European Life in the Eighteenth Century Ė Family Life and Education

The cottage industry, agricultural revolution, and work lives of Europeans were important and significant elements of European life in the eighteenth century; but they are an incomplete representation. All has a distinctly "human" experience reflected in their everyday lives, their marriage and family life, their education, religion, and popular culture. These matters have only recently attracted the attention of historians, but are of major importance in understanding how people lived, worked and died.

Marriage and the Family: Family life in many cultures involves an extended family, whereby a newly married couple will live with the family of either the bride or groomís parents, and two to four generations will live together under one roof. This arrangement is marked contrast to the more modern nuclear family comprised of parents and children. Extended family members do not live under the same roof. Extended families are more common in agrarian societies, but give way to the prevalence of nuclear families in industrial or urbanized societies.

By the year 1700, the nuclear family was quite prevalent in Europe, even though its society was primarily agrarian. Three-generation households were a rarity, and such two-generation households which did exist normally were comprised of parents moving in with married children rather than vice versa. People did not marry young, as was once thought; the average person (neither rich nor aristocratic, married several years after reaching adulthood, and often after beginning work. One study of an English village indicated that the average age of marriage for men and women was twenty seven. It also indicated that a large number of men and women never married.

Couples normally married late as they could only marry when they could support themselves economically. Since land was the major source of income, a son would often have to wait until his father died and he inherited the land before he could afford a wife. Similarly, a peasant girl and her family had to provide a suitable dowry when she married to help her and her beloved buy land or build a house. Quite often there were legal requirements to be met. In many areas, the landlord or local nobleman had to consent to any marriage. In Austria and Germany, there were legal restrictions that made marriage difficult for poor couples. It was believed that if poor people married, there would be more paupers, more abandoned children, and more people on welfare.

Young people were expected to work at household work. Boys plowed and worked the fields and tended cattle while girls spun and wove. A young man could leave home to lean a trade as an apprentice to a craftsman for whom he would work for seven to fourteen years, during which time he was not permitted to marry. If he were lucky, he would be able to join a guild as a craftsman; but more often than not he worked as a hired hand at rough jobs, and was always in danger of unemployment.

Girls often left home also, typically to work as a servant girl. Her life was hard and her work endless. She was under the constant supervision of the mistress of the house, and was expected to clean, cook, shop, and care for any infants in the house. There were no labor laws to protect her, and as a result, she might be worked to exhaustion every day. Servant girls were often verbally and physically abused. One fifteen year old English girl reported that her mistress had not only called her "very opprobrious names, as Bitch, Whore, and the like, but also beat her without provocation and beyond measure." She was also the subject of sexual attack by the master of the house, his sons or friends. If she became pregnant, even by forced sexual contact, she was fired and disgraced, and had to make her way in the world the best way she could, generally by prostitution. One prostitute in Paris once commented, "What are we? Most of us are unfortunate women, without origins, without education, servants and maids for the most part."

Even so, illegitimate births were relatively low, averaging around one per cent of births, if baptismal records are to be believed. At the same time, premarital sex was commonplace. Thirty three per cent of all first children were conceived prior to marriage; many were born within three months of the marriage ceremony. This situation was no doubt the result of powerful social controls exercised in the local village. In areas where families worked with other families in open fields, the prospect of an unwed (and therefore poor) mother was considered a grave threat to the economic, social and moral stability of the community. Those in authority, parents, priests, village elders, etc. often forced those who wavered about marriage to do so quickly when a pregnancy developed. It would therefore seem that premarital sex was not casual sex; rather it was most often practiced by those who were already contemplating marriage. Thus the line often heard today was true then: "as long as we love each otherÖ."

