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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: March 2021

5 - Family Dynasties: Success and Failure



This chapter analyses the successes and failures of Cambridge family dynasties. The evidence is derived from the family profiles presented in the preceding chapter and in Casson, Casson, Lee and Phillips, Business and Community, Appendix 14. The chapter begins by considering the concepts of success and failure. Two main dimensions of success are distinguished, namely wealth and reputation. The wealth of a family is assessed from its property portfolio, while its reputation is assessed by using the indicators of civic office holding, a responsible job in a prestigious institution and the title of Master.

Different family characteristics are then identified: these include the age of the family (the number of generations that it can be traced back), its size (the average number of people in each generation), gender balance (the ratio of brothers to sisters in a given generation), sources of income (trade, royal service, etc), philanthropic activity (gifts to charitable institutions) and vulnerability to debt, crime and litigation. Each of these family characteristics can be derived from the family profiles.

The chapter then explores whether certain types of family were more successful than others. Some characteristics emerge as particularly important; source of income, for example, was very important, while gender balance was not. Overall, the evidence from Cambridge suggests that there were a number of key resources to which families needed to gain access in order to be successful. These resources were both economic and social; they included the skills to work in various industries and occupations, membership of social networks where useful contacts could be made and the ability to manage property portfolios efficiently. Families did not need to have access to all of these resources, but they did require access to some of them, and the more of them they accessed the more successful they seem to have been.

Families faced various risk factors. In many respects medieval life was subject to greater risks than modern life, and so risk management was very important for medieval families. Some risks were external to the family, such as wars, taxes and diseases, but others were internal, such as sibling rivalry and disputes over inheritance, which could lead to a general lack of family cohesion.

The analysis in this chapter suggests a trade-off involving size of family.