Ancestors:  The Loving Family in Old Europe, by Steven Qzment (Harvard)

Reviewed by Benjamin Schwarz

April 2001 ATLANTIC

fam_portIn the 1960s and 1970s a group of enormously influential historians—most notably Philippe Ariès and Lawrence Stone—argued that pre-industrial families were essentially different from the modern “sentimental” family. According to this view, the pre-modern family was rigidly “patriarchal,” and children were viewed mainly as assets; hence the deep bonds of love and care between parent and child which we now associate with the “nuclear family” were essentially nonexistent. In this elegant, persuasive book, based largely on historians’ meticulous scholarship of the past two decades (including the author’s minute investigations of medieval and early-modern German families), Steven Ozment presents a very different picture. He argues that the relationship between spouses was far more cooperative and loving, and the affection of parents for their children was far fiercer, than Ariès and his disciples would have it. In an example of scholarship confirming common sense (and refuting the highly theoretical work of once trendy historians), Ozment concludes that “such high qualities prove to be specific to family life itself and not to time and place.” Ariès’s more immoderate followers anachronistically caricatured the pre-modern family as hierarchical, emotionally crippled, and conformist; in fact, criticizing “superordinate and subordinate relations” and celebrating the liberated modern ethos often seemed to be the point of much of their scholarship. Ancestors amounts to an eloquent—and academically unfashionable—condemnation of those historians who approach an earlier age “with an eye only to determining where that age stands on some burning present-day issue.”

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