Marital disputes and domestic scandal, most often whispered about today, were discussed loudly and openly, either when it happened, or during European Carnivals. Villagers often engaged in degrading rituals to punish an offender. The young men of the village would often gang up on the person to be punished (a wife beater, or a couple taken in adultery) and force him/her to ride a donkey backward, holding up the donkeyís tail, a ritual known as "riding the stang." The offender would be paraded all over the village loudly announcing the misdeed, and subjecting the offenders to public scorn and ridicule. Often rotten vegetables were splattered on oneís doorstep and obscene, insulting midnight serenades were heard.

Family planning was not a matter of community or social control. Couples often had several children. Birth control was practiced, normally by coitus interruptus. "The sheath" was used also, but primarily for protection from venereal disease, not birth control.

A sexual revolution of sorts took place in the second half of the eighteenth century when the number of illegitimate births exploded, reaching as high as 25 per cent. Fewer young women were abstaining from premarital sex, and fewer young men were marrying the girls they impregnated. The change seems to be the result of two factors. First with the evolution of the cottage industry, young people were more inclined to marry earlier and also make decisions more independently than they had previously. They gained independence more quickly than during the days of common field planting, and only needed a small scrap of land, a spinning wheel and a loom. Courtship became more extensive and freer as cottage industry grew, and it was easier to fall to the allure of the opposite sex. The social stigma that would have stopped such unions earlier no longer had that effect. Often they now married for love rather than for economic reasons. Additionally, growing populations sent more people into the cities where they were less subject to village tradition and control. There was more sexual experimentation and as a result, more illegitimate births. Since most young women could only find work as servant girls, they looked mainly to marriage and family life as an escape from hard work.

Almost all instances of premarital sex were preceded by promises of marriage. Soldiers, laborers, and others often promised marriage; and sex was considered a part of any serious courtship. However the males who made these promises were often insecure themselves, and it became increasingly difficult for young women to turn a pregnancy into marriage. Low wages and inequality interfered. (Here again, things havenít changed: "Of course Iíll marry if you anything happens."

Children and Education: A woman who married before age thirty and who lived to be forty five would normally give birth to six or more children. At least one child in five would die in infancy, one in three in poor areas. Children died from a variety of ailments, including dehydration from diarrhea. Lower class women often breast fed their children. This healthy practice allowed antibodies from the motherís milk to be transmitted to the child and thereby gain immunity from many diseases; it also limited the motherís fertility, and she was not apt to conceive again for two to three years. Of course if the child died, she would stop breast feeding, and would conceive more quickly. Upper class women considered breast feeding common and base, and often hired wet nurses to perform the chore for them. Shopkeeperís wives often employed a wet nurse to fee her up to work in her husbandís business.

Those who wet nursed otherís children were not treated well or held in high regard. They were often exploited, underpaid, and fired on the slightest whim. It was commonly believed that personality traits were passed through breast milk, thus the nurse was blamed if the child turned out poorly. Rumors spread of "killing nurses" who let a child die so that she could take on another job quickly and thereby gain another fee.

Rumors are often at least partially based on fact, and infanticide was tragically not uncommon, although the culprit was seldom the nurse. Families with infants, particularly girls, whom they could not afford to support, often died under mysterious circumstances. Many children died of "overlaying," parents rolling over in bed on a child who shared the bed with them and thereby suffocating the child. Parents who did this often insisted they were drunk when it happened and the death was wholly unintentional. In 1784, Austrian law made it illegal for parents of children under five to share a bed with their children. "Killing nurses" were not altogether imaginary also, although many of them killed children at the behest of the parents. Abortion also occurred, although it was rare.

Poor young mothers who could not engineer the death of their children often abandoned them, normally on the doorstep of a church. Such children were commonly known as "foundlings." The problem became so severe that foundling homes, in essence orphanages, were founded to care for them. Foundling homes were often the subject of charitable donations by the rich, and great sums were spent on them. The most famous was the foundling home in St. Petersburg, Russia, which occupied the palaces of two noblemen. At one time it had twenty five thousand children, and received as many as five thousand new infants each year. By 1770, one third of all babies born in Paris were foundlings; one third of those were abandoned my married couples, unable to support them. Conditions in the foundling homes were not good. Under the best of circumstances, over 50 % of the children died within a year; in worse circumstances, the number was more like 90%. Death resulted from typical childhood diseases and at other times neglect, either intentional or unintentional. Many contemporaries referred to the foundling hospitals as "legalized infanticide.

