ANCESTORS by Steven Ozment
Kirkus Star


The Loving Family in Old Europe
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Ozment (Flesh and Spirit, 1999, etc.) argues persuasively that medieval and early Renaissance families displayed in abundance many of the characteristics of modern ones.

The author begins this brief but never superficial analysis by exposing the inadequacies and inaccuracies of the earlier theories of family and childhood—such as those advanced by Philippe Ariès and his successors (primarily Michael Mitterauer and Reinhard Sieder, Edward Shorter, Jean-Louis Flandrin, and Lawrence Stone). Ozment believes that the truth about family structure and dynamics cannot be inferred from statistics but is to be found instead in the archives of actual families—in surviving letters, diaries, financial records, wills, and other documents. He employs archival research (“microhistorical studies,” he calls them) to drive home his principal points—that women at the end of the Middle Ages were not terribly dissatisfied with their lot (they viewed themselves as co-workers and co-earners), that medieval parents did not consider their children “little adults” and in fact recognized that childhood consisted of various stages with varying requirements, that parents loved their children fiercely and mourned deeply their often premature deaths. He shows that infanticide, swaddling, and wet-nursing were not nearly so common as once thought—and in fact believes the killing of children is probably more common today. He has assembled some powerful documentary evidence to support his theses, all of it convincing, some of it amusing. A 17th-century mother advises her daughter: “At parties . . . accept drinks only from other girls.” And: “When boys happen to come into your bedroom, hide behind the bed and hit them in the face.” Ozment argues that the family has not evolved slowly over the last five centuries into the sentimental, nuclear unit it appears to be today; rather, it has always been both the bedrock and the fault line of humankind.

A groundbreaking work: The hammer of Ozment’s silvery prose and sturdy logic shatters the surprisingly fragile theories of some of the trendiest historians of the human family. (6 halftones, 4 line illustrations)

Pub Date: March 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-674-00483-3
Page count: 192pp
Publisher: Harvard Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2001


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