll, ‘The pauper household’.

38 Richard Smith has sketched a hypothetical but typical family economy whose income depended upon expending its own labour. He reckoned its inputs and outgoings from its formation, when the head married at age 27 and formed a new household, until his death at age 69. Assuming the birth and survival of four children, his modelled familial economy is in surplus for 7 years after marriage (head's age 27–33), in deficit for the following 13 years (34–46), in surplus for the 14 years until the head attained the age of 60, and in deficit until his death. At its end the little society was cumulatively in debt, to the collectivity no doubt. See Smith, , ‘Some issues concerning families and their property’, 6873.

39 For an illustration of how this could work in practice, see the case of Mary Driscoll, a pauper of Colyton but living in the Bedminster Union in 1878, The case is documented in Robin, , ‘The relief of poverty’, 24.

40 Laslett, , ‘Household and family as work group and kin group’, 517–31, and other studies in Wall, Robin and Laslett eds., Family forms. To inter-regional, or inter-provincial variations (where ‘north-western Europe’, for example, is a ‘province’), must be added variations within regions, areas, or countries. It seems that Italy of all modern, European nation-states (with perhaps Hungary as a rival) has had the most pronounced local variability, and probably possesses the best relevant historical data also. England has apparently had the least (though some) variability, and in many respects, especially as to lists of inhabitants, has the least useful data as well. Cf. Asociación de Demografía Histórica and Società Italiana de Demografia Storica. Proceedings of the first congress, and (for England), Wall, ‘Regional and temporal variations’.

41 For this phrase see Laslett, , ‘The family as a knot of individual interests’, 362–4, and Demographic and microstructural history in relation to human adaptation’, 355–7, two related expositions of this theory. The second context is closely related to the theme of the present essay. Rules of this kind are quite regularly obeyed without any evident social sanctions maintaining them, rules of household formation being an obvious example.

42 See Wall, , ‘Introduction’, 30–4, for the judgment that structural provision is to be expected, and also Gaunt's chapter in the same volume. My own judgment will be found in Britain, be your age!, chapter VIII.

43 Wrigley, E. A. and Schofield, R. S., The population history of England 1541–1871: a reconstruction (London, 1981) 528–9; Laslett, , Family life and illicit love, 174–97.

44 Smith, , ‘Some issues concerning families and their property’, 78; Wales, , ‘Poverty, poor relief and the life-cycle’, 360–4, 395404. It is an interesting question whether the official pensioning of the needy elderly had the effect of reducing the informal actions of the collectivity, in neighbourly assistance given ‘at the door’, or in response to beggars not known to the donor.

45 Smith, , ‘Some issues concerning families and their property’, 74.

46 Bonfield, Lloyd, ‘Normative rules and property transmission: reflections on the link between marriage and inheritance in early modern England’, in Smith, Bonfield and Wrightson, eds., The world we have gained, 155–76. Compare also Smith, ed., Land, kinship and the life-cycle, chapter 1, especially 38–62 and references.

47 On the zadruga see Hammel, E. A., ‘The zadruga as process’, in Laslett, and Wall, eds., Household and family in past time, 335–73.

48 Barbagli, , Sotto lo stesso tetto, 5060.

59 For a comparison of the residential arrangements of the elderly in pre-industrial and modern society, see Wall, Richard, ‘The residential isolation of the elderly: a comparison over time’, Ageing and Society 4 (1984) 487–9. On divisions of the life course, see Laslett, Peter, ‘The emergence of the Third Age’, Ageing and Society 7 (1987) 134–59.

50 Laslett, Peter, The world we have lost — further explored, 3rd edition. (London, 1983) 133.

* Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Family, kinship and collectivity as systems of support in pre-industrial Europe: a consideration of the ‘nuclear-hardship’ hypothesis

  • Peter Laslett


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.