Ancestors: The Loving Family in Old Europe

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ISBN-13: 978-0674004849
ISBN-10: 0674004841
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Ozment, a professor of ancient and modern history at Harvard University, has researched diaries, letters, fiction, and even woodcuts to present a picture of pre-industrial family life in Europe in the Middle Ages. He discusses such themes as working women (in late medieval Cologne, women's guilds of yarn makers, gold and silk embroiders, and silk makers were among the city's most labor-intensive and highly paid) and women's place in religion and society. He examines the practice of contraception (condemned by the church and justified by the laity), parent-child relations, infanticide, wet-nursing, and parental advice to children. In a Hamburg poet's letter to one of his 10 children, he tells him to "be happy to learn from others, and where there is talk of wisdom, human happiness, light, freedom, and virtue, listen intently." Ozment's absorbing look at some of our ancestors living in a wholly different society shows us how little things have changed. George Cohen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

Ozment…has written a concise answer to [Philippe] Ariès and his admirers which can be read in a pleasurable couple of hours by the occupant of a Saturday sofa or a seat on a commuter train. In Ancestors…Ozment sets out to challenge a conception of the premodern family as a stifling patriarchal tyranny inimical to ‘bonds of deep affection or relationships of true equality’… Everybody interested in the history of the family should certainly read this thought-provoking little book, tract for the times as well as guide to the past. (Ralph Houlbrooke Times Literary Supplement 2002-03-15)

In the 1960s and 1970s a group of enormously influential historians…argued that pre-industrial families were…rigidly ‘patriarchal,’ and children were viewed mainly as assets; hence the deep bonds of love and care between parent and child which we now associate with the ‘nuclear family’ were essentially nonexistent. In this elegant, persuasive book…Ozment presents a very different picture. He argues that the relationship between spouses was far more cooperative and loving, and the affection of parents for their children was far fiercer, than [Philippe] Ariès and his disciples would have it… An example of scholarship confirming common sense (and refuting the highly theoretical work of once trendy historians)… Ancestors amounts to an eloquent—and academically unfashionable—condemnation of those historians who approach an earlier age ‘with an eye only to determining where that age stands on some burning present-day issue.’ (Benjamin Schwarz The Atlantic 2001-04-01)

Steven Ozment’s handsome short book Ancestors is an unashamed polemic, a robust if not uniformly persuasive defense of the existence of the ‘loving family in Old Europe,’ and an assertion of its fundamental continuity with modern family experience… Ozment is…a first-rate religious historian. (Eamon Duffy New York Review of Books 2002-12-19)

For some years now, says Steven Ozment…historians have been…maintaining that all the virtues we associate with families today—love, cooperation, mutual respect, the nurturing of children—are modern inventions, unknown in Europe prior to the Renaissance. Any evidence to the contrary [has been] dismissed as an exception to the rule. But how ‘exceptional’ can it be, Ozment asks, if sources ranging from the arts to legal records to advice books to private letters and diaries, from the days of the Roman Empire to the modern era, all attest not to a Dark Ages of the emotions but to an emotional life much like our own? From sources such as these he marshals ample proof that men and women throughout history have married for love, have raised their children with tender affection and sent them out into the world with a mixture of pride and trepidation, and that women’s work both inside and outside the home has been acknowledged and valued. Ozment speaks to a general audience, not just a scholarly one, when he warns us about the temptation to believe ‘that past, present, and future constitute absolutely different periods of time and fundamentally distinct types of humanity.’ How refreshing it is to find a scholar of Ozment’s stature speaking up for such homely notions as common sense and the persistence of human nature. (Boston Globe 2001-03-18)

Ozment…has researched diaries, letters, fiction, and even woodcuts to present a picture of pre-industrial family life in Europe in the Middle Ages. He discusses such themes as working women…and women’s place in religion and society. He examines the practice of contraception (condemned by the church and justified by the laity), parent–child relations, infanticide, wet-nursing, and parental advice to children… Ozment’s absorbing look at some of our ancestors living in a wholly different society shows us how little things have changed. (George Cohen Booklist 2001-02-15)

Ozment argues persuasively 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. (Kirkus Reviews 2000-12-15)

A major contribution to a field of historical study that has been particularly active over the last forty years. It provides a magisterial overview that is uniformly astute and fair-minded of a great many studies, both general and specific, written in many countries from many points of view, some of them highly controversial. It ends with a compelling explanation of the method underlying Ozment's own substantial contributions to the field. (Robert M. Kingdon, author of Adultery and Divorce in Calvin's Geneva)

In this boldly written polemic Steven Ozment takes an enthusiastic cudgel to prevailing negative perceptions of Early Modern family life. Drawing on his unrivalled knowledge of contemporary family archives, Ozment shows that contrary to myth, relations between husband and wife, and between parent and child, were characterized by affection and mutual respect. This text, the product of half a lifetime of research and contemplation, will be an important point of departure for future scholarship on the subject. (Andrew Pettegree, University of St Andrews)

This is vintage Ozment: fluent, insightful, provocative. Ancestors challenges us to take a fresh look at the way we approach the history of the family. (Roderick Phillips, Carleton University)

Over the past three decades, Steve Ozment has brought to brilliant light and life the intricacies and intimacies of the Western family. This book is a crisp distillation of his most impressive findings, and a stirring declaration of a new historiography of the Western family. (John Witte, Jr., Emory University)
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (March 26, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674004841
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674004849
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.5 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,695,974 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Bethany Torode on January 30, 2002
Format: Paperback
I don't think I've ever given a book 5 stars before, but this one requires it. I'd love to give a copy to every new parent I know for the "Parental Advice" chapter alone. (It should also be required reading in every Child Development course.) Not only is it a delightful read, the hardcover edition (unquestionably worth the extra $) is classically typeset and bound in such a way that you feel as though you should have discovered it in the corner of an old bookstore.
"Because history is the only deep, empirical record of human behavior we have," writes Ozment, "it is imperitive that new generations on the brink of an unknown future possess the fairest and most accurate information about preceeding ones." Ozment has sifted through the volumes of historical study to present this eloquent yet very succint (I read it in a week) work of verbal art. His narrative is judicial and far from overbearing; he lets the centuries speak for themselves, in their own words--the mark of a wise writer.
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful By pnotley@hotmail.com on May 1, 2001
Format: Paperback
All happy families are alike, or so hopes early modern German historian Steven Ozment in his rispote to such scholars as Philippe Aries, Edward Shorter, and Lawrence Stone. In contrast to their generally pessimistic view of the pre-modern family as a horribly cruel institution towards women and children, Ozment portrays the family as loving, with respect between spouses and kindness towards children. Contrary to Aries, early modern and medieval Europeans did not view children just as little adults, but viewed childhood as a series of stages. Parents were horrified and grief stricken when children died, toys were not a development of the eighteenth century, and infanticide was not as common as people might think.
Ozment's account is generally accurate as far as it goes. And in fact the "modernization" paradigm of extreme pre-modern callousness towards women and children has been challenged directly and indirectly by a wide range of historians such as E.P. Thompson, Eugene Genovese, Herbert Gutman, Martine Segalen, Keith Thomas and John Demos. Ozment's account is distinguished by being less well argued. There is a tendency to ignore the harsher side of things. Arguing against the idea that the Middle Ages was a pestilential hell-hole, Ozment argues that women actually had more opportunities than they would have for centuries to come. But once those occupations narrowed at the time of the Reformation, Ozment says that wasn't so bad, since women found joy and self-worth in being mothers. Much of his account relies on the literate urban German middle class, a tiny minority of the population.
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