Family history

From Citizendium
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This article is developing and not approved.
Main Article
Related Articles  [?]
Bibliography  [?]
External Links  [?]
Citable Version  [?]
This editable Main Article is under development and subject to a disclaimer.

Family history has two meanings, in social history and genealogy.

Social history

Family history is a branch of social history that focuses on kinship relationships, marriage, children, and memory and constructed pasts.


Family history arose simultaneously in several countries in the 1960s, with major leadership roles in France, Britain and, a bit later, the U.S.[1]

In Paris demographer Louis Henry and historian Pierre Goubert invented a family reconstitution technique in the 1950s that enabled scholars to assemble all the information about the vital events in a given family which can be gleaned from the marriage, birth and death registers kept by parishes after about 1500. The Institut National des Études Demographiques developed the new methodology, using genealogies and then parish registers. They reconstructed aggregate patterns of fertility, nuptiality, and mortality for vast numbers of people and, in some instances, over several generations. Subsequent French historical demography and family history included on the one hand demographic analysis, along the lines of Henry and Goubert. A second stream was influenced by Philippe Ariès, The History of Childhood (1960), and by anthropology and the social history of the Annales School. It integrated demographic analyses with patterns of family and sexuality, linking community and social and cultural variables with mentalités, as exemplified in the work of Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie, Andre Burguiere, and Jean-Louis Flandrin.

In Britain family reconstitution subsequently became a powerful tool in the hands of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. Established in 1964 by Peter Laslett, the Cambridge Group adapted the family reconstitution

Scholars publish the quarterly Journal of Family History since it was founded by historian Tamara Hareven (1937-2002) in 1976.[2] The April 2008 issue has articles on "Marriage, Social Status, and Family Succession in Medieval Korea," "Childhood and Adolescence in Early Modern Malta (1565-1632)," "Men and Women Fighting Side By Side: Examples From an English Town, 1653-1781," "Compassion and Indifference: The Attitude of the English Legal System," and "Landscapes of Remembrance: Home and Memory in the Nineteenth-Century Bürgertum." Since the 1990s attention has turned somewhat away from social history to cultural history, looking at gender relations in texts, actions and social exchanges.

Historical studies

The ideal Western family of the past, in which three generations coresided harmoniously in the same household, was a myth. The nuclear household structure, which husband, wife, their children and no one else, was the usual form of family in Western Europe since the sixteenth century, and in the United States since colonial settlement. Indeed, a nuclear household structure has predominated in England and Italy since the twelfth century.[3]

From the Cambridge Group came an unusually long-term analysis of the village of Colyton from 1538 to 1837. E. A. Wrigley reported a decline in 17th -century fertility and the 18th-century recovery; he concluded that rural births and marriages responded to changing economic conditions. That is, the demographic transition did not involve a change from uncontrolled fertility to its reduction by birth control but from a system of birth control through social institution and custom to one in which the private choice of individual couples played a major part in governing the fertility rate.[4]

Modernization models are common, such as Steven Mintz's A Prison of Expectations: The Family in Victorian Culture (1983), which describes the effects of modernization in the 19th century on the structure and role of the family in Great Britain and the United States.

The close identification of home and family, and the concept of the home as the family's haven and domestic retreat, are recent developments in Western society, arising as part of the process of industrialization and urbanization in France and England in the late 18th century and the United States in the early 19th century. This view was initially limited to the urban middle classes

Gender roles

Moving beyond women's history, scholars have incorporated themes of family history and gender studies. Rotundo (1994) shines a powerful light on the diaries, letters, and institutions of white, northern, middle-class men. From a Puritan society that conceived of men largely as ranked members of a community, America, changed into a land where a man was an individual who created his own place and status. The qualities that were valued in a man changed from an ideal that called for the suppression of aggressive, competitive urges to an image of manliness that valued exactly those aggressive and competitive traits. While boys were once seen as separate from men--at times, more like females; later, as a host of antisocial impulses that need to be suppressed--by 1900, men (with Theodore Roosevelt as paradigm) were seen as overgrown boys, their boyish impulses being their best part. Similarly, men's relation to women, while never abjuring the underlying framework of gender spheres, has repeatedly shifted to buttress men's superiority. Sexuality, too, has changed profoundly. For example, before the 1890s America lacked a concept of homosexuality, allowing adult male friends to spend the night in the same bed without community comment.[5]

