- The Household and the Making of History: A Subversive View of the Western Past
Mary S. Hartman has been challenging traditional historians since she wrote her study of nineteenth-century British murderesses, and co-edited a collection of essays from the first Berkshire Conference on Women's History. Her goal in the 1980s, as now with her carefully structured, extended analytical essay on the significance of women and the early modern household, was to "provoke reassessment" of standard interpretations of familiar narratives (5). In The Household and the Making of History she begins with the familiar question: what set Western Europe on a new course after 1500 and caused the rapid development of mercantile and industrial capitalism?
Her "subversive" answer literally turns European men's and women's history upside down. Instead of political, economic and social forces causing this transformation of Northwestern Europe, the beginnings of "modernization," Hartman argues that it was a new pattern of social relations that established the necessary preconditions for these broader changes (31, 33). She credits identification of this new pattern, this "prior distinctive" set of anomalies, to the English economic historian John Hajnal. In his 1965 article, "European Marriage Patterns in Perspective," [End Page 1191] he noted three differences that distinguished northern Europe from other agricultural regions: late marriage ages for women as well as men; significant numbers of women not marrying; ratios of women to men more or less equal. In seeking an explanation for these anomalies, Hajnal looked to broader economic and social developments. Peasant girls as well as boys became wage laborers. Daughters and sons in these households left home at about the same age, became servants to other peasant families, part of the proto-industrialization of rural areas, or migrated to nearby urban areas to serve in other households. With wages, young women could make more independent choices about their lives; they did not need to marry to have a livelihood; families allowed infant daughters to survive because their labor would be as productive as that of their brothers.
Hartman focuses on only one of the three differences noted by Hajnal, peasant women's choice to marry later. In her chapter eight, Hartman takes this phenomenon, and gives it the significance Hajnal only suggested. She lays out connections between "the late marriage system" and the major changes in Europe in the early modern period: economic transformation from agriculture to mercantile, industrial capitalism; the Protestant Reformation; the origins of the nation state. For example, the long term effect of women's as well as men's wage earning was the peasant and urban family's ability to accumulate capital. Throughout, Hartman privileges human agency over forces, and supports the early insights associated with the underlying premises of social and women's history. She makes "ordinary" women and men the causal factors in the major events of early modern European history rather than "the disembodied historical forces" favored in the traditional narratives (210, 242).
Hartman does not claim to have proved all aspects of the answers she presents. As she points out—and the references in her footnotes demonstrate—innumerable monographs exist with which to test the effects of women's "late marriage" and its applicability. It is, rather, a matter of how one uses the evidence. For example, while Hartman critiques Peter Laslett's classic The World We Have Lost and the Cambridge School more generally for their focus on the nuclear family, their data can be turned to verify the significance of women's late marriage, a more obvious difference than two generational households between England from 1580-1837 and other peasant cultures. Similarly, Hartman suggests reassessment of the portrayal of the family as a negative in women's lives. It could be, she argues, a site of power and resistance. A later marriage meant more similar life experience for women and men, similar resources brought to the union, and thus the more companionate relationship between wife and husband associated with the...