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Book Review


Hartman, Mary S. The Household and the Making of History: a Subversive View of the Western Past (Cambridge University Press, 2004). 297 pp, $24.99.

     In giving The Household and the Making of History the subtitle "a subversive view of the Western past," Mary S. Hartman makes explicit her view that the argument she makes in this book is not merely a reinterpretation, but represents instead a radical departure from the ways in which historians have understood the development of the West in relationship to the rest of the world. The Household and the Making of History, while focused primarily on the West, thus comprises an important contribution to world history as well as to the history of women and gender, because Hartman views the Western "late-marriage pattern" that is at the core of her interpretation in the context of the "early-marriage pattern" that dominates everywhere else. Regardless of the merits of her argument—for which she provides a compelling case—her approach will resonate with world historians because she is viewing the West as a region with unique characteristics, and the Western marriage pattern as an anomaly, rather than as the norm against which all other regions of the world should be measured. 1
     Hartman argues that systems of land inheritance and agricultural production in Northwestern Europe gave rise in the late-Middle Ages to a pattern of late-marriage on the part of both men and women. The impact of these later marriages was especially large for women, because whereas in early-marriage societies men in fact do often marry at about the same age as they do in late-marriage societies (in their mid- to late-twenties), women in early marriage societies usually marry quite young, often at the onset of puberty. In Northwestern Europe, rather than remaining home and working as part of an extended family until they moved into their husband's household, and from the authority of their parents directly into that of their husbands and mothers-in-law, young women, like their male peers, found work outside of the home until they could amass sufficient wealth to set up a stable and relatively independent family unit. 2
     The consequences of this change in marriage patterns were enormous, Hartman contends, and underlay many of the most momentous developments in Western history, such as the growth of state power and industrialization. The unstable households that late-marriage patterns fostered obliged Northwestern Europeans to devise new institutions to perform services that extended families offered in early-marriage societies. In addition, the enhanced role of women as producers of wealth before and during marriage, and as "deputy-husbands" to their spouses, undermined traditional gender roles and justifications for patriarchal power, leading directly to the rise of feminism and the emancipation of women, as well as the blurring of gender roles and redefinition of the family taking place in Western societies today. These were, of course, an unanticipated side effect of the late-marriage pattern, and the product of an evolutionary process that has been going on for over a millennium. 3
     Finally, Hartman emphasizes that it was thus the choices of millions of ordinary people regarding marriage, childbearing, household structures and inheritance patterns, as much as (or more than) the decisions of the ruling elite, that determined the economic, social, and political future of Northwestern European societies. Historians have over-emphasized rulers and their institutions, assuming incorrectly that it was they, and not the common folk, who were responsible for the patterns of state-formation, institutional development and, ultimately, industrialization. Hartman argues instead that the characteristics of Western "modernity" resulted from changes in organization of labor within and outside of European households practicing the late-marriage pattern. 4
     Like all pioneering syntheses, The Household and the Making of History will no doubt spark a good deal of research to support or refute Harman's conclusions. Although Hartman's argument concerns "Northwestern Europe," in fact the vast majority of her sources are Anglo-American. Further research in Europe and elsewhere is likely to reveal that rather than the two dominant and more or less "pure" models of early or late marriage that Hartman portrays here (despite her discussion of a "mixed" pattern in Southern Europe), there most probably were scores of variations on both models practiced around the world, with resulting subtle and not-so-subtle ramifications for social and economic development and gender relations. Generalization is always the great danger when comparing large regions of the world to each other. 5
     The Household and the Making of History is one of the most significant recent works on gender and should be required reading for European and world historians and scholars of gender. It is quite suitable to advanced undergraduate students and graduate students, who will find Hartman's thought-provoking reassessment of European history challenging and exciting. She includes sufficient historiographical background that most college history majors who have had courses on European history and/or women and gender should be able to follow her arguments, which are also well-structured, unambiguous, and clearly-written. 6
Gayle K. Brunelle Ph.D.
California State University, Fullerton

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