U.S. South

Southern family history has been a historiographical battleground. Scholars such as Vernon Burton, Michael Johnson, Willie Lee Rose, and Anne Firor Scott, emphasized the patriarchal nature of antebellum southern society, notably the persistent significance of fatherly authority, hierarchy, and deference. On the other hand Jane Turner Censer, Rhys Isaac, Jan Lewis, and Daniel Blake Smith offered a diametrically opposing view, stressing the role of republicanism, romanticism, and sentimentalism in creating marriage patterns emphasizing free choice and companionship and childrearing practices emphasizing autonomy in the decades preceding the Civil War. A central goal of many recent studies has been to reshape this debate by emphasizing southern distinctiveness while moving away from rigid, static conceptions of southern patriarchy. For example, Steven Stowe emphasized ritualistic struggles over authority, autonomy, and intimacy within the antebellum planter class, while Joan Cashin showed how migration to the southern frontier intensified masculine independence and diminished female power.[6]

Legal history

The legal history of the family has taken many different interpretations of the same basic facts, such as a story of progress, in which a hierarchical, patriarchal conception of marriage gives way to a contractual, egalitarian conception; or as a story of decline, in which an individualistic, rights-centered legal discourse supplants an ideology of marital permanence. Some view marriage's legal history as the story of women's emergent rights—of the slow recognition of a wife's right to child custody, separate property and earnings, and an independent legal identity—or of a movement from permanence to easy divorce.

In the U.S. starting in the 1840s, women became active litigants, suing for support, custody of children, confirmation of separate property rights, divorce or separation, and protection from creditors. Furthermore, women's rights advocates and legal reformers demanded that separated wives receive an independent legal identity and a right to retain their earnings and custody of their children. By the 1850s, as a result of decisions by state courts, married women's property rights and earning statutes, and other legal and constitutional reforms, husbands' property rights in wives and children were increasingly contested. In the late 19th century, state judges reconstructed family law, elaborating new notions of "coercion," "consortium," and "marital privacy" as substitutes for older notions of coverture.[7]


"Family history" also means tracing the names and relationships of a specific family or related group of families over the generations. It is usually called genealogy, although strictly genealogy is limited to the study of the ancestral history of people who share common ancestors at some point; family history can also include the study of the lineages of people who share a common surname, whether or not they are in any way related.

Why people are interested

In the past, people's interest in family history was often focused largely on lines of descent from royalty, nobility and the gentry. For example, those who wanted to have banners of arms might have to demonstrate their descent from the upper classes, and there might be official bodies - like the College of Arms in England - which had to vet the purported lineage before the right to bear arms was granted. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England, Heralds of Arms would conduct "visitations" of counties to research and establish the ancestral lines of the upper classes. This semi-aristocratic focus continued for several centuries, and is reflected in nineteenth-century novels: for instance, the novels of Anthony Trollope often establish where leading characters think they are in the social order by describing (sometimes rather satirically) their ancestry. Research was often limited to little more than the production of family trees showing names and ranks.

In the United States there developed an interest in establish descent from the early European settlers or others who helped to create the nation.

During the twentieth century the focus broadened. By the end of the century family history became an interest for people from all backgrounds, and many nowadays seek not just to establish the bare lines of their ancestry but also to find out as much as they can about the lives their ancestors lived.

In some societies, such as the Maori, people learn their genealogies as part of learning who they are. In the sagas of Iceland, setting out the genealogies of the leading protagonists is an important part of introducing them into the story, and helps to demonstrate the complex web of family interrelationships that was a feature of early Icelandic society.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes in baptism of the dead, and this leads members to undertake extensive family history research.

One Name Studies

A relatively recent area of research is the "one name study": this focuses on records of people who share the same surname but may not all share ancestors. Such studies flourish in England, where there is a relative abundance of records going back many centuries. Besides the information they yield on family histories, one-name studies can also give important evidence about geographical migration because they can enable historians to see the geographical distribution of a surname at different periods. In the United Kingdom the Guild of One-Name Studies (GOONS) brings together many of those involved in one-name studies.


The study of family history has become more systematic over the last few decades, in contrast to the position a few centuries ago when family traditions might be accepted with little question. Today guidance from family history societies, books and magazines has helped researchers learn the importance of selecting sources with care and, wherever possible, cross-checking data against other sources. Even official records are not always reliable, because of transcription and other errors, or conscious deception on the part of those supplying information to the authorities. A wise family historian will always be open to new evidence which casts doubt on previous conclusions.

Sources of information are may include:

  • Knowledge of living members of the family (though some of this may not be entirely trustworthy)
  • Family Bibles
  • Records of births, marriages and deaths
  • Wills and probate records
  • Censuses
  • Immigration records
  • Passenger lists
  • Trade, street and telephone directories
  • Property and legal records
  • Newspapers
  • Social security, tax and other government records
  • Records of the armed forces
  • Diaries and letters
  • Employment and apprenticeship records
  • Charity records (for example of organizations helping the poor)
  • Manorial records
  • Previous family histories
  • Information made available by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the International Genealogical Index and "vital records"

In the last few years DNA has become for some an important adjunct to the research tools available to family historians, and especially for one-name studies. By analyzing samples of DNA from different people with a common surname connection, it is possible to obtain scientific evidence pointing to the likelihood or otherwise of their sharing a common ancestry.


