Family and Household

Authored by: Alexandra Shepard

The Elizabethan World

Print publication date:  September  2010
Online publication date:  September  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415409599
eBook ISBN: 9781315736044
Adobe ISBN: 9781317565796


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When Sir Thomas Smith wrote his account of the government of England whilst serving as Elizabeth I’s ambassador in France, he included a description of ‘an house or familie’. Smith defined his subject as ‘the man, the woman, their children, their servauntes bonde and free, their cattell, their housholde stuffe, and all other things, which are reckoned in their possession, so long as all these remaine togeather in one’. The significance of this ‘society’ to Smith was as the first and ‘most naturall’ commonwealth that underpinned the wider political organisation of freemen. 1 It was a general assumption of his time that the household rather than the individual was the primary unit of society. As such the household was represented as a microcosm of good government and the fount of all order, organised along hierarchical principles that placed husbands above wives, parents over children and masters and mistresses in authority over servants. Smith’s inclusion of cattle and other moveable goods, as well as his representation of the household as an ‘oeconomy’, requiring careful management as a producer and consumer of goods, also signalled its further primacy as an economic enterprise. The household’s function as a unit of production and consumption shaped the nature and significance of ‘familial’ relations as much as the nurturing and socialising of children which we more readily associate with family life.

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