- Transregional and Transnational Families in Europe and Beyond: Experiences since the Middle Ages ed. by Christopher H. Johnson, David Warren Sabean, Simon Teuscher and Francesca Trivellato
Transregional and Transnational Families is a wide-ranging collection that includes fourteen chapters and an introduction by Sabean and Teuscher. It was built from [End Page 818] the work of six panels at the 2006 European Social Science History Conference in Amsterdam and a 2008 workshop at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC. The essays are divided into two parts, one focused on the medieval and early modern periods and the other on the modern and contemporary world. Essays deal with European, Middle Eastern, Caribbean, and South Asian families that straddled regional or national boundaries.
It is difficult to capture all of the themes or findings of a collection of monographic studies that share very little besides an interest in seeing how extended family relations functioned across regional or national boundaries. Several authors are concerned with how family relations helped individuals create viable identities or enhanced their chances of survival. Yet this reference to the importance of family as a means of survival must be qualified, since in at least one case in the collection, Christina Antenhofer deftly shows how intra-family rivalries within the Gonzaga clan of fifteenth-century Italy worked against the survival of some individuals.
In their introduction to the case studies, Sabean and Teuscher identify major fields of research that have shaped family and kinship studies of Europe over the last several decades. Despite the ecumenical nature of the collection, a certain European orientation guides the periodization of the volume as well as the periodization of “major changes” that Sabean and Teuscher highlight. The shift from the medieval to the early modern period, they argue, “witnessed a new stress on familial coherence, a growing inclination to formalize patron-client ties through marriage alliance or godparentage, and a tendency to develop and maintain structured hierarchies within lineages, descent groups, and clans and among allied families.” In contrast, since the middle of the eighteenth century, “alliance and affinity, rather than descent and heritage, came to organize interactions among kin” (12). These are interesting hypotheses, which, however, receive little attention in the volume, in part because few of the studies span periods long enough to test them. The notable exception is José Moya’s essay that stretches—albeit briefly—back to the Paleolithic era. Rather, most authors are able to address only bits and pieces of such massive transitions.
Some of the best essays successfully integrate findings on specific families, households, or lineages into larger questions of comparative history or theory. For example, the already-mentioned essay by Antenhofer explores what the Gonzaga saga tells about the rise of primogeniture in early modern Europe. Simon Teuscher’s work on urban patrician families addresses a rich historiography that has, he argues, underestimated the critical role of migration as a force helping to create and maintain local elite power. Francesca Trivellato’s comparison of Sephardic Jewish and Armenian business enterprises and the role of kin relations within each group engages the reader with a classic Weberian literature on “general partnerships” and “limited liability” firms and the modernization (or not) of commercial relations. She argues, notably, that the persistence of general partnerships among this group of Jewish merchants did not represent the persistence of a premodern mentality. Rather, she cites factors such as cultural exclusion and important marriage and inheritance practices that built trust among male kin of the same families. Family based sources of solidarity also obviated the need for the sort of formal institutions that other merchant groups like the Julfa Armenians needed to adjudicate disputes among themselves. Johnson’s study of three Breton families in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries traces the movement of certain family members from the provinces into national-level prominence while Sabean’s study of the Siemens family traces this clan’s rise to [End...