The widespread ownership of personal computers has assisted the rise of family history as a popular interest.

  • Specialist software makes it easy to store and retrieve information, and to print family trees and other reports. Gone are the days of elaborate card indexes.
  • More and more original records have become available, free or commercially, on the internet, making research quicker, cheaper and easier, although it remains wise wherever possible to check data found on the internet against original paper records because of the risk of transcription errors.
  • Computers, email and the internet make it easy for those with a common interest to share information and to find guidance and advice.


The US National Genealogical Society has produced a set of standards which are widely accepted:

Remembering always that they are engaged in a quest for truth, family history researchers consistently—

  • record the source for each item of information they collect.
  • test every hypothesis or theory against credible evidence, and reject those that are not supported by the evidence.
  • seek original records, or reproduced images of them when there is reasonable assurance they have not been altered, as the basis for their research conclusions.
  • use compilations, communications and published works, whether paper or electronic, primarily for their value as guides to locating the original records, or as contributions to the critical analysis of the evidence discussed in them.
  • state something as a fact only when it is supported by convincing evidence, and identify the evidence when communicating the fact to others.
  • limit with words like "probable" or "possible" any statement that is based on less than convincing evidence, and state the reasons for concluding that it is probable or possible.
  • avoid misleading other researchers by either intentionally or carelessly distributing or publishing inaccurate information.
  • state carefully and honestly the results of their own research, and acknowledge all use of other researchers’ work.
  • recognize the collegial nature of genealogical research by making their work available to others through publication, or by placing copies in appropriate libraries or repositories, and by welcoming critical comment.
  • consider with open minds new evidence or the comments of others on their work and the conclusions they have reached.[8]

Family History Societies

A large number of Family History Societies now exist, including:

  • National societies
  • Societies with a more specific geographical focus - for those with a research interest in people in a particular area
  • Societies for those researching members of a religion or religious denomination
  • Societies for those researching people in a particular type of employment
  • Societies for those interested in a particular surname


The world's largest and most complete library for family history is the LDS Family History Library in Salt lake City, sponsored by the Mormons. Their theology encourages baptizing ancestors, but the actual name must be known.[9] Other major research centers include the Newberry Library in Chicago, and the Ft. Wayne, Indiana, Public Library. Most state historical societies have research facilities as well.

In the United Kingdom, the Society of Genealogists in London has an extensive collection of material relating to family history. Other material can be found in the National Archives.


Genealogy is related to another form of historical study, prosopography. Prosopography is the systematic study of the origins, family links, social and economic backgrounds and interactions of individuals in a historical group, and genealogical information is an important element in this. The resulting analysis can yield valuable insights into how society and institutions operated in the past. Information obtained by family historians can thus be of wider value to social, economic and political historians, especially in relation to periods for which fuller biographical information may be relatively sparse. Prosopographers like Dr Katharine Keats-Rohan have sought to establish links with more serious genealogists.


  1. In addition Sweden and Estonia sponsored major studies using Lutheran parish records. See Ann-Sophie Kalvemark, "The Country That Kept Track of Its Population: Methodological Aspects of Swedish Population Records," Scandinavian Journal of History. (1977): 21: 1—30; Juhan Kahk, Heldur Palli, and Halliki Uibu, "Peasant Family in Estonia in the Eighteenth and the First Half of the Nineteenth Centuries." Journal of Family History (1982): 7:76-89
  2. See back issues and abstracts
  3. see Peter Laslett, The World We Have Lost (1965)
  4. Peter Laslett et al, eds. An Introduction to English Historical Demography (1966); E. A. Wrigley and R. S. Schofield, The Population History of England, 1541—1871: A Reconstruction (1981)
  5. E. Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood: Transformations In Masculinity From The Revolution To The Modern Era (1994)
  6. Steven Stowe, Intimacy and Power in the Old South: Ritual in the Lives of the Planters (1990) excerpt and text search; Joan Cashin, A Family Venture: Men and Women on the Southern Frontier (1994) excerpt and text search
  7. Hendrik Hartog, Man and Wife in America: A History. (2000)
  8. © 1997, 2002 by National Genealogical Society. Permission is granted to copy or publish this material provided it is reproduced in its entirety, including this notice.
  9. See Johni Cerny and Wendy Elliot, The Library: A Guide to the LDS Family History Library. (1988).