The typical attitude towards children in general was largely one of indifference. A French writer once commented that "one blushes to think of loving oneís children." It was also once said that an English gentleman "had more interest in the diseases of his horses than of his children." This indifference ran across social lines; as indicated by the use of wet nurses of questionable integrity by wealthy families.

The indifferent attitude towards children was partially in reaction to the appalling death rate among the very young. Doctors and clergymen advised parents not to become too attached to their children who might not survive. Edward Gibbon, author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, once commented that "the death of a new born child before that of his parents may seem unnatural but it is a strictly probable event, since of any given number the greater part are extinguished before the ninth year before they possess the faculties of the mind and the body."

Gibbonís father had named all his male children Edward, in hopes that one would survive and carry on his name. Edward the historian and eldest son survived. Five brothers and sisters after him all died in infancy.

Physicians showed little inclination to care for infants for the same reason. Their attitude was frequently that once children fell ill, there was nothing they could do. Childrenís best hope was the care of midwives and women healers. They were caught in a vicious circle: they were likely to die because they were neglected, and neglected because they were likely to die.

Emotional detachment often devolved into abuse. The only attention children often received from parents was discipline. Daniel DeFoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders was thrilled to see young children working in the cottage industries, and was the first to coin the phrase, "Spare the rod and spoil the child." Susannah Wesley, the mother of John Wesley said that a parentís first duty towards her child was to "conquer the will and bring them to an obedient temper." She reported that her babies were "taught to fear the rod, and to cry softly by which means they escaped the abundance of correction they might otherwise have had, and that most odious noise of crying of children was rarely heard in the house." With the advent of the factory system, pauperís children wee dumped off to work at the factories and were frequently beaten and brutalized.

This attitude changed by the second half of the eighteenth century when a spirit of optimism arose in Europe. Rousseau, in Emile, called for more love and understanding toward children. He urged wealthy women to nurse their own babies and also spoke against "swaddling" a process by which babies were wrapped in tight fitting clothes to "straighten them out." By the end of the century, children were dressed in simpler, more comfortable clothing which allowed more freedom of movement. More and more parents expressed a delight in the love and intimacy of their children and expressed joy in raising them.

Schools and Popular Literature: The religious reforms of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations served to promote popular literacy and education for the general populace. Schools begain to appear in the seventeenth century which specialized in boys and girls from seven to twelve who were taught basic literacy and religion.

Prussia led the way, inspired by the Protestant doctrine that every believer should be able to read and study the Bible in search of his own personal salvation. In 1717, attendance at elementary school was mandatory in Prussia. Mandatory education, generally intended for religious purposes, flourished throughout Europe. "Charity schools" were set up to instruct the children of the poor. As a result, basic literacy skyrocketed. In 1600, only one male in six was barely literate in France and Scotland, one in four in England. By 1800, almost nine out of ten Scottish males, two out of three French males, and half of English males were functionally literate. Women lagged behind men, but were becoming increasingly literate.

These peasant readers did not go for the works of the Enlightenment writers. They could neither afford nor understand them. Most of their reading was the Bible and short cheap pamphlets known as "chapbooks." They were printed on the cheapest paper available, and usually dealt with religious subjects such as Bible stories, devotional literature, lives of saints, etc. They offered moral teachings and promoted faith. Entertaining, fictional stories also surfaced. Many were adventure stories about heroes and villains with superhuman attributes, magic, fairy godmothers and trolls. The good forces always won and the bad ones always lost in the end. Other literature was practical, dealing with crafts, household repairs, useful plants, etc. Almanacs became popular. They often contained listings of religious holidays and phases of the moon, agricultural schedules, jokes, etc.