When early modern people spoke of their ‘family’ they meant in the first instance the household: those who co-resided under the authority of a household head. The household was central to early modern domestic, social, economic, political and religious life. It was a unit of residence, affective bonds and authority, as well as one of consumption and production, essential to the functioning of the early modern economic and social world. Legal and social thought in many ways regarded the household, rather than the individual, as the main economic entity. Not all household members were connected by birth or marriage, notwithstanding the scholarly focus on the nuclear family. Non-related residents, there by contract, such as apprentices and servants, were also a fundamental element of the early modern household economies and an integral part of family structures. Households typically were bastions of authority, structured by hierarchical differentiation. A member's role was predicated upon basic presumptions regarding the proper place of men, women, children and youths in society, and thus would differ by gender and age.
A household was also the setting for the most intimate personal relationships and the formation of identity. Early modern individuals could not avoid familial labels. Women who came before the authorities were described as ‘spinster’, ‘wife’ or ‘widow’. Lady Grace Mildmay's epitaph in 1621 depicted her as a ‘chaste maid, wife and widow’. Even men, more commonly seen by historians as being categorised according to their occupation, were described in familial terms. William Hoar, ‘a dutifull child, a tender fathr, And a most loving husband’, was accidentally killed by a musket shot on Lady Day 1679. The ubiquity of these designations testifies to the importance of the household in early modern consciousness, conceptually and materially. Individuals were identified according to familial categories, as well as being secured and connected by domestic ties.
The concept of the family, though, as well as the make-up and culture of any one unit, was constantly changing. A family was not so much allotted – that is given at birth – as continuously created, as members joined or left and intimate bonds were established or broken. Newly married couples quickly added children to the home. The latter in turn would start to leave the natal unit from the mid teens on.