Cover image for Ancestors : the loving family in old Europe
Ancestors : the loving family in old Europe
Ozment, Steven E.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2001.
Physical Description:
162 pages : illustrations ; 20 cm

Format :


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Material Type
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Item Holds
HQ611 .O968 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Rescuing the premodern family from the grim picture many historians have given us of life in early Europe, Ancestors offers a major reassessment of a crucial aspect of European history--and tells a story of age-old domesticity inextricably linked, and surprisingly similar, to our own.

An elegant summa on family life in Europe past, this compact and powerful book extends and completes a project begun with Steven Ozment's When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe (Harvard). Here Ozment, the leading historian of the family in the middle centuries, replaces the often miserable depiction of premodern family relations with a delicately nuanced portrait of a vibrant and loving social group. Mining the records of families' private lives--from diaries and letters to fiction and woodcuts--Ozment shows us a preindustrial family not very different from the later family of high industry that is generally viewed as the precursor to the sentimental nuclear family of today.

In Ancestors , we see the familiar pattern of a domestic wife and working father in a home in which spousal and parental love were amply present: parents cherished their children, wives were helpmeets in providing for the family, and the genders were nearly equal. Contrary to the abstractions of history, parents then--as now--were sensitive to the emotional and psychological needs of their children, treated them with affection, and gave them a secure early life and caring preparation for adulthood.

As it recasts familial history, Ancestors resonates beyond its time, revealing how much the story of the premodern family has to say to a modern society that finds itself in the throes of a family crisis.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Ozment, a professor of ancient and modern history at Harvard University, has researched diaries, letters, fiction, and even woodcuts to present a picture of pre-industrial family life in Europe in the Middle Ages. He discusses such themes as working women (in late medieval Cologne, women's guilds of yarn makers, gold and silk embroiders, and silk makers were among the city's most labor-intensive and highly paid) and women's place in religion and society. He examines the practice of contraception (condemned by the church and justified by the laity), parent-child relations, infanticide, wet-nursing, and parental advice to children. In a Hamburg poet's letter to one of his 10 children, he tells him to "be happy to learn from others, and where there is talk of wisdom, human happiness, light, freedom, and virtue, listen intently." Ozment's absorbing look at some of our ancestors living in a wholly different society shows us how little things have changed. --George Cohen

Choice Review

Much wisdom and great learning has been distilled into this small book. Ozment (Harvard) regards the gloomy history of the premodern family provided by Philippe Aries, Jean-Louis Flandrin, Lawrence Stone, and others as tendentious and unpersuasive. He effectively refutes their claim that marriages before 1700 were loveless unions; he also denies that parents subjected children to "discretionary abuses" in order to impart godliness to their unruly natures. But this book proves useful beyond its measured critique, for Ozment seeks to understand family life by examining first-person accounts rather than "interpreting family life through abstract religious dogmas" or relying upon the "transhistorical models of modern social science." Instead, he delves into the family archives that contain the daily lives and intimate thoughts of early modern people. Even a brief survey of the parental advice contained in this "pragmatic epistolography" allows him to conclude that the "modern sentimental family" did not appear recently, but "exists as far back in time and as widely in space as there are proper sources to document it." Highly recommended. D. R. Bisson Belmont University

Table of Contents

1 Structure and Sentiment
2 A Gendered View of Family Life
3 Rebuilding the Premodern Family
4 The Omnipresent Child
5 Parental Advice
6 Family Archives