A Millennium of Family Change

A powerful study of the changing structure of families. 
How do changes in family form relate to changes in society as a whole? In a work which combines theoretical rigour with historical scope, Wally Seccombe provides a powerful study of the changing structure of families from the Middle Ages to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Responding to feminist critiques of ‘sex-blind’ historical materialism, Seccombe argues that family forms must be seen to be at the heart of modes of production. He takes issue with the mainstream consensus in family history which argues that capitalism did not fundamentally alter the structure of the nuclear family, and makes a controversial intervention in the long-standing debate over European marriage patterns and their relation to industrialization. Drawing on an astonishing range of studies in family history, historical demography and economic history, A Millennium of Family Change provides an integrated overview of the long transition from feudalism to capitalism, illuminating the far-reaching changes in familial relations from peasant subsistence to the making of the modern working class.


  • “An immensely ambitious work in the classic tradition of historically-conceived sociology...A Millennium of Family Change provides a magisterial history of peasant and proletarian family relations in northwestern Europe.”
  • “Readers are sure to be impressed by the breadth of Seccombe's reading, the clarity and precision of his writing, and incisiveness of his critiques of recent literature...his sensitivity to gender and his thoughtful discussions of peasant and protoindustrial household power dynamics”
  • “Modes of production, demography, feminist theory—a heady mix. Seccombe's historical and comparative account of European family formation is lively and challenging, bringing together a diverse literature to build a powerful synthesis.”
  • “Will go a long way to answer some of the criticism feminists have made concerning 'male dominated' family research...a must for every serious student of the family and social change”
  • “One can only admire Seccombe's enthusiasm, erudition and drive and his ability to synthesize a vast range of dispute issues.”
  • “[A] stimulating and engaging argument...Scholars will be forced to grapple with Seccombe's contentions for decades; the Laslett thesis has been offered its most sustained challenge.”


  • Reconceptualizing Family History

    "Frustrated by the fact that most texts on women treated 'the man's world' as the given and then simply asked where and how women fitted in," Stephanie Coontz writes, "I decided to undertake a survey of American gender roles: that was the starting point of the present book" — The Social Origins of Private Life: A History of American Families 1600–1900, published by Verso in 1988.

    Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters, c. 1863-65. via Wikimedia Commons.

    As the focus of her research shifted from "woman's private sphere" to the family as a larger arena in which the public and private intersect, Coontz became more attentive to the diversity of household arrangements across time and space. "Stimulated by the burgeoning research into family history," she writes, "I began to look at the family as a culture's way of coordinating personal reproduction with social reproduction — as the socially sanctioned place where male and female reproductive activities condition and are conditioned by the other activities into which human beings enter as they perpetuate a particular kind of society, or try to construct a new one." 

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  • Reconceptualizing Family History (Part II)

    Continued from part I.

    Detail from Francis William Edmonds' The New Bonnet (1858).

    The Limits of Structural and Demographic Analysis

    Although it is important to compare demographic trends and household structures and seek their economic correlates, such procedures yield only limited information about the history of families. Olga Linares points out: “Qualitative changes in the meaning of interpersonal obligations may be as important in distinguishing among household types as more easily measured changes in size and form.” Indeed, as Barrington Moore Jr has commented, tabulating structural differences “necessarily involves ignoring all differences except the one being measured.” Changes in social relations and patterns are not “reducible to any quantitative differences; they are incommensurable. Yet it is precisely such differences that matter most to human beings.”47

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