Family and household

John van Aken (c.1699 – 1749) , Saying Grace, 1720 (source: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, reference number: WA1962.17.4)

















Featured image: Gilles van Tilborch, The Tichborne Dole (1670) [private collection]

The idea of a family in early modern England was a complicated concept. Nowadays, a family would consist of yourself, your parents and any siblings/grandparents/aunts/uncles etc. But in the early modern era, it would also include servants, apprentices etc. Thus making it seem like more of a general household than a tight-knit family.

The painting above depicts an early modern family saying grace at the dinner table. But seeing as we are provided with no clue as to who these people painted are, is it safe to assume that this is merely a married couple with their children? Or could it perhaps be a couple with their servants/apprentices? This is what makes family such a complicated matter, what was meant when people of early modern England referred to as their ‘family’ and what they referred to as their ‘household’?

Lawrence Stone, in his book The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800, identifies that there were three ideal family types in the early modern period. These were ‘the open lineage family’, ‘the patriarchal nuclear family’ and the ‘closed domesticated nuclear family’[1]. The nuclear family was in fact the normal residential arrangement of early modern England; it appeared that most families had servants and apprentices living in their household and they were even regarded as being part of the family. We can infer that the definition of ‘family’ in the early modern period was roughly the same as it is now, it just happens to include non-kin members as well as kin members.

Now, as for what a ‘household’ was in early modern England, it has been described as “a little commonwealth, by the good government whereof, God’s glory may be advanced”[2]. The household was considered as an ‘independent state’, which was usually governed by the ‘man of the house’, paying close attention to religious teachings. It didn’t however; necessarily have to include members who were related by blood, and the members didn’t necessarily consider each other to be ‘family’.

To return to our primary source, it can be that it is either depicting a kin/non-kin family, or a household. But, taking into account the information we have been provided with by historians, perhaps this could be a painting of a couple with their servants/apprentices enjoying dinner as a ‘family’.

But to put things simply, early modern family and household appears to be a rather confusing topic of discussion as there was not just one set family type and the idea of a household is very different to contemporary ideas.

[1] Sharpe, J.A., Early Modern England: A Social History 1550-1760, (Arnold, second edition, 1997), pp. 58

[2] Dod, J. and Cleaver, R., A Godly Form of Household Government: for the Ordering of Private Families, According to the Direction of God’s Word, (London, 1598), pp.1


One thought on “Family and household

  1. This starts somewhat shakily, as it wasn’t clear at the outset which of your two images you were referring to! But this is a neat and compact blog, raising some of the difficulties of applying the terms you mention. You seem to opt for this being a ‘nuclear’ family but you haven’t gone beyond Stone’s now quite limited choices; what about Naomi Tadmor’s more recent ideas about the extended nuclear model?
    Practically, please don’t use contractions such as ‘etc’ in written work like this; but otherwise this is clearly written.


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