Properties of Blood II.1: The Family Castle, Part B

Thomas Fleming


March 13, 2017

The Independent Household

Thousands of volumes have been published on every aspect of family and household, and, for a work on the history of these institutions, there may be hundreds of books worth consulting.  This is not, I hasten to assure you my readers, a work of family history, though I shall have to burrow into some of the  details—not at too tedious  length, I hope—of the several cultural traditions that have formed our own:  Greek, Roman, Jewish, Medieval European, and early American.

However, before digging into the details of history and law, let us try to form a “big picture,” as Plato so often does, by sketching out a myth of the autonomous family household.  If your imagination is Scriptural, you might think of Adam and Eve and the early patriarchs, or, if your imagination runs to more scientific myths, think of the improbable tales of early man told by Hobbes, Darwin, Engels, or the authors of anthropology textbooks.  In either set of stories, primitive man, in the absence of government, armies, or police, must rely on kith and kin to sustain and defend his existence.  It must have been a great step forward when our ancestors, large-brained nomadic apes, ceased their random wanderings and settled down into a home base.

"A man's home is his castle" is more than a proverbial assertion of privacy.  Once upon a time it was a graphic description of household independence or, if not complete independence, then something like an autonomy in which family members provided for the household necessities, including food, shelter, clothing, amusement, regulation, and defense.  This is not to say that such independence was inviolable.  In emergencies, neighbors and kinsmen, church leaders and community delegations have invaded the household to prevent a murder or end a dispute; kings and tyrants have slaughtered the innocent or claimed the privilege of spending the first night with their peasants' brides; and in the later Middle Ages the church upheld the validity of marriages between minors even without parental consent, but these are exceptional and occasional violations of a nearly universal norm.  In the general run of human experience, households and families (however constituted) appear like so many fortified hilltops on a frontier.  One or another of them might occasionally be captured by enemies, but viewed from a distant mountain, the line of forts appears to be unbroken.

This is not to say that if families and households were unified against outsiders, they were also homogeneous or immune to tension and conflict.  Far from it, since both marriage and parenthood by their very nature entail diversity.  Families are unions of contrasts, male and female, young and old, parent and child, blood kin and kin through marriage.  In crude economic terms familial households represent an autonomous (that is, self-subsisting) community within which there is a division of labor based on sex, age, and rank.  Children from a fairly age were given chores, and, in a complex household, dependents or servants might be given some of the more menial tasks.

The chief distinction, however, was by sex.  From almost the very beginning, men hunted game and pastured their flocks; women took care of the home, preparing the food, making and washing clothes, tending the kitchen garden and the poultry yard.  As social complexity made trade possible, housewives might sell their products and even their labor and invest the profits into the family's common store.  As indispensable contributors to the household economy, wives and mothers enjoyed both power and respect, but it was typically the household where the most important economic functions were discharged (even in nineteenth century Europe!).

In her domestic sphere woman reigned supreme, respected by her children and by her husband, who in other respects possessed what would come to be known as sovereignty, at least in principle.  The reality of human existence is that power relationships within the household, however strictly they might be defined by law or custom, depend on the men and women who are called upon to exercise them.  Anthony Trollope’s Bishop Proudie (in Barchester Towers) is far from being the only man of authority who turned over the exercise of real power to his wife, and even domineering husbands can be easily manipulated by artful wives.

Nonetheless, the husband and father was, in principle, the ruler.  When his “subjects” were obedient, he rewarded them with praise and favors; when they misbehaved, he punished them with blame and, if necessary, with the rod.  The exemplary first Man of the Bible held the power of life and death over the entire household, and when one of his sons murdered the other, the man drove him out of the little commonwealth of hearth and home.  The son, who realized that exile from the community of kinfolks was a fate at least as bad as death, declared: "My punishment is greater than I can bear....I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass that every one that findeth me shall slay me.” [Gen 4:13-14]

Greeks, no less than Jews, regarded life outside their family and native land as inconceivable.  Like most Athenians, Socrates regarded his city as an extended family, and he preferred death by hemlock to the prospect of living in exile.

There were no police to enter the home, and, although a creditor or crime victim might force his way in to search out and seize goods or evidence or arrest the householder, he ran the risk of being sued successfully for penetrating the home.  “Although legal self-help on private property was to some extent regulated by laws, the basic tension between public and private spheres it involved was not one that Athenians sought to resolve ultimately through legal rules,” but by means of citizen-juries whose members were sensitive to invasions of their own homes.

A Community of Love

Despite the patriarchal nature of the household, its fundamental law is affection, not coercion.  While some modern historians have attempted to argue that conjugal or parental affection were discoveries of the 17th and 18th centuries, no one even slightly acquainted with ancient history and literature could reach such a preposterous conclusion.  The success of writers like Philippe Ariès and Lawrence Stone is  ineluctable proof of the decay of learning—and common sense—that has marked this period of history. Homer's Odysseus, in his desire to return to wife and son, braves great dangers, turns down the hand of a beautiful young princess, and rejects even the goddess who would make him immortal; King Admetus’ wife Alcestis gave up her life to save her husband's, and so on.  These are things that “any schoolboy” could once be presumed to know.

In Roman law marital affection, that is the husband's regard and respect for his wife, was a distinguishing characteristic of marriage, as opposed to concubinage, and a Roman matron was accorded great honor within her household.  No society has a perfect record of marital happiness and domestic bliss, but from studies of medieval and early modern Europe a composite portrait of family life may be drawn that would not strike a modern reader as either cold-hearted or abusive.  Children were cherished, and, even in the “dark ages,” husbands and wives were essential to each other:  "Partnership is the most appropriate term to describe marriage in medieval English peasant society."

The primal family was and is a complex network of intersecting obligations.  In the Christian world, husband and wife owed each other loyalty, affection, and respect.  St. Paul repeatedly admonished his readers that men owed their wives love, while the wives had to subject themselves to their husbands.  Spouses were obliged to pay the conjugal debt by fulfilling each other's conjugal desires, and neither party could deny the family the natural increase of children.  When children arrived, both mother and father were expected to work to provide them with the necessities of life.  This included shelter, food, and clothing, of course, but parents were also expected to provide the moral and religious instruction that would enable their offspring to take their place in society.

Children were expected to honor their father and mother, and this meant more than polite behavior.  Even grown sons and daughters had to show deference and respect to their parents, and while parents might find it difficult or, indeed, impossible to arrange marriages over the protests of their children, dutiful children would not typically marry without the consent of their parents.  (The tension between infatuated adolescents and their pragmatic parents is a theme in many ancient comedies.)   As father and mother grew old, they would gradually pass some measure of control over their wealth and power to their children, who were, in turn, required to take care of their aging parents as they themselves had been taken care of in infancy and childhood.  This was a matter of duty, not of free choice.

The status of the family as a primary social institution was an established fact both of ancient law and of the major philosophical systems of antiquity and the Middle Ages.  It hardly needs saying that there have been and still are cultures in which the family takes eccentric, if not bizarre forms, but the general pattern persists across ethnic boundaries and down through the ages: A man marries a woman (occasionally more than one), and together they work to provide for their offspring.  Patterns of deference and authority may vary, but Sir Thomas More’s description of a Utopia (that is Nowhere) in which women defer to men, children to parents, youth to age—can be applied virtually to Everywhere, including the New World.  Since later chapters are devoted to marriage and parenthood, this brief account should suffice.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

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