Defining Family

In modern culture wars one side thinks there is something sacred and eternal about our “traditional” family structure, while the other side wants to experiment. Medievalists just laugh.

I think it’s safe to say most people don’t realize how family structures have evolved through history, even in our European diaspora. We don’t live in the same world our ancestors did.

I’m always jazzed when I run into this idea outside the world of historians.

And here it is, in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (1997). One of my favorites. How did I miss this?

“In the last few decades, we have come to realize that the image of the family we have been cherishing since at least Victorian times is only one of many possible alternatives. According to the historian Le Roy Ladurie, a rural French family in the late Middle Ages was made up by whoever lived under the same roof and shared the same meals. This might have included people actually related by blood, but also farmhands and other persons who strayed in to help with farm work and were given shelter. Apparently no further distinction was made among these individuals; whether related or not they were seen to belong to the same domus, or house made of stone and mortar, which was the unit that mattered, rather than the biological family.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 85-86)

This stuff is old hat to medievalists. This is the same sort of idea that led to naming noble families by the name of their principle estate. The von Habsburg family originated at Habsburg castle in Switzerland. That sort of thing.

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