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The Household in Medieval Europe
A household in any time period consists of a person or people living in one house; but a household is not necessarily the same as a family. This entry will focus mostly on English households from about 1300 to 1500 AD, but much of the information would also apply to continental Europe too.
It is easy to see that a household does not equate to a family. In the Middle Ages for instance, a household might be a widow living alone1. In most cases though, the household would consist of a family. The households of nobles and richer peasant families might also include servants, seasonal or permanent workers, as well as other people in the care of the family, such as wards, orphans or apprentices. Poorer households that were unable to afford servants would most likely consist of only the family.
The Black Death, which hit Europe in the late 1340s, had a significant impact on household sizes. Before the Black Death the average household size was approximately five, whereas afterwards it was less than four.
Structure of the Household
Most households had a married couple at their centre. Marriage was very common because it was so easy – all that was needed was a verbal agreement. Men generally married later than women as they were expected to already be set up in a trade, such as on a farm, whereas women had their dowries provided by their father. It might take a few years before a man could provide for a family and so consider marriage. The man might be about 30, the woman in her early 20s or late teens, though ages no doubt varied across Europe. Younger girls were not considered ready to marry.
The large age gap was the reason why there were so many widows, as many fathers died whilst their children were still young. In some cases, the mother was nearer the age of her children than the age of her husband, meaning that she could act as an intermediary in conflicts between the husband and his sons (which were not uncommon, perhaps over land or inheritance).
The centre of the household was usually a couple and their children - what we now call 'a nuclear family'. Historians previously suggested that large extended families would live together but this is now seen as unlikely. Houses were cheap, so many people moved out to set up on their own, especially after the Black Death when land and jobs were plentiful and wages were higher.
In contrast, some historians prefer the idea of a so-called 'stem family', which consisted of elderly parents, a son, who would inherit the land and house when they died, and his family.
Servants in the Household
Servants and workers in noble families were part of the household. Their master was responsible for their good behaviour and they were also involved in pursuing any feud the master might be involved in.
In continental Europe, many of the higher servants in noble households were actually members of the extended family of the lord; however, this was rare in England as it was seen as a step down.
Servants often spent their whole lives working for the same family, resulting in the development of family-style ties of attachment. They could have affectionate relationships with their employers and even be bequeathed something in their will.
Children and Families in the Household
Very rich households often looked after many children - those of family, servants, wards and so on. They would employ a tutor who would educate the children together, so that bonds of fellowship developed between the children.
It was rare for servants to be married as it created a second couple in the household, which could be seen as a threat to the stability of the household.
Noble families didn't care that much about their extended families, as it was the dynastic male line that was most important. In addition, alliance by marriage was considered more important than relationships with extended families. Another way they tied people to them was by patronage.
Concepts of inheritance differed over the country. There were two types:
Richer families who practised impartible inheritance could afford to set other sons up in a trade or buy them land. Alternatively younger sons could try to marry a widow or heiress, thus gaining a share of her money. They might well have been getting married simply for economic reasons.
Households varied depending on location, the wealth and social status of the family as well as the method of inheritance they chose.
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