In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Family Life in the Middle Ages

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Primary Source Collections
  • Theory and Methods
  • Essay Collections: The Family
  • Families: Political and Economic Units
  • Domestic Life
  • Husbands and Wives
  • Mothers and Fathers
  • Aging and the Aged

Medieval Studies Family Life in the Middle Ages
Jacqueline Murray
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0236


The family is fundamental to human societies, although its shape can vary widely according to culture, religion, wealth, urban or rural context, or myriad other factors. The medieval family is in reality diverse, with different characteristics in different times and places. The Middle Ages stretched over one thousand years, from Scandinavia to Byzantium, and incorporated three major religions. There were multiple structural variables as well as contextual ones. Consequently, historians try to avoid generalizing or presenting the family of the dominant group as paradigmatic. The family also needs to be discussed in light of beliefs and customs surrounding marriage. How people married affected the shape of the family and the experience of its members. Different methodologies and ways to use evidence have also led to different perspectives on the family. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, scholars examined prescriptive sources such as theology and canon law, but did not assess the extent to which they reflected the lived reality of marriage and family. The application of quantitative techniques revealed aspects of social practice on a large scale, revealing information such as age at marriage, inheritance patterns, and illegitimacy. While this approach provided new information and opened new research questions, it did so demographically, without reference to individuals. Later historians turned to court records to examine the experiences of the individuals whose testimony survives. At the same time, historians of the family were influenced by women’s history, gender history, sexuality studies, and gender studies. This brought new questions to the study of the family, in particular a reassessment of women’s roles and experiences. Texts of all types—literature, law, chronicles, letters, and theology among others—were analyzed through critical lenses that enriched our understanding of medieval values. The dynamics of family life also received attention. Parent-child and husband-wife relationships were examined more deeply, moving beyond conventional notions of affective relations to reveal tensions and stress, including domestic violence. Recent scholarship reveals an appreciation and respect for the complexity and diversity of medieval families. This article provides an overview and introduction to this complex medieval family, which took on different shapes at different times and different places. This bibliography benefited from the contributions of two research assistants. Jack Mallon assisted with research into medieval sources and Kelsea Martin brought a strong bibliographic eye to the project. I am grateful for their assistance and to the University of Guelph for its financial support for an Undergraduate Research Assistantship.

General Overviews

Overviews of the family in the Middle Ages inevitably include discussions of marriage. How and when a couple married could have a considerable effect on the structure of a family and the experience of members of the household. The Middle Ages were so diverse, with significant variations in religion, culture, beliefs, and domestic practices, stretching from Egypt to Scandinavia. Moreover, there was considerable change over time so that laws, practices, and customs pertaining to marriage and the family evolved over the thousand years from the end of the Roman Empire to the early modern world. Thus, time, place, religion, and culture were important and mutable determinants of the family. Nevertheless, there are a number of useful introductions to and overviews of medieval marriage and family that take into consideration its transitional nature. The early work Gies and Gies 1987 remains a useful introduction to the topic. The authors carefully explain the contributions to the medieval family by Roman, Christian, and Germanic cultures as they merged into a distinctly medieval society. A similar perspective is found in Murray 2001, which presents an accessible narrative overview of marriage and family suitable for novice readers. Similar to other introductions, this essay has broad geographic and temporal boundaries and takes both a chronological and thematic approach. Herlihy 1985 uses a structural approach, placing the household at the center of analysis and reflecting the social scientific approach of the 1980s. More recently, overviews have deliberately avoided the pitfalls of generalization. Mitchell 2007 keeps visible the different cultural and religious groups that comprised medieval society. This study devotes specific attention to religious groups and avoids eliding peoples and beliefs. McCarthy 2004, on the other hand, narrows the purview and concentrates specifically on marriage in medieval England. Each of these studies provides an introduction to the medieval family in a manner suitable for students and general readers.

  • Gies, Francis, and Joseph Gies. Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.

    Although published in 1987, this volume provides a useful and accessible introduction to marriage and family. It demonstrates how Roman, Germanic, and Christian traditions intermingled to produce a distinctively medieval marriage and family pattern. The study is chronological, based on primary and secondary sources, and is multidisciplinary in approach, providing a well-rounded overview of medieval family life.

  • Herlihy, David. Medieval Households. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.

    Herlihy takes a structuralist approach, placing the household at the center of analysis. Importantly, in ancient societies the unsystematic array of household configurations did not allow for the formation of a stable familial or moral unit. Only in the early Middle Ages did households become similar and stable across society, allowing the family to develop as a moral and emotional entity.

  • McCarthy, Conor. Marriage in Medieval England: Law, Literature, and Practice. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2004.

    McCarthy provides an overview of marriage as practiced in medieval England from Anglo-Saxons through the 15th century. The main sources are secular and canonical legal texts and literature, which both incorporate and reveal the prevailing secular and ecclesiastical ideologies of marriage. This is a complicated and dense study.

  • Mitchell, Linda E. Family Life in the Middle Ages. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2007.

    Moving from Late Antiquity into the later Middle Ages, the first section is structured around the family in four main religious groups: Western European/Catholic, Eastern Byzantine/Orthodox, Southern Mediterranean/Muslim, and the widely dispersed Jewish communities. The second section presents thematic essays that explore questions of family life and culture across all four religious communities.

  • Murray, Jacqueline. “The Family and Social Trends.” In World Eras. Vol. 4, Medieval Europe, 814–1350. Edited by Jeremiah Hackett, 305–358. Detroit: Gale, 2001.

    This introduction to the main themes of family life and marriage from the 9th to 14th centuries is suitable for novice readers. Topics include household structure, kinship, and inheritance, along with the impediments to marriage. Specific examples of marriages and family life are complemented by reproductions of manuscript illustrations.

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