english individualism

*update 08/09/13: i should’ve mentioned that the kroyl and penifader families that judith bennett looked at in her research lived in bridgstock, northamptonshire which is in the east midlands.
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it goes back a long way.

in “The Origins of English Individualism,” which i haven’t actually read (yet), alan macfarlane apparently puts forth the argument that english society was comprised of a bunch of independent, “atomized” individuals by at least the thirteenth century. we’ve already seen that the nuclear family — not clans or tribes or even extended families — was the fundamental social unit in england by the 1200s. this is quite different from how things stood between two- and seven-hundred years earlier.

in “The Tie that Binds: Peasant Marriages and Families in Late Medieval England,” judith bennett examined the manor court records from a couple of neighboring villages in england in the early 1300s, specifically looking for info on the social networks of one married couple (henry kroyl and agnes penifader) and their families. neither the kroyls nor the penifaders were wealthy families, but they were well-to-do, juding by the court cases in which they were involved (property transfers, etc.).

by mapping out the social networks of henry and agnes kroyl, bennett finds no evidence that their extended families or kin played a significant role in their socio-economic circle. henry kroyl had quite a few dealings with one of his brothers, with whom he obviously shared quite a strong bond, but apart from some not very surprising transfers of property at marriage and the death of parents, henry and agnes kroyl had made their own way in life via exchanges and alliances with various, unrelated members of their community. in other words, the kroyls were quite independent [pgs. 127-28]:

“When Kroyl junior and Agnes exchanged marriage vows in the summer of 1319, the importance of their union redounded strongly on themselves, but only minimally on their families of origin. Their marriage was a binding tie within narrow limits. Its impact was felt most keenly at the center, by the principals, and then expanded out in waves that created options, not requirements. These possibilities moved horizontally and extended neither up nor down generationally. Actual responses were always strongly oriented toward the marital couple, and most social linkages moved to that center, not beyond or through it. This marriage joined together two individuals, not their families. It created a conjugal family, not a family alliance.

The image of marriage that emerges from these analyses is strongly individualistic. The lives of Kroyl junior and Agnes were profoundly affected by their marriage, but its impact upon their siblings, their parents, and their descendants was fairly insubstantial. It would be unreasonable, in view of this evidence, to think that the Kroyl and Penifader parents manipulated or coerced their children into this marriage. Neither the parents nor their other children benefited enough to merit excessive familial interference in the decision. Kroyl junior and Agnes almost certainly did not marry without recourse to familial advice and support, but such familial input probably did not overshadow the essentially personal nature of their undertaking. More than likely, the actions that culminated in this marriage conformed to ecclesiastical prescriptions; the primary decisions and commitments rested upon the principals, supported secondarily by their families and their community.

The family structure that most dominated the social lives of the Kroyls and Penifaders was the small, nuclear group.

edit: boilerplate and boilerplate 2.0

previously: but what about the english?

(note: comments do not require an email. brigstock — where the kroyls were from.)

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9 Comments

  1. The most disappointing thing about Macfarlane’s book is that he doesn’t actually tell you the origins of English individualism. You get like two paragraphs where he speculates about Germanic tribesmen, but that’s it.

    Reply

  2. @fredr – “The most disappointing thing about Macfarlane’s book is that he doesn’t actually tell you the origins of English individualism.”

    hmmm. well, guess i won’t run out and buy it then.

    Reply

  3. Cool post. Knowing that the phenomenon already existed is not a bad first step towards exploring its origins. At least you know it was before then.

    Reply

  4. english society was comprised of a bunch of independent, “atomized” individuals by at least the thirteenth century.

    What I want to know–and from what FredR says, Macfarlane doesn’t explain it–is which came first: Did the English become so individualist because they started atomizing their families, or did they atomize their families because they were so naturally individualist? And if they were, why? Just the alchemy of Germanics + Celts + some Scandinavians = a new, super-individualist ethnic group, the English?

    On the subject of the English’s weird habit of farming out their kids en masse as servants during their adolescence from the 16th c. on, this paper by David Sven Reher is a good quick introductory read. (He sources Laslett, Mitterauer and Goody too.) Reher points up some of the resulting differences between “weak-family” northern Europe and “strong-family” southern Europe, including the “good” (less public corruption, well-functioning democracy in N. Europe) as well as the “bad” (higher suicide and homelessness rates in N. Europe, the elderly living and dying all alone). He’s a demographer as well as a historian, gives an interesting perspective.

