- As in all societies throughout history, the family was the basic building block of late antique and early medieval society. The structure, definition, and size of families, however, evolved over time, as the nature of society itself changed. That notwithstanding, the family remained an important institution throughout the period, even when the ascetic and monastic movement emerged and challenged conventional family life. Indeed, during the fourth to eighth centuries the family became an even more stable and important institution, and the evolution of marriage customs in the same period further reinforced the structure of the family and its importance in society.According to Tacitus (c. 56-c. 120), the Roman moralist and historian, the pre-migration Germanic family was a tight-knit unit. He notes that mothers nursed their own children, who often ran about naked and dirty, which allowed them to develop their bodies fully. Children were raised with minimal pampering and were only married once they had reached maturity. Adultery was rare, according to the Roman writer, and women caught in adultery were severely punished. The importance of the marriage vow and of family was taken very seriously, and women were expected to share in their husbands' labors in the field and even in war. Not only was the nuclear family bound closely together, but the extended family was as well. Members of the family were expected to participate in family feuds, and nieces "are as highly honored by their uncles as by their own fathers"(118). This idyllic picture, which may have more to do with Tacitus's desire to criticize contemporary Roman mores than any desire to reveal the reality of the Germanic situation, bears a grain of truth; the close bonds of the family in later barbarian Europe supports the portrayal in Tacitus of the pre-migration German family.The family of the early Middle Ages was shaped not only by pre-migration Germanic tradition, but also by Roman and Christian traditions. Indeed, as the various Germanic peoples settled in the former Western Empire, they came into contact with Roman legal traditions and Christian views of the family. According to Roman law, the father was the paterfamilias, who had complete control over all his children as long as he lived. Although the life-and-death authority once exercised by the Roman father-according to legend, the founder of the Republic, Brutus, executed his own son for the son's betrayal of the city-no longer was in force by the fourth century of the Common Era, the father retained significant power in the family, which reinforced Germanic tendencies in that regard. Christian teachings emphasized friendship and charity within the family, and Christian theologians strove to define the importance of marriage, creating the monogamous traditions that shaped marriage and the family by the eighth century.In the early Middle Ages, however, the family was in a somewhat fluid state owing to the various marriage customs of the Germanic peoples. Indeed, loose marital practices allowed for a much broader definition of family than that of a mother, father, and children. Polygyny was practiced, at least by kings and nobles, into the eighth century, and all children were welcomed by their father; illegitimate children even shared in the inheritance. Indeed, Charles Martel was born to an illicit union and rose to command the Frankish kingdom in the early eighth century. And the history of Gregory of Tours is filled with the multiple marriages of the Merovingian kings and their numerous concubines and children. This situation changed, however, under the Carolingian dynasty, which sought to promote monogamous marriages and thus stabilized family structure.The family was also an economic unit. Marriages involved exchanges of often significant amounts of moveable wealth and property and were arranged to promote the economic interests of both sides. The family household was the center of much economic activity. It was there that the basic economic activities of the period took place. Cooking, brewing beer, baking, and spinning were done in the home. Women also prepared candles, soap, and other necessities for the family, and animal husbandry and farming were performed at this level. And all members of the family participated in the economic activity of the household. At the head of the household was the father, and all members of the family were subject to his authority.It has been customary to maintain that children were raised with little sentimentality or affection. Indeed, it has been suggested that the chances for the survival of children were so slim that it is likely that little attention was paid to them before they were seven years old or so and that even then they were treated roughly. Corporal punishment, as contemporary legal codes reveal, was practiced, fathers could sell their children into slavery, and there is even some indication that infanticide was practiced, as it had been in ancient times. This view, however, has been challenged, and anecdotes from the histories of Einhard, Gregory of Tours, and others suggest that there was a great deal of family affection in the early Middle Ages. Charlemagne, for example, loved his daughters so dearly that he would not let them marry and always kept them by his side. He would go riding and hunting with them, and loved them and the illegitimate children they had with members of the royal court. Moreover, even the most ferocious Merovingian queens, Brunhilde and Fredegund, revealed their maternal sides quite clearly in the protection of their children. They struggled mightily against each other to promote the interests of their sons, and Brunhilde wrote the emperor tearfully seeking his aid in protecting her daughter, who had been lost in North Africa. The situation of children was also improved by the reforms of the Carolingian dynasty, which strengthened marital practices and family structure.See alsoBrunhilde; Charlemagne; Charles Martel; Einhard; Franks; Fredegund; Gregory of Tours; Marriage; Merovingian Dynasty; WomenBibliography♦ Einhard and Notker the Stammerer. Two Lives of Charlemagne. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1981.♦ Gies, Frances, and Joseph Gies. Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.♦ Goody, Jack. The Development of Family and Marriage in Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.♦ Gregory of Tours. The History of the Franks. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1974.♦ Herlihy, David. Medieval Households. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.♦ Riché, Pierre. Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne. Trans. Jo Ann McNamara. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.♦ Tacitus. The Agricola and the Germania. Trans. Harold Mattingly. Revised trans. S. A. Hanford. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1982.♦ Wemple, Suzanne. Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister, 500 to 900. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.
Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.