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Michael Mitterauer

Historical family forms in eastern Europe in European comparison

I. Special characteristics of eastern European family forms - research results

1. In his seminal study in 1963, John Hajnal found different forms of marriage behaviour East and West of the line Trieste - St. Petersburg. east of this line, age at marriage was relatively low, West of the line it was extremely high in cultural comparison, especially among females. Hajnal called the Western marriage behaviour “European marriage pattern”. He emphasized that it was an exception compared to the rest of the world and it was his opinion that this pattern developed in the course of the early modern and modern period. He found several similarities between marriage patterns in eastern and southeastern Europe and those outside Europe. Hajnal’s important finding was the basis for a debate on the exceptional family structures in Europe. Recently, his works have become the subject of ideological critique with reference to the terminology he used, but not, of course, because of his empirical findings.

2. With reference to Hajnal’s results, Peter Laslett summarized specific characteristics of historical family forms in eastern and southeastern Europe in a European comparison in the following way:

- Proportion of resident kin High
- Proportion of multigenerational households Very high
- Proportions of households headed by never-married women High
- Proportion of solitaries Absent
- Proportion of no-family households Absent
- Proportion of simple-family households Low
- Proportion of extended-family households Low
- Proportion of multiple-family households Very high
- Proportion of complex family households (extended-family and multiple-family households) Very high
- Proportion of frérčches Very high
- Proportion of stem-family households Low
- Proportion of joint-family households Very high
- Addition to household of kin as workers Universal
- Added working kin called servants Irrelevant
- Addition to household of life-cycle servants Irrelevant
- Married servants Irrelevant
- Attachment to household of inmates as workers Occasional

Laslett’s characteristics were derived exclusively on the basis of cross-sectional census-type listings. For eastern and southeastern Europe the respective sets of data are rather scarce. Several characteristics, such as a high proportion of female-headed households, were not confirmed by other empirical research.

3. Other comparative studies added several specific characteristics of eastern and southeastern European family composition to this list.

- The principle of seniority: As a rule, the oldest coresident male is head of household, occasionally the oldest coresident female. The Western type of contractual retirement, in which the headship of household is transferred to the younger generation, is missing.

- Restriction of coresident relatives to patrilinear kinship or females marrying into the family. Males very rarely marry into families of the partners and would be given special terms.

- Absence of foster children and illegitimate children.

- Coresident non-relatives have to be integrated into the family by ritual. These forms of adoptions do not exist in the West.

The additional characteristics mentioned are limited to household composition. Qualitative questions of coresidence within the family were of minor importance in comparative family history. It has not been discussed either, whether household and houseful as research units were adequate for east and southeast European families - e. g. with reference to common economic activities of neighbouring or related families.

II. Models of explanation

1. Models of interpretation based on secular economic trends

Among the - so far relatively limited - attempts to explain the special characteristics of family forms in historic eastern and southeastern Europe, some argue (e. g. Sanderson/Alderson; Farago, Todorova) that quantitative changes led to qualitative differences between “centre” and “periphery”: population growth, transition to pastoral forms of agriculture etc. Such explanatory models cannot explain structural characteristics of eastern and southeastern European family structures, such as the strictly patrilinear order, the principle of seniority or the absence of non-related labour. These studies further hold that there was a common basis of European family forms, from which the development in eastern and southeastern Europe diverted, and thus do not follow the theory of a special status of Central and Western Europe as John Hajnal postulated. Special characteristics of eastern and southeastern European family forms are thus usually regarded as historically rather young phenomena - an opinion directed against explanations based on ethnic-archaic models of older ethnological studies.

2. Structural models of interpretation

These refer to historically very old basic cultural patterns of family forms in historic eastern and southeastern Europe, which were preserved to varying degrees in individual regions of this area. Apart from existing regional differentiation (e. g. the special status of Greece in southeastern Europe), these models regard the patrilinear structure of the kinship system as the main common principle. On this basis, most special characteristics - however, not all - can be explained (low age at marriage, patrilinear-complex family forms, the principle of seniority etc.)

a) Kinship systems

The ancient character of patrilinear structures and their strong persistence can be seen in the special features of kinship terminology in the languages of eastern and southeastern Europe: different terms for relatives of the father’s and the mother’s side, different terms for in-laws from the point of view of the groom and the in-marrying bride (the latter being the older ones) and related forms for the wife of the husband’s brother, a kin position that is not separately characterized in the West at all. Patrilinear, lineage-centred naming, forms of settlement, family rituals, forms of burials etc. point in the same direction. Elements of tribal structures [-] in which the principle of patrilinearity is particular obvious - are preserved in areas of the Western Balkans until today, but also showed a strong continuity in some regions of eastern Europe until the recent past. To the West of the Hajnal line, such strong patrilinearity and tribal structures were a very rare exception already since the Middle Ages (e. g. among isolated celtic populations), in the Mediterranean already since antiquity. Urbanization, the spread of manorial and corporative social forms, measures by the church against traditions of lineage were directed against these structures in the West.

