02.03.09, Fleming, Family and Household in Medieval England

Main Article Content

C. M. Woolgar

The Medieval Review baj9928.0203.009


Fleming, Peter. Family and Household in Medieval England. Social History in Perspective. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Pp. vi, 162. ISBN: 0-333-61078-4.

Reviewed by:
C. M. Woolgar
University of Southampton

Peter Fleming's volume is a welcome addition to the literature on the family and household and to the series Social History in Perspective, its second medieval volume. The series aims to provide in-depth studies and clear surveys of recent research in social, cultural and religious history for students. That has meant that this book is comparatively brief and the author readily admits that there is much more that could be said about the household as an economic unit, its physical environment, education and the wider political significance of the family. But its brevity is matched by its lucidity, a distinguished marshalling of evidence, sometimes contradictory and sometimes scanty, and a complex historiography.

Dr. Fleming has chosen to pivot the book on a discussion of marriage. Two substantial chapters focus on marriage making, and on the dissolution of marriage and its consequences. A third, shorter chapter looks at family life. All focus on England, not a Greater Britain; and all centre on the period from the Norman Conquest through to the Reformation, a timescale justified by the coherence brought by the development of marriage as an institution. The author devotes attention crucially to the fashioning of marriage in the two centuries after the Conquest; and for the last medieval centuries he exposes much of the consequences for the family of the legal frameworks that had been worked out.

The early Church had been ambivalent about the virtues of marriage and had largely been content to regard it as civil business; in fact, from an ecclesiastical point of view, even by the end of the first millennium, the notion of what constituted a valid marriage, and the place within it of sex, was one that would not find a ready answer. Combining elements from Hebrew tradition, of sex as a pollutant, with Stoic and Gnostic denials of sensory pleasure, the Church Fathers did not know what place to accord carnality, other than for the procreation of children. The stance of the Church changed in the eleventh century. In Anglo-Norman and Angevin England it largely took over marriage jurisdiction from the Crown and other secular authorities, leaving the latter restricted to questions of inheritance, a pattern that was repeated elsewhere in Europe. Dr Fleming believes that consumer demand played a part--that there was a demand for an ecclesiastical context for marriage; that heretics had taken the moral high ground of abstinence and that the Church's response was to accept sexual marriage, indeed to establish it as a sacrament. At the same time, it may have aimed to reform aspects of clerical behaviour, particularly in terms of abolishing marriage, or concubinage, for the clergy. He sees this as an essential part of the assertion of clerical power in lay activity in the twelfth century.

For these new powers to be effective, there had to be regulation, and one of the achievements of the twelfth-century Church was to put in place a corpus of law that covered marriage. By 1175, in England, it was agreed that marriage was established by an exchange of vows between man and woman, that witnesses were not essential, nor were the clergy and church ceremony. There were two forms of consent: present consent, that is, agreeing at that time to be married; and future consent, promising to do so at a later date, which would become a valid marriage if sexual intercourse took place subsequently.

At the same time as the Church's interest increased, English common and statute law began to pay much more attention to those aspects of the family that fell within its purview. The foremost interest of all was in preserving social stability and predictability. This led to the development and reinforcement of inheritance patterns for different types of property; the manipulation of legal forms, through wills, conveyances and settlements, to achieve optimum social benefits, for widows and children; the association of property with the family and with lineage--and are all covered in admirable detail.

Dr. Fleming then reviews recent work on a number of the key demographic questions against the background of Hajnal's European marriage pattern--a late age of first marriage, a small age difference between bride and groom, and a relatively large number of individuals who do not marry--looking at the arguments about family size and multipliers, contraception and infant mortality. He considers that the balance of research is now in favour of the establishment of the European pattern in England well in advance of the early modern period, as proposed by Hajnal, and that these conditions probably existed during the second half of the fourteenth century. This is of very great significance, not only socially, but also for the study of the economy of late medieval England. Fleming concludes that the pattern of postponing marriage continued after the disasters of the Black Death and later plagues; and that this, in turn, was responsible for holding back demographic growth until late in the fifteenth century.

One of the strengths of this book is that it accords fair discussion to all elements of society. The numbers of aristocracy and upper ranks of the gentry were minuscule in terms of the overall population. Yet they had a very different pattern of marriage--child marriage was not uncommon--and with important consequences. Perhaps they sought more guarantees in the transmission of property, as more was at stake in terms of wealth: the muniments of their properties record the lengths to which they were prepared to go to establish certainty in their conveyancing, to perpetuate their lineage, devising new methods of preserving their family interests.

How much choice did individuals have in marriage? The aristocracy and gentry were restricted by dynastic arrangements and the book has a useful discussion of marriage strategies in the different ranks of society, in towns and in the countryside; the transmission of information in the marriage market; the development of marriage settlements and the legal niceties of dower and dowries, jointure and freebench. A later age of marriage increased the possibility of owning or influencing the choice of partner. The Church supported freedom of choice, but was not averse to stating the arguments of peers and parents per contra--although at the end of the day, as Margery Paston discovered, her freedom to choose as her husband the family's land agent, Richard Calle, might be sustained by sheer determination.

Dr. Fleming looks at the forms of marriage and their consequences. The Church sought a threefold pattern to the process (a process, rather than just an event): betrothal, that is, the exchange of vows of future consent; the publication of banns; and the blessing. There were secular accompaniments to the last: an exchange of vows of present consent and an endowment of property or goods at the church door. The Church's late presence in matrimony meant that there was ground to be made up, a rival tradition of marriage, based largely on the same premiss of a free and uncoerced exchange of vows, a practice the Church might regard as clandestine, but which was in fact frequently carried out openly. There is probably much more to be said here. One of the problems with the study of marriage is that these traditions and customary practices were not systematically recorded and are only known to us obliquely through the records of the Church. But even with much better documented aristocratic marriages there are aspects of customary practice that would bear further investigation, including ritual bathing and the bride's uprising. Secular courts also tended to act against clandestine marriage, in that they did not recognise these unions as creating rights to property and marriage.

The discussion of family life raises many questions of interest. Was there affection in marriage, true love? Was love distrusted in elite circles because of the amount of property riding on the event? Were consorts selected for their common interest in property, which would enable them to manage it in the absence of the other party? The emphasis on courtly love may have tended to undermine marital fidelity. Much more might have been said about adultery outside the upper classes. Peter Idley's "Instructions to his son," quoted to effect elsewhere, have for example the monitory tale of the flitch of Dunmow (ll. 2197-2217). The review of the family goes on to encompass discipline, relations between parents and children, wet- nurses, adolescents leaving home and the resulting exogamous patterns of marriage, servants and the position of kin, retirement and the care of the elderly.

Family life came to an end usually with the death of one or more parents. Dr. Fleming gives a scholarly survey of the legal consequences: the rights of widows and widowers in different communities; wardship; the manipulation of inheritance. In days of thrusting ambition, it is good to note the importance of downward mobility, of younger sons marrying into lower social groups. The consequence, that there was never an exclusive noble caste in England, but a nobility connected with the gentry, with the towns and even with the upper ranks of the peasantry, in short a permeable structure, was a major benefit in the connections and stability it gave to society.

The family and household are, rightly, vast subjects--constrained to these lengths, the author started with a dilemma. To have solved it as elegantly is a major achievement; and one looks forward with anticipation to further exposition from the same hand.

Article Details

Author Biography

C. M. Woolgar

University of Southampton