Perspectives on the Family in Spain, Past and Present

David Reher, Perspectives on the Family in Spain, Past and Present (Clarendon Press Oxford, 1997).

Reher uses many primary-source documents to examine the makeup and role of family in Spain from the seventeenth century onward. He not only examines why particular household/family sizes were prevalent in certain regions and time periods, but he discusses the effect of this on the greater community both within its own time and place and as part of a greater shift. This book outlines the basic family units you can expect your ancestors to have, and give resources to allow you to guess their socio-economic status, and understand the reasoning behind their lifestyle choices.

Summary by Chapter

The Big Picture and Smaller Perspectives

Family was central to Spanish life, with everyone invested in its wellbeing. Family studies have been increasing recently, with new classification schemes and methodologies increasing. Demographic resources will be used to examine the family and all of its roles from the seventeenth century to the present.

Patterns of Co-Residence in Spain

Family life typically takes place within households. For this book, household structures will be classified as nuclear, extended, and multiple family households.

Before 1900, northern provinces had higher household diversity than southern provinces. After 1940, family sizes shrunk as number of children decreased, but the presence of extended members of the household remained constant. Complexity increases with urbanity. Wealthier families also lived in more complex housing. The rise in life expectancy in recent years has led to an increased number of solitary households, with older couples remaining in their own homes.

The inheritance pattern also influences family structure. When impartible patterns of inheritance are prevalent, households were small and made of the nuclear family. When inheritances were less impartible, especially when one child was chosen as heir, there would be multiple co-resident households.

Family Systems and their Implications

There are two main types of family systems: the patriarchal family and the unstable family. The difference was that the first group transmitted inheritance to one heir, while in the second group it was subdivided, making family continuity impossible. Parents were legally obligated to provide dowry to their daughters, and to divide at least half their estate to their legal heirs upon their death. Because the majority of people died without creating a will, equal inheritance took place. While many children did not have full control of wills until after the parent’s death, frequent marriage contracts would give them use of land and property.

Succession varied across Spain. Theoretically, the heir was supposed to be the most morally and intellectually sound child, but it typically ended up being the eldest son, with the rest of the children being compensated through dowry or money bequests. Each area had their own specific rules for inheritance.

Family structure followed inheritance structures. For well-off peasants with impartible succession, non-heirs were constantly pushing to avoid social decline. Daughters were married to other heirs when possible, who typically were of lower social rank. Sons frequently left for cities of church service. Over time, heirs also began to move towards cities in pursuit of daughters of wealthy businessmen, leaving the management of their estate to sharecroppers or landowners.

Lower nobility lived off fixed rents, meaning their income was constantly declining. They could not re-rent their land, nor give much away in dowries. Daughters frequently went into convents, or married with dowries of yearly pensions, and the majority of men entered the clergy. Commercial bourgeoisie had more flexibility. Daughters married young men who joined the family business, and non-heir men also participated in building and expanding the family business. In every case, the economic situations of the families played a large role in their family structures.

There were few clear regional distinctions between the two classifications of families, and the classification did not always correlate to exact family structures. Stem-families worked to preserve the continuity of the family estate, preventing fragmentation of the land, and flourished where Roman law prevailed. This meant that non-heirs were discriminated against, and often needed to leave the family units to live successful lives. All would still work together to care for the elderly, and show solidarity with their greater family.

The Stages of Life

This chapter is largely a discussion of aspects of the family developmental cycle in terms of individual, household, and larger family.

Marriage is the most important lifecycle even in the formation of households. In stem-families, the heirs did not automatically gain new households with their marriage, but they are the exception. Many times there would be a short period of co-residence to facilitate the transition to married life and typically only lasted one year.

Household structures vary depending on the age of the head of household. Complexity typically accompanies younger heads, with the household size thinning over time. Co-residence in stem families prolonged the complexity of the family, and typically only young adults lived alone. Households were almost entirely headed by men, with the greatest amount of children present when the head of household was in their 40s. Children left at marriage, to seek employment, or to live with members of the extended family.