  1. Inheritance patterns or transfers of property

In rural regions of eastern and southeastern Europe, collective forms of common property of males and property transfer within patrilinear lines of descent were long persistent. These forms were rooted in patrilinear systems of kinship or strengthened their existence. Landed property of females or property transfer to daughters were established only very late in these areas. In Western and Central Europe property rights of females or inheritance rights of women were widespread already in the Middle Ages, in the Mediterranean since antiquity. This corresponds to the spread of bilateral kinship patterns.

c) Gender-specific division of labour

Patterns of property and inheritance rights are probably linked to patterns of gender-specific divisions of labour. In many regions of eastern and southeastern Europe, the gender-specific division of labour seemed to support the persistence of male-dominated structures and thus patrilinear systems of kinship. Two particular forms of division of labour should be emphasized here - the slash-and-burn economy and transhumanent pasture. Both are based on polarized models of division of labour with only very limited chances for common work by females and males. This is generally the case for all forms of forestry, non-stall-based animal husbandry or hunting, which were more widespread in eastern and southeastern Europe than in Central and Western Europe. With forms of animal husbandry in stalls, established because of ecological reasons, and the usage of meadows, very old models of cooperation between males and females in the agrarian economy existed in North-western Europe. These models were further developed in connection with three-field agriculture. They spread in the course of the medieval settlement movement but did not reach as far as eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Mediterranean - maybe because of different climatic conditions which would not allow Western-type agricultural patterns. More polarized forms of division of labour between genders are perhaps also explained by the lower degree of urbanization. The military character of male rural population - especially in some regions in southeastern Europe - also contributes towards rigid forms of division of labour and thus more polarized gender roles.

d) Agrarian system

Until the modern period, different forms of seigneurial domination in eastern and southeastern Europe hardly influenced family and kinship relations of the rural population. This contributed to the persistence of patrilinear structures and is very different from Central and Western Europe. Here, landlords intervened very strongly in forms of domestic coresidence since the early Middle Ages. The agrarian system of peasant hides supported the development of nuclear family forms, impartible inheritance, contractual retirement, life-cycle service and other forms of coresidence with non-related persons. This agrarian system spread to eastcentral Europe in the course of the eastern settlement movement. The Hajnal line thus seems to constitute the eastern border of family forms determined by this agrarian system.

e) Influences of the church

As a rule, Christianity helped to weaken bonds of lineage and descent and strengthen the relations between spouses everywhere. Not everywhere, however, did these principles succeed to the same extent. The penetration of principles of church marriage laws was generally stronger in the area of the Western than in that of the eastern church. Also corporative and communal social forms supported by the church were stronger in the West. Consequently, patrilinear kinship structures were less affected in the area of the orthodox church than in the West. In the long run, however, also in the East Christian principles worked against structures of lineage and descent. Patrilinear patterns totally in contradiction to church marriage law, such as levirate marriages or second marriage in case of a childless first marriage, were maintained in areas of weak church influence in eastern and southeastern Europe.

Structural models on the systematic characteristics of family forms in historic eastern and southeastern Europe necessarily lead beyond studies concentrated on the analysis of single households and their composition, as well as beyond merely quantitative approaches. Basically, these models seek to understand family forms not by means of the small coresident unit itself but on the basis of general factors of the social context of families.


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Peter Czap, "A large family: the peasants' greatest wealth": serf households in Mishino, Russia, 1815-1858, in: Richard Wall, Peter Laslett and Jean Robin, eds., Family forms in historic Europe. Cambridge 1983, 105-151.

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Michael Mitterauer, Medieval roots of European family development, in: Jan Michálek, ed., Stredoeurópske kontexty l'udovej kultúry na Slovensku. Bratislava 1995, 92-105.

Michael Mitterauer, Ostkolonisation und Familienverfassung. Zur Diskussion um die Hajnal-Linie, in: Ernst Bruckmüller, ed., Vilfanov zbornik. Ljublijana 1999, 203-221.

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Maria Todorova, Slava und zadruga, in: Historische Anthropologie 1 (1993), 123-129.

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