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Patriarchy and the “familia” – Part II

13 January, 2011

During the thousands of years that humankind was developing, clans or packs could be either patriarchal or matriarchal. The terms simply meant the order of succession to leadership or land and had nothing to do with surpression or inequality.

While the species was following the hunter-gather lifestyle, men and women worked equally to provide the food necessary for survival. Women gathered roots, berries, nuts, seeds and whatever else they could find that was edible, Men hunted for whatever meat they could find to supplement the meal with. Women who were not pregnant may have also hunted, but by and large the hunting was done by men. Often these trips meant days away from the group, chasing a monkey through the Amazon, an antelope in the Savannas, a mammoth in the frozen glaciers, a whale, a goat, a fish, etc. One of the theories about men’s heart attacks was that they needed much adrenaline while on these long run, chases, or battles and that modern man had not enough time to adapt to a more sedentary lifestyle. I’m no expert in this field, but in does make sense. In any case, women stayed around the “village,” the elderly often caring for the children while the mothers gathered, although some women carried their children with them. Either way, anthropologists suggest that there were not always limitations on paternity as long as the father was a member of the clan and that women easily shared the breastfeeding of clan babies.

When the agricultural revolution happened, things changed for the groups as well. The land became property and far more valuable. Once possessed, it was something to keep and pass on. Family units often consisted of larger groups than a nuclear family. A son-in-law might move in to help work the land. People did not even have to be related to live on the farm.  Working the land was harder than hunting and required more constant and consistent labor.  A small group of hunters can gather up enough meat to last a clan  a week or two while they enjoyed the respite, but a farm must be worked daily and for long hours.  The larger the farm, the more labor needed.  Women could work the land, of course, but not while they were pregnant, nursing or caring for a child.  And someone had to make and mend clothing, prepare food, and keep the house comfortable.  Like it or not,  not all women are capable of running a farm while raising children, especially in a time when contraceptives were not available.

In my spouse’s family history, there are often friends living with a mixture of closely and distantly related people. Sometimes, several homes were built on the farm and sometimes they lived in one big rambling home.   Some of the women ended up with 13 children; some of the men had 3 wives over their 50-60 year life span.  Some never married because they had to stay home to help support the whole group.  Life on the farm was good, but involved hard work.

According to a book in my library (Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages, by Francis and Joseph Gies)

The word ‘FAMILY” in the sense of residential and biological unit is relatively new. Before the eighteenth century no European language had a term for the mother-father-children grouping. The meaning of the Latin cognate, familia, from a common Indo-European word signifying “house”, persisted from Roman times throughout the Middle Ages into the early modern period: the people who lived in a house, including servants and slaves. Usually the familia was large, and sometimes the majority of members were biologically unrelated, as for example, in the familia of a king, a great lord, or a bishop. Relationships of consanguinity played and important part in the society of the past, a more important part than they do today, but family boundaries were more blurred. The conjugal unit did not exist in isolation as it does today, therefore it did not need a name. [I added the bold emphasis where italics were used in regular book font.]

Wow! No such thing as a “nuclear family?” People with a common interest living and working together. women enjoying a larger social group with more likelihood of support in times of need and possibly more protection from abuse. Where did the nuclear family come from and why is there all this constant chatter about the dangers of breaking it up? What has happened that makes us now want to protect “the family” in the current sense without recognizing the advantages of other alternatives?  And why do we not remember that women once had support groups within their own “familia?’

Patriarchy and The Industrial Revolution. (Part III)

One Comment leave one →
  1. goofsmom permalink
    15 January, 2011 21:15


    I am enjoying this series. Very interesting concepts and questions.


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