A holy case of divide and rule

The European Family

August 25, 2000

This book, as its subtitle states, is an historic-anthropological essay that aims to provide an overview of key evidence and theories concerning the constitution of family life in Europe from antiquity to the present day. It therefore can only cover schematically the huge terrain of its ambitious title.

Such historical accounts must inevitably rely on documentary materials. However, many sources of evidence concerning family life refer to regulatory codes, for example those imposed by the dominant institutions of church and state. As only an anthropologist can, Jack Goody properly admonishes his readers, asserting the dangers of making too many deductions about the practice of family life on the basis of evidence concerning how family life ought to be lived. Nonetheless, the imposition of rules about family life, notably exemplified by the Christian church, may tell us much about former practices. For example, in the 9th-century Charlemagne's insistence on making divorce more difficult alerts us to the fact that divorce was practised under early Christianity.

However, it is the particularities rather then the generalities of such discussions that many readers will find fascinating and thought provoking, while historians and sociologists will be more attuned to the theses and debates with which the author takes passing issue.

Contrary to common assumptions, the Christian church in earlier centuries did much to disrupt and weaken family ties and kin groups in order to secure the vested interests of the church. It acted so, Goody suggests, because the kin group's allegiance to Christianity could not then be counted on. For example, the ban on marriage between first cousins, which was once a common practice, was a strategy for preventing property from being concentrated "in the family".

A second example is the church's invention of godparenthood as a rival form of kinship competing with ties of consanguinity. The mandatory presence of godparents at children's baptisms signified their role in children's later life, not only in ensuring that they did not stray from the church but also that they did not relapse into earlier religions. By favouring the possibility of free choice in marriage partners, the church was able to countermand the power of a strong kin group that sought to maintain control over property and inheritance in arranging the marriages of its younger generation; this development is illustrated in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet when the friar marries the young couple in secret against the wishes of their two families. In a prohibition against widows engaging in the common practice of re-marriage with kin (typically the dead husband's brother), the church sought to prevent widows and their children from coming under the care of non-Christian husbands. A further reason was that the church sought to continue to benefit from the generous dispositions often exhibited by unmarried widows who made substantial gifts to the church. Moreover, without the burdens and risks of further child bearing, such rich widows might live to a ripe old age.

From the perspective of an anthropologist whose fieldwork was carried out in African societies, and as the writer of the classic text Death, Property and the Ancestors (1962), Goody unsurprisingly concludes by finding little evidence of anything unique about the European family per se. Moreover, he argues that no single European family form facilitated the development of capitalism. Certainly, if the definition of capitalism is widened to include proto-industrial production, distribution and trade, these developments, Goody declares, can be found in the East, as well as the West, where very different family forms prevail.

Rather, he views changes in European family life not as revolutionary but as a process of gradual, uneven social change, with as much variety occurring across social classes and regions as across countries.

The processes involved are several, with secularisation an important force for change, which Goody suggests has been underestimated by other writers. In the discussion of the later waves of family change that the book examines, the economy and the state have taken over from the powers of the church. Here he is less thought provoking and more conventional.

Yet Goody is to be congratulated for contesting the simplistic thesis that small nuclear families were functionally appropriate to capitalism through the encouragement of close ties of "effective individualism". In Goody's view, this is a highly idealised picture that fails to take account of the complexities of the past and the developments of the present, although in only 179 pages he cannot mount systematic evidence for his case.

Nuclear families are not unique to industrial and post-industrial societies and are embedded in wider, but often geographically dispersed groupings. It is timely to be reminded that particular families are linked in a chain over the generations, so that there has to be "an overlapping or articulation of attitudes and behaviour rather than sudden revolutionary shifts".

Goody's writing is always focused, concise to the point of economy, and never driven by a particular ideology or by political correctness. This is a book that stimulates the reader to take a long view of the family and one that counsels wisely against making generalisations and jumping to simple conclusions about the past. We would do well to take heed of such advice in thinking about family life in the present and in the future.

Julia Brannen is professor in the sociology of the family, Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.

The European Family: An Historic-Anthropological Essay

Author - Jack Goody
ISBN - 0 631 20156 4
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £19.99
Pages - 209

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