The Sociology of the Family in Shakespeare's day

[For much of this I have quoted liberally and directly from Rodney Stark, Sociology, Sixth Edition, (Belmont, CA: 1998), Chapter 13]

What was family life in 17th century Europe like if you were outside of the narrow spectrum of Elizabethan society than had some means and was literate? What if you were an ordinary, poor peasant, in other words, outside of the world of poets and playwrights like Shakespeare?

Well, it was far from warm, loving and caring.

Household composition: the typical household was more than the "nuclear" family, consisting also of lodgers and hired hands. Women gave birth (typically) to between 8-10 children. However, while wealthy households often included 10 or more people, poor homes had only 5 or 6.

How can this be? How can a mom give birth to 8-10 kids, but only have 6 at most in the home?

1. High infant and child mortality-one of every three infants died before age one.

2. Another third died before reaching adulthood.

3. Children left the home to work full-time as shepherds, cowherds, apprentices at age 7 or 8. In England, it was later (age 10), but all were gone by age 15.

Not all children left, of course. An oldest son would remain behind to inherit the farm; daughters remained at home until married.

There were also few elderly in the household-again, because of high mortality of the elderly. But also, moms and dads were fragile. Many kids grew up without parents. Female-headed households were as common then as they are today. Today, of course, the reason is divorce. Then, it was death.

Because of the deaths of one parent, there were many remarriages. Therefore it was typical for you to have one or more step-siblings. If you've ever wondered why fairy tales have so many fairy-godmothers and step-mothers, now you know why: regular biological mothers were hard to come by.


Boy was it crowded in traditional European families in Shakespeare's day! The overwhelming majority of families did not live in castles like Hamlet. They lived in one-room houses, where all activities took place-yes, even intimate activities. Rural families usually shared their one-room houses with livestock and poultry, while urban families frequently had a lodger or some other nonfamily member sharing their living space. The one room typically was small. At night, beds were arranged on the floor. If there were mattresses (and we are talking an unusually prosperous family who has mattresses) they are crowded with the whole family and any outsiders or lodgers. Adults, children, all genders all crowded together for warmth. Privacy for lovemaking? No way. You were out in the open, even in front of non-family members who were staying with you. Of course everyone was crawling with lice and other vermin. A bath was a rare event. Everyone stunk. If someone was sick with something, everyone got it. Lastly, with this kind of crowding, you can imagine that there are going to be social strains between members of a household, and there were.

Child care:

We noted that the European family was quick to send children out on their own to work, but that does not begin to tell the story. As one important sociologist has put it, "Good mothering is an invention of modernization."

Children were routinely under-supervised. Parents would leave even very young children untended and alone for much of the day. Rashes and sores from unchanged diapers were universal. There are numerous accounts of children burning to death because they were left too close to the fireplace, or they were left alone and wandered into the fire or played with the fire. There are many reports of un-watched children being eaten by barnyard pigs.

Even if the parents had been around, it doesn't appear that it would have mattered very much. The parents basically ignored them. They were rarely sung to, and never played with. Mothers did not even refer to their children by name. They would call them "it" or "the creature." They typically did not know their children's ages.

Sure, we can explain some of this by high infant mortality: parents will be reluctant to form strong emotional bonds with children who are probably going to die. But it goes way beyond this.

1. Parents would typically not attend an infant's funeral (an older child's they would, however).

2. Dead and even dying infants (possibly illegitimate) were often simply discarded like refuse and were frequently noticed "lying in the gutters or rotting on the dungheaps"-while still alive, mind you.

3. Many legitimate infants were abandoned outside churches or foundling homes. Possibly one half of infants abandoned in France in the 18th century were abandoned by intact families.

4. The wet nurse industry was extremely important in Europe, but it only shows the neglect and disdainful attitude that women held towards that duty. Note that there was higher infant mortality if a child was sent off to a wetnurse, because the wetnurse would typically malnourish the child, or feed it an oatmeal water, or watered down milk instead of her undiluted breast milk.

Surely a happy, romantic marriage was the cornerstone of the Elizabethan family, right?

Marriages were economic arrangements-for money, land, labor, dowry. Emotional attachments were of no importance to parents who arranged the marriages. What is more, neither the bride nor the groom expected emotional fulfillment from marriage.

The most common emotion seems to have been anger and resentment. Wife beating was common and expected. A man needed to keep his woman under control.

Even though you might attend the funeral of an older child, you did not have deep emotional attachment, even to that child. If a child ventured from the village, he or she was soon forgotten, not just by the neighbors but by the parents as well. Since there was no reliable posting of letters for the poor, and no one could read anyway, all traces were lost of those who moved away.

Even the older children who stayed behind did not have close relations with their parents. There was constant fighting about inheritance rights. Basically, the kids were waiting anxiously for the parents to die. Dislike and hatred were the typical feelings between family members.

Peer group:

If you lived in Shakespeare's time, and you had such weak emotional links-or even hatred-for your family, then who did you like? Your peer group. A guy liked to hang out with the guys, like Hamlet hangs out with Horatio. A woman hung out with the other wives. These were the close intimate ties.

There were exceptions to these general rules. Occasionally, wives loved husbands, parents loved children, etc. But as a rule, life in pre-industrial European families was not a pleasant experience.