Individuals go through two reproductive cycles, one from birth till marriage, peaking when children are 10 years with typically six people per household. Household size them diminished until the individual was in their 40s, with a similar peak. As mortality rates decreased, marriage increased, leading to larger and older families.

Families tended to maintain residential proximity, making care of the elderly a task that was frequently shared between different households. Families, not the church nor the government, were expected to care for the elderly.

Death and the Family

This chapter sketches demographic realities in country and regions before during and immediately after the demographic transition.

Mortality is hard to calculate before demographic transition, but was in a state of decline since 1610. Epidemics and wars created crisis of mortality, but both incidents decreased dramatically after 1812. Mortality has traditionally been higher in towns than in rural areas.

The nineteenth century marked the beginning of significant reductions, first with mortality in children 1-4 being reduced, then all age groups being reduced by 1900, with the life expectancy increasing by 7 years between 1900 and 1910, then an additional 9 in the next twenty years. This was done first by improved living standards and public health measures, specifically in feeding and hygiene, then medical discoveries treating diseases, with drugs and immunizations, and now prolonged by medical discoveries prolonging life. As child mortality declined, families began working harder to ensure that children survived (self-fulfilling prophesy).

Marriage, Reproduction, and the Family

Marriage patterns have remained stable over time. Over time fertility, declined, leading to smaller family sizes and less time spent at home by parents.

Dimensions of the Marriage Market on the Eve of Modernization

Sex ratios give a good insight into the supply and demand of the marriage market. In areas where men were absent, there were restricted marriage opportunities for women. In areas where women were restricted, men migrated to obtain spouses. Because cultural norms dictated that men were typically older, those that survived to the proper had a greater pool of women to choose from. Young persons also expected their spouses to come from specific socio-economic groups, and had other expectations that further limited their pool of potential mates.

The commonality of marriage was beneficial to those seeking to enter into it. It allowed widowers to remarry without outside commentary, and allowed spouses to be found outside of local towns, giving greater opportunity to the unwed. The system did favor men. Because there was large amounts of migration of men from Spain to the colonies, there were less men than women. This, combined with the fact that men married younger women shorted a woman’s viable time where she could marry alongside the fact that there simply were not enough men for every woman to find a spouse.

Family Economies

Family economies relied on the wages the members could provide. In rural areas, children entered the labor force at a younger age than urban settings, and the larger number of children provided unpaid labor in family farms. Rural areas typically produced their own goods, and although workers received lower wages, were able to accrue savings as well as urban families.

Migration was key in diversifying family incomes. In rural areas, families would migrate across the neighboring areas to help others with their harvests, and younger men would leave in the off season to work elsewhere. Servants and lodgers were rarely important, especially as many farms relied on family labor. Women rarely worked outside her home. As such, they contributed to the rural income through their participation in maintaining their estates, and had limited opportunities to work in urban settings.

Changing Dimensions of Kinship Networks during the Twentieth Century

Microsimulation approximates the dimensions of kinship by yielding kin counts by age of individual, based on empirical data. Such simulations can only be used in the twentieth century, where sufficient data is available to predict kinships for specific individuals. Such experiments have shows that modern households have less uniform sizes throughout the individual’s lifespan, and that the reduced fertility and mortality gives larger numbers of kin.

While traditional Spainish household relied on death in one generation closely following marriages in the next, this is no longer the case. Inheritance can be given at any time, and can skip generations. This is due to increased economic opportunity, where individuals are expected to gain their own wealth rather than rely on or preserve their parent’s estate. Although the pool of kinship available to care for young has decreased through lowered birth rates and less strong relationships with cousins, aunts, and uncles, the amount of grandparents have increased, which fills this task.

Present and Future Perspectives for the Family in Spain

Spain has changed drastically in recent decades, and understanding the family helps contextualize these changes for women, the individual, and family units, especially as a growing number of women enter the job market. Stem families have all but disappeared. Balance must be reached to ensure fertility rates don’t drop past the point where they can be recovered.





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