History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: 17th century Politics and Culture

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Development of family

Historians note three stages in the development of the modern family:

  1. Medieval extended familymedieval house
    Until the 16th century, families were accustomed to little privacy or individuality in the home. Beds were shared, and often the family slept in one room. Although the reasons might include tradition, the affordability of having or building only one bed, and the comfort of having children close to, a major reason was warmth. The only heated room in most European houses was the kitchen, which had a big open hearth and fire for cooking. In 1500, Europe was entering a "Little Ice Age", which meant colder and wetter climate conditions. Warmth was important! Extended families of aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc. lived in the same dwelling. Starting a household required the inheritance of land, which didn't happen unless someone died.
  2. Smaller groupings (1550-1650)
    As the merchant class gained its independence and expanded, families became more authoritarian and more stable. Life expectancy in the 16th century was poor, as bad as in Paleolithic times: the average age at death was 25-30. Children often had stepmothers and stepfathers as parents died and the remaining parent remarried. Households continued to be extended, although producing items in the home (especially cloth), provided a greater opportunity for some to establish a separate household nearby. By 1650, things were improving. For women, the average age at death was 32 and rising fast; by the 1790s it would be about 50.
  3. Nuclear family
    House with chimneysThe idea that only parents and their children could occupy a dwelling emerged in the middle class around 1640. There was a decline in illegitimacy (possibly a result of religious strictures), and a new warmth, in two senses. The climate was still cold, but the fireplace and chimney were new trends in architecture. Fireplaces and chimneys allowed safe fires in rooms other than the kitchen. Although expensive to build, they provided local heat, and led to the creation of the "bedroom".

Couple in bedAbout this time, middle-class people began to marry later in life than they had before, out of necessity. Though sons of aristocracy could marry whenever in life their parents decided (some very young to secure alliances), and peasants could marry whenever their landlord permitted, sons of merchants had to wait till they could afford it. That was usually around 25 or 30 years old, and for some it never happened. In fact, the number of unmarried men increased from 5% in the Middle Ages to 15% during this period.

Also, middle-class people tended to marry someone about the same age. Previously, older men (who had some money) had preferred much younger women (with more childbearing years in them). But merchants needed mature helpmates. A male merchant wanted a wife who was secure in her personality, and confident and skilled enough to run both household and business when he had to be away. The self-assuredness you see in the paintings of Judith Leyster and Artemesia Gentileschi is the result of this maturity.

Middle-class women

Women had public significance in the middle class. Wives handled sales directly, and were in charge of distribution and paying bills. If the husband was a craftsman, she assisted in manufacturing as well. Many jobs were considered extensions of domestic care-taking duties and were thus permitted for women: running a tavern, midwifery, food preparation, innkeeping.

But independence was within known limits in the 17th century. "Market women" competed intensely with one another for sales, and sometimes ended up in court for using slanderous epithets against each other. "Whore", "thief", and "asshole" were the most popular. In court, women were not allowed to plead their case. Their husbands had to enter their plea, and a frequent defense was, "she's only an irrational woman". The wife was allowed in the courtroom only to beg for a lower fine.

"Ritual kiss":  witches kissing the ass  of the devil
"Ritual kiss":
witches kissing the ass
of the devil


The 17th century saw the end of most witchcraft trials. During the sixteenth century, they had emerged due to several causes: a demographic imbalance of male and female, religious conflict, and a reaction against the emerging dominance of women. Both women and men suspected of having made a contract with the Devil were hanged or burned at the stake.

But by the middle of the 17th century, scientific trends were developing which forced accusers to prove actual harm in court. This led to a decline in witch trials, one of the last taking place in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.