Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 May 2013
The ‘family’ has been consistently central to Keith Wrightson's ongoing interrogation of the interconnectedness of daily life with broader social trends in early modern England. English Society contains one of the most nuanced accounts of the practice of patriarchy in seventeenth-century English households, explaining how the complex bonds of authority, dependence and reciprocity between spouses and between parents and children contributed to the ‘enduring structures’ of the seventeenth century. Wrightson does not portray early modern family life as unchanging, however. While he rejects a unilinear model of change associated with narratives of modernisation, he remains sceptical of arguments that solely stress continuity. He has instead called for historians of early modern England to attend to the socially differentiated experience of familial relations as the material and cultural contexts in which they were conducted shifted to produce a ‘growing diversity of family experience’. This essay responds to that call with reference to a comparatively neglected aspect of early modern family life and male gendered identity: fatherhood. In particular, it probes the links between paternity and the social roles associated with fatherhood to argue that the former did not guarantee the latter, especially in cases of illegitimate birth. This was in part owing to demographic uncertainties but also to the uneven distribution of patriarchal dividends that accompanied the processes of social polarisation through which English society was remade in the early modern period.