In English


Kin structure and Inheritance customs in sixteenth and seventeenth century Willingham
(Doctoral thesis in Economics, Tohoku University, Japan, 1995) - summary

How are the development of capitalism and the formation of the modern nuclear family related? The two phenomena are inter-related in a complicated manner. In an attempt to solve the question I have investigated family/kinship structure and inheritance customs in one parish on the edge of the Fens, namely Willingham (in the Diocese of Ely). This parish experienced extensive immigration in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The development of common law use and the fragmentation of land holdings in a relatively short period affected kinship structure and inheritance customs. Furthermore, while the numbers of immigrants, emigrants and families increased, family size decreased. Simultaneously collaboration between kinsfolk crossing differences in size of land-holding and/or social status occurred. The latter's activity was based on the responsibility for family maintenance and influenced generation succession. In this perspective inheritance customs changed qualitatively.

In the first chapter I made annual counts of wills, these being probate documents for distribution of the testator's possessions to various people, mostly kin relations. These documents have gradually been used in the field of early Modern English Social Economic History expecially regional history. The trends in the statistics coiincide with demographic patterns especially in regard to numbers of deaths. Moreover the trends show the dramatic effects of the influenza epidemic which struck the whole of England in the 1550's. Following the influenza period the custom of will-making became popular even amongst lower social status people to the extent that one third of the adult male population of England practiced the custom.

In order to understand family and kinship strucure more clearly, in Chapter 2 I investigated how to use materials closely connected with the region. David Cressey has recently detailed the history of research of kin relations, pointing out the limitations of wills as historical documents. He says that, compared with inter-continental letters, wills are biased in terms of class. References to relatives in wills are also limited. However, the annual counts of the number of wills in Willingham (in the Diocese of Ely) coiincides with mortality patterns. There is also an important document named 'Parish Register' which contains information on the Baptisms, Marriages and Burials of almost all parishioners. Family Reconstitution Forms (FRF's) have been compiled based on these parish registers. Whereas wills provide information on larger kin networks and inheritance customs, FRF's reconstruct family members in the unit of nuclear families ie. parents and children. The information provided in the FRF's thus qualitatively supplements that provided by the wills.

In Chapter 3, in order to understand the basic structure of kin relations in Willingham, as well as migration and settlement patterns, I used FRF's to confirm that the increase in migration and the reduction of family size made generation succession more difficult. Taking eight generations we see that more or less 20% of the same surname groups continued. There were indeed many emigrants: in three out of four families where the later life of parents is unknown, their children's later lives are also unknown. Yet the number of immigrants was even greater, up to three out of four in one generation. However, if the parents had married outside Willingham, more than half of the children, especially daughters, later left Willingham. Furthermore, more than one third of families with no sons, just daughters who reached at least fifteen years, did not see their daughter marry. In the latter half of the seventeenth century Willingham also experienced very high mortality rates for female infants. This decreased the potential number of adults in future years. The average age of male marriage thus also increased in this period. These factors, along with the changing economic and social demands of Wilingham society, cumulatively provided suitable conditions for the emergence of the modern nuclear family.

In Chapter 4 the range of kinship is expanded in order to investigate family collaboration and succession. In this connection various documents are employed including the Great Subsidy returns and land surveys. Although Fletcher and Stevenson have emphasised that polarisation in economic and social classes was accompanied by cultural differentiation, in Willingham more than half the householders were found to have collaborated with their relations, crossing economic and social categories. Turling and Durham, investigated by Keith Wrightson (the former also providing the evidence for Fletcher) provide data on kinship density to compare with Willingham. In the analysis of FRF's Willingham showed rather surprising mobility. However, in comparison with Turling and Wickham, where even higher mobility was found, Willingham was a relatively stable society in terms of kin density. Kin networks show growth and shrinkage over the two hundred year period with the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth century clearly being a period of expansion. Such shrinkage and expansion corresponded with the wider society that Willingham belonged to. However the pauperisation of Willingham as a whole, accompanied by land-holding fragmentation, reflected on kin relations. Kin groups that were able to continue more than two hundred years were found to be in the proportion of 20%.

In Chapter 5 we discovered that more than half of the testators do not fit the common image, that is they consist of fathers with unaged childreen and bachelors or testators without heirs. There is also a difference in the content of wills between the second half of the sixteenth century and onwards. Whereas the age of inheritance varied in the former period, in the seventeenth century the age was commonly 21 years, the original age for the upper class. Furthermore, the number of references increased up to three degrees especially in the wills of testators with unaged children. In the seventeenth century references decreased to just two degrees.

This series of changes illustrates how inheritance customs gradually became formalised, through the process of documentation, and detached from real life. In the wider economic perspective, the world itself, centering on Northern and Western Europe, changed significantly in this period. At this particular time we found an increasing number of references to unborn children as bequeaths. This symbolised the response of Willingham inhabitants to such a significant change. The inhabitants attitude was clearly reflected in inheritance customs and kin relations. In the early modern period critical change in local economic life seems to have taken place more rapidly than generally believed. In such shorter period, the modern nuclear family appeared hand in hand with the development of capitalism.


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