In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Marriage and Family in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals and Reference Resources
  • Demography
  • Husbands and Wives
  • Parents and Children
  • Family and Slavery
  • Family, Law, and the State
  • Household and Economy
  • Family and Sentiment
  • Interracial Families, Legitimacy, and Kinship

Atlantic History Marriage and Family in the Atlantic World
Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0038


People of the Atlantic world experienced political upheaval, migration, religious and intellectual transformations, and commercial development not only as individuals, but also as members of families. Families were products of the particular personalities of their members, of course, but family structures were also themselves the result of Atlantic transformations, whether voluntary or involuntary. Recent scholarship has been particularly interested in the ways that familial relationships and structures became tools of imperial control over colonial populations. Laws defining “legitimate” relationships and forbidding others helped construct and reinforce racial and class hierarchies locally and across the Atlantic. These studies have shown that what had formerly been understood as part of the “private” realm of personal existence—childrearing practices, for example, or the idea of conjugal love—were in fact profoundly political. The comparative focus that an Atlantic perspective demands helps those interested in family life to untangle questions about the various “functions”—economic, political, emotional—of highly diverse families over time.

General Overviews

Historians have embraced the family as a useful concept for cross-cultural scholarship on the Atlantic world, as exemplified in journal special issues dedicated to the topic (Hardwick, et al. 2013). There are also extensive general treatments covering the changing form of families in western Europe and the Americas that can be read against each other to gain a sense of continuities, changes, and the potential conflicts arising among family systems brought together by trade or conquest (Desan and Marrick 2009; Kertzer and Barbagli 2001–2003, Goody 2000; Burguière, et al. 1996). Review articles such as Milanich 2007 give an example of how to do this, demonstrating the value of a cross-Atlantic comparative perspective. Main 2001 raises the stakes of cross-cultural comparison. She contrasts the childbearing practices of eastern Indians (who used extended nursing to space births far apart) and English settlers (who tended to have more children, close together) to explain the long-term population decline among Native Americans. Manning 2009 argues that changes in families were a product of early modern migration itself.

  • Burguière, André, Christiana Klapisch-Zuber, Martine Segalen, and Francois Zonabend, eds. A History of the Family. Vol. 2, The Impact of Modernity. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1996.

    A sweeping investigation of changing kin relationships around the world in response to industrialization, colonialism, and “modernity.” Taken together, the chapters connect variation in marriage, childrearing, household, and inheritance patterns with socioeconomic change.

  • Desan, Suzanne, and Jeffrey Marrick. Family, Gender, and Law in Early Modern France. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009.

    A collection of essays by leading French historians that tackles topics including control over courtship, wives’ financial power, children born out of wedlock, and divorce. Unlike earlier studies that emphasized the family as a unit, these articles stress the individual wills and agendas of family members. The authors also link these individual actions to larger processes of state formation and cultural change.

  • Goody, Jack. The European Family. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

    This comparative survey of European family history argues that the nuclear family was in fact common throughout Europe and Asia. Goody disagrees with the older interpretations of European history that claimed a warm, child-centered family isolated from larger kin networks was a unique creation of early modern western Europe. His evidence does suggest that the influence of Christianity may have led to differences, however.

  • Hardwick, Julie, Sarah M. S. Pearsall, and Karin Wulf, eds. Special Issue: Centering Families in Atlantic Histories. William and Mary Quarterly 70.2 (April 2013).

    A special issue devoted entirely to research articles that investigate family strategies for survival around the Atlantic. Taken together, the essays demonstrate how kin groups and family/household formations of many kinds responded to the shattering effects of migration, enslavement, and warfare. Several authors note that kin relationships of siblings and siblings-in-law need to be better understood to connect family life to economic and political structures.

  • Kertzer, David, and Marzio Barbagli, eds. The History of the European Family. 3 vols. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001–2003.

    A collection of twenty-nine thematic essays covering the history of the family in Europe from 1500 to the present. Articles emphasize continuity over change, especially prior to the 20th century. Like much recent work, it refutes the older interpretation that there was an 18th-century transformation from “the traditional” to “the modern” family in terms of family affection, composition, and economic purpose.

  • Main, Gloria L. Peoples of a Spacious Land: Families and Cultures in Colonial New England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

    A comparative study of English and Ninnimissinouk family life in southern New England. Drawing upon history, anthropology, and demography, Main examines fertility, childrearing, life cycle, and the connection between family life and town formation. In addition to quantitative data, Main uses colonial English men’s diaries to address the economic content of family life.

  • Manning, Patrick. “Frontiers of Family Life: Early Modern Atlantic and Indian Ocean Worlds.” Modern Asian Studies 43.1 (2009): 315–333.

    A comparative study of the effects of migration on families in the Atlantic basin and Indian Ocean. Manning pays special attention to the ways that migration shaped the age and gender composition of new families and those families that were broken apart, which had consequences for family hierarchy.

  • Milanich, Nara. “Whither Family History? A Road Map from Latin America.” American Historical Review 112.2 (April 2007): 439–458.

    DOI: 10.1086/ahr.112.2.439

    An overview of the study of European family history that uses recent work in the history of colonial Latin America to suggest new directions for the field as a whole. This article is useful as both summary and introduction to the debates in the field.

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