The English family, it's thought, did not change rapidly or radically during the early modern period. Most English people in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries lived in what demographers call 'simple' households: a married couple, their dependent children and sometimes their servants - a 'nuclear' family, in short, rather than a complex or extended one. Like other nationalities in North-West Europe, the English practised 'neo-local' residence: on marrying, a young couple would settle in a separate household near their parents. Marriages tended to be consensual rather than enforced by parental fiat, contracted in the partners' mid-to-late twenties, and producing five or six children: this was a 'low pressure' population system, in which people had a good chance of surviving and could get by with moderate levels of fertility. Forty per cent of children would move away from the parental home some years before marrying, in order to earn enough to set up a home of their own. In old age, parents were often dependent on their adult children, but large numbers of them (25 per cent of widows over 65 and 50 per cent of couples) were able to maintain separate establishments, especially after the passage of the Poor Laws at the beginning of the 17th century.
LRB 3 November 2005 | PDF Download