    Reply

  5. @luke – “Knowing that the phenomenon already existed is not a bad first step towards exploring its origins.”

    @m.g. – “What I want to know–and from what FredR says, Macfarlane doesn’t explain it–is which came first: Did the English become so individualist because they started atomizing their families, or did they atomize their families because they were so naturally individualist?”

    well, i think you guys prolly know my opinion on this. (~_^) i suspect that the english became so individualistic because they started atomizing their families (via all the outbreeding). the germanics, celts, and scandinavians — all of them — were either tribal or clannish before they adopted christianity, and then they weren’t not much long afterwards. i think the outbreeding — the loosening of the genetic ties between extended family members — set the stage for the development of english individualism. (of course, i could be wrong — it’s my working theory! (^_^) )

    the mix of ethnicities in england, tho, is probably important, too. that’s rather unique for northwestern europeans (except maybe for normandy). you would think that must’ve played a role, too.

    my question is (and i’m asking this question because i’m woefully ignorant of medieval european history): how did the feudal system differ between england and, say, the continental germanic areas? the manorial system in the carolingian world really seems to have worked to further shuffle up people, thus breaking down the genetic ties even further. was that the same in england? was there more manoralism there or less? for that matter, how much of the population at any given time in continental europe lived and worked on the manors? was it most people? half of the people?

    got lots of autumn/winter reading to do. (~_^)

    Reply

  6. @m.g. – “On the subject of the English’s weird habit of farming out their kids en masse as servants during their adolescence from the 16th c. on, this paper by David Sven Reher is a good quick introductory read.”

    you and i are working off of the same reading list! (^_^)

    i had a look at that paper early on here (didn’t post about it, tho) and it was very interesting. all the stem family vs. nuclear family stuff. and, yeah — things like the lack of homelessness in places like spain and italy are very interesting. extended families are good for taking care of people like that!

    must have another look at it.

    Reply

  7. ” i suspect that the english became so individualistic because they started atomizing their families (via all the outbreeding)”

    i think that’s probably it also.

    the second question then is why did certain populations follow the church rules more strictly than others? something else had happened to the northern populations to make them so worshipful of THE LAW.

    .
    “how did the feudal system differ between england and, say, the continental germanic areas?”

    my reading is from a few decades back but when i was studying it the man from the books he say feudalism didn’t really arrive in England till the Norman conquest. there may have been some revisionism since then but i wouldn’t believe it for the simple reason that feudalism = knights and there weren’t any knights before the Norman conquest. The Saxons still fought in the old Nordic way.

    i don’t know how it differed, if at all, but it started a bit later.

    .
    “On the subject of the English’s weird habit of farming out their kids en masse”

    I recall reading one thing where a medieval knight was cited as saying you had to send your sons out to train as squires with other knights because you couldn’t beat your own sons hard enough to toughen them up to the neccessary degree.

    Reply

  8. @g.w. – “something else had happened to the northern populations to make them so worshipful of THE LAW.”

    yes. what’s that about? or maybe to turn it around: why weren’t the southern populations (and, i think, the eastern ones to some extent) so worshipful of the law?

    there is also this connection with the agricultural revolution of the time — manorialism — which didn’t take hold in the south or the east for different, mostly ecological, reasons. it might’ve just paid better to let go of the extended family ties in the north. or, perhaps, it just didn’t hurt to do so. dunno yet.

    Reply

  9. […] This is explained here.  The country that gave us modern democracy, modern capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution, England, had embraced the modern nuclear family early on.  In such a system, where all were related through extensive outbreeding, and each person needed to make it on their own abilities, and where the voice of every man was important, did the attitudes and beliefs that were the founding principles our modern society emerge (including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) (https://hbdchick.wordpress.com/2011/09/01/but-what-about-the-english/, https://hbdchick.wordpress.com/2011/10/24/english-individualism/, https://hbdchick.wordpress.com/2012/02/22/english-individualism-ii/, https://hbdchick.wordpress.com/2011/07/13/and-so-my-next-question-naturally-is/). […]

    Reply

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