Hartman, Mary S. The Household and the Making of History: a Subversive
View of the Western Past (Cambridge University Press, 2004). 297 pp,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Gayle K. Brunelle Ph.D.
California State University, Fullerton