Linda Mitchell

title.none: Neel, ed., Medieval Families (Linda Mitchell)

identifier.other: baj9928.0509.008 05.09.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Linda Mitchell, Alfred University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Neel, Carol, ed. Medieval Families: Perspectives on Marriage, Household, and Children. Series: Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching, vol. 40. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004. Pp. 436. $75.00 0-8020-3606-6. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.09.08

Neel, Carol, ed. Medieval Families: Perspectives on Marriage, Household, and Children. Series: Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching, vol. 40. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004. Pp. 436. $75.00 0-8020-3606-6. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Linda Mitchell
Alfred University

This collection of "classic" essays seeks to introduce readers to the history of research on the notion of family in the Middle Ages, from the 1970s to the mid 1990s. Neel has, however, chosen to focus on some very specific topics, rather than provide a comprehensive overview of the range of issues in which historians of the medieval family have engaged in that time. The topics under discussion include definitions of the family, sexuality within families and how it relates to both definitions of consanguinity and sexual abuse, and responses to the theses of Philippe Aries and Laurence Stone that "sentiment" within families developed only in the early modern period. Many topics that form a significant part of the corpus of historical study on the medieval family are covered here only as something of an afterthought or as tangential to the issues raised: the role of widows in both natal and marital families; relationships among multiple generations within families; criminal activity within families; in-laws and godparents; and familial patronage of the church. Moreover, Neel has chosen to be far more geographically specific than comprehensive in her volume. The majority of essays concern the Mediterranean world, especially the city-states of late medieval Italy, with thin coverage, indeed, of the British Isles, France, Norman Sicily, Spain, Scandinavia, and the Holy Roman Empire. As a result, if a curious student interested in foundational approaches to medieval family history were to read this volume, she would have a skewed view not only of the legal and social issues at stake, but also of regional studies on the topic. The majority of work published on the medieval family in the last thirty years has been, in fact, focused on northwestern Europe, not the Mediterranean.

Beginning with Mary Martin McLaughlin's 1974 essay, "Survivors and Surrogates: Children and Parents from the Ninth to the Thirteenth Centuries," and ending with Steven A. Epstein's "The Medieval Family: A Place of Refuge and Sorrow," published in 1996, the eleven essays (plus Neel's introduction) introduce some of the most significant "bright lights" of medieval family history, but leave out others whose work has also been instrumental in presenting family history as a legitimate topic: David Herlihy (but not Christiane Klapisch-Zuber), Diane Owen Hughes (but not Joel Rosenthal or Scott Waugh), Michael M. Sheehan (but not Sue Sheridan Walker, Thomas Kuhn, or any other legal historians who focus on the family), Judith M. Bennett (but not Barbara Hanawalt or Suzanne Fonay Wemple), John Boswell (but not Angeliki Laiou or Alice Mary Talbot), Pamela Sheingorn, Michael Goodich, Kathryn Gravdal (but not Theodore John Rivers or--even more oddly--Georges Duby), and Sally McKee. In addition, the emphasis in the volume seems to be on non-aristocratic populations and the later Middle Ages, even though the richness of studies of aristocratic families and of the Central Middle Ages is exceptional, even for the early years of publication, the 1970s and 1980s. Neel's choices thus seem idiosyncratic rather than comprehensive.

The bibliography Neel includes at the end of the volume is equally idiosyncratic. Although it includes some of the authors not included in the volume, such as Barbara Hanawalt, it leaves out important essay collections and significant individual articles alike (Theodore Evergates' Aristocratic Women in Medieval France comes to mind, as does Louise Mirrer's Upon My Husband's Death: Widows in the Literature and Histories of Medieval Europe). It seems odd to include such a brief bibliography in the volume, one that contains such lacunae, instead of providing a bibliography focused specifically on issues such as incest and the exogamy/endogamy debate that are privileged by the essays in the volume, or one that is far more comprehensive and useful, or eschewing the exercise altogether.

It is not all that easy to comment on the essays themselves, since they are not original to this volume and are all recognized as fundamentally important to the historiography of medieval family history. The collection hangs together nicely, especially since the main topics were consistent among all the essays. Certainly, it was fascinating to re-read some of the "classics" in medieval family history, and to marvel at how far we have come in the last thirty years in discussing the way families interact and operate. We have also come a long way in our use of sources: the naivete of some of the conclusions (especially those of the earliest articles), such as the assumption of direct relationships between romance literature and reality, of legal theory and actual practice, and of the reliability of legal records such as wills and contracts as accurate indicators of personal interrelations, was instructive. In her introduction, which is carefully and nicely crafted and, indeed, one of the most helpful pieces in the volume, Neel does take pains to mention when an author included in the collection has changed his or her mind about the topic at hand, as Judith Bennett has done over the years. It would have been even more helpful for younger scholars had Neel chosen to write brief introductions for each essay in the collection, perhaps to identify how the perspectives have changed since the publication first appeared. As someone who is constantly fighting students' tendencies to choose to read older pieces, which are more easy to find in college libraries and online databases (such as JSTOR) instead of more recent work, which requires a bit more concentrated digging, I would be worried that the population to whom this volume is addressed--young scholars who are just beginning to explore the topic of medieval families--would assume that the conclusions presented represent the last word on the topic. Finally, although the volume is attractively presented, one quibble is that it was rather sloppily copy-edited, with the McLaughlin essay in particular marred by the kinds of errors a careful copy editor would have caught.

To summarize, this is a useful volume in the MART series, if one that needs to be supplemented by a host of other essay collections in order to understand the whole range of work on the medieval family completed in the last thirty years.