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Mary Noll Venables

The Difference the Family Makes

And what the church has to do with it

If you ask the average European woman of child-bearing age how many children she would like to have, you are unlikely to receive the answer "2.1." That number, however, is crucial for European bureaucrats. When women on average bear less than 2.1 children, as has happened in most European countries over the last several decades, the country can no longer reproduce itself and must rely on immigration to keep its population stable and its social system healthy. Retirement benefits and social services require a pool of young, healthy workers to carry the costs; when young workers are missing, how to make up the shortfallthrough accepting more immigrants or encouraging more birthsbecomes a hot political question. Private choices about having babies have worked their way into public debate.

And whether or not to have children is but one personal choice that affects others, suggesting that private choices may not be so private after all. Recently sociologists have noted the myriad decisions that reduce participation in public life in the United States. Social commentators report that rather than joining social, professional, political, or religious organizations, people are spending ever more time in solitary activitieseven to the point of "bowling alone," as the title of Robert Putnam's recent book suggests. The simple, private decision to watch television rather than writing a letter to the editor or inviting a friend to dinner, can have far-reaching consequences for public life.

Much of the literature devoted to European population studies and American public life is cast in terms of decline; the halcyon days of babies and bridge clubs are gone, and all that remains are pensioners and individualists. But how accurate is that declensionist view? What does history have to say about it? Were women having lots more children in years past? What constituted public life in the good old days? How were ties between people built? And why were people involved in their neighbors' lives in the first place?

Katherine Lynch's Individuals, Families, and Communities in Europe, 1200-1800 offers a good starting point for investigating the evolution of European demographics and the roots of American civic life. Lynch describes distinctive patterns of familial and communal life in late medieval and early modern Europe, corralling three seemingly disparate subjects for her argument: the historical demographics of European families, involvement in religious and charitable organizations, and attempts by French revolutionaries to reform families and charities. At first glance not much connects the marriage age of Italian brides in the 14th century and charitable provisions for French soldiers in the 18th, but both questions speak to the structure and function of family and society.

Lynch suggests that the distinctive character of European social life is to be located not only in the Protestant work ethic or capitalism or democracy but alsoand perhaps even primarilyin the interaction between family and society. She argues that small, nuclear, urban families whose members entered into family-like relationships outside their homes formed the backbone of European communal life and the basis of civil society.

Lynch starts with a demographic survey of European families. Her evidence indicates that the broad outlines of urban Western European families remained fairly static for hundreds of years. (Lynch concentrates on urban families and mostly ignores rural communities.) The lure of urban employment drew people to cities: by 1300 close to 15 percent, and by 1800 almost 20 percent of Western Europeans lived in towns with populations of 2,000 or more. Although Lynch disputes the theory that city life during this period significantly shortened the life-span of most residents (the so-called urban graveyard theory), she acknowledges that European town dwellers had no choice but to encounter death frequently. High mortality often lowered marriage ages and increased the age gap between spouses; it also meant that few children, sometimes only one or two per couple, survived their parents.

Having introduced the demographic context of families, Lynch turns to the meat of her study: how families joined civic lifethat is, how they created family-like structures outside the home. In particular, she shows how the bonds forged by religious groups and local charities linked family history to the "history of the public world."

As the dominant social force in the premodern era, the church (Catholic and later Protestant as well) dominated European public life. From the 13th through the 15th centuries, most urban Christians belonged to confraternities (societies devoted to religious causes) that functioned as extended families, celebrating holidays and saints' days communally, as well as offering practical assistance and vocational solidarity. Monastic orders and lay societies like the Beguines created Christian communities that were based on volition, not biology. The naming of godparents formed ties of spiritual kinship that often equaled biological bonds: prohibitions banning marriage within the third degree (between the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of a couple) were extended to forbid marriages between godparents and godchildren or between godchildren and biological children. The church's encouragement of charity created further public ties, in this case between rich and poor. After the Reformation and the accompanying decline of universal charity, selective charity for those of the same confession reinforced confessional identity and solidarity.

Lynch quite convincingly demonstrates the church's ability to draw people into sustained relationships with each other. She leaves no doubt that Europeans were tied to each other through their confraternities, convents, lay orders, and charities. What is less clear is why the church (Catholic or Protestant) wanted to shape family-like relationships or why people looked for family-like relationships outside the home in the first place. Lynch suggests that churches and governments wanted to reduce the possibility of kinship violence, but that seems a weak account for such widely practiced labor-intensive operations.

The problem with not explaining the church's attention to social ties or, conversely, individuals' interest in the church is that it makes the church appear as only one more actor in the civic arena, one more club to which people could belong. Despite some similarities, belonging to a church is surely different from belonging to the Chamber of Commerce. When the church serves only to build social capital, the transformative nature of the church, its ability to point people to something greater than themselves, gets lost. Lynch depicts communities fostered by the church but casts little light on the love of God that was, one presumes, to have been evidenced in supporting confraternities, joining monastic communities, or giving alms.

Lynch's omission of possible stimuli for involvement in religious communities is especially striking when her last section on charity in the early years of the French Revolution is considered. Here the motives for charity seem clear: the Assembly's creation of state charity aided its campaign to obliterate the church and ensured the nation's precedence over individual families. French revolutionaries urged couples to adopt needy children, in essence asking parents to include a strange countryperson among their kin. Long-standing ties based on biology were overturned for the greater good of France.

Claims for the greater goodbe they of Christian communities or of revolutionary nationsundergird many discussions on demographics and public life. Private actions that entail privation joining a celibate community in the prime of life, comforting a baby in the middle of the night, or attending club meetings on rainy afternoonshelp build public ties and public life. Lynch's book illustrates how participation in monasteries, charities, confraternities, and revolutionary societies transferred the bonds of family life to the wider world. Although this reader still wonders what motivated church-based civic life, Lynch makes clear that from the 13th through 18th centuries, families and individuals were immersed in life outside their front doors.

One wonders how current worries about birth rates and social capital will fare when they are seen with the hindsight that Lynch enjoys. French revolutionaries were not the first, nor will they be the last, to try to shape families and social life. That birth rates and social capital are still in the news demonstrates the longevity and significance of the trends Lynch outlines. The distinctives that she located in late medieval and early modern Europe persist to some degree: the number of children required for a stable population round out a nice nuclear family, and church-based activities are still a prime route to social involvement. For us, as for 14th-century Europeans, private decisions made in the bosom of our homesdecisions to have children or join a club or give almswill echo in the greater public.

Mary Noll Venables recently received her Ph.D. in Early Modern History from Yale University and is now living in Ireland.

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