Early Modern Siblings

Emeritus Professor Bernard Capp, University of Warwick

 

Siblings have long been poor relations in the history of the family, especially in the early modern period. We now have many fine studies of relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, but brothers and sisters are generally marginal in them.

The domestic conduct books popular throughout the early modern period also had very little to say about their rights and responsibilities.  Yet sibling relationships were obviously a central aspect of a child’s life, and often remained important throughout adult life too.

Siblings featured prominently in scripture; most contemporaries would have been familiar with the stories of Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and many more. Contemporary playwrights explored sibling alliances and rivalries, in comedies such as As You Like It, and tragedies like King Lear and the Duchess of Malfi.

In writing The Ties that Bind I wanted to investigate how the timeless phenomena of sibling bonds and rivalries functioned in a society that had many similarities to our own but was also very different.

As we might expect, many parents had a preference for boys, though this was by no means universal. Many parents also had a particular favourite among their offspring, and siblings had to adjust to such unwelcome facts. Fathers and mothers sometimes had different preferences, and differing views on child-rearing. And while divorce and remarriage were not permitted in this period, many children lost a parent and then had to adjust to life with a step-parent and perhaps step-siblings.

The book focuses primarily, however, on adult relationships. How was affection reflected in patterns of material and emotional support?  What ideals did contemporaries think should govern relations between siblings, and how far did they influence behaviour in practice?

In families with substantial property, the rights and responsibilities of the eldest brother proved highly contentious issues. The eldest brother, usually the main heir, would claim the right to monitor and guide his siblings’ lives, and expect their deference. In return he was expected to provide practical support, for example by helping a younger brother launch a career, and by finding husbands for unmarried sisters. The seventeenth century, in particular, saw fierce debate in private, in print, and on the stage over siblings and their moral obligations.

Younger brothers often suffered a steep decline in status, and often complained bitterly that the elder brother had failed to honour his responsibilities. Many elder brothers felt equally aggrieved. Burdened with inherited debts and other commitments, they often dismissed their siblings as idle and ungrateful. The Ties that Bind explores such tensions, alongside the patterns of affection and reciprocal support that we also find, at all levels of society.

The book examines these and other issues in thematic chapters and then, in the second part, through a series of case-studies. One of these addresses a neglected aspect of the life of the diarist Samuel Pepys, the son of a London tailor. Pepys’s life in the diary period was crammed with both work and pleasure, but he was also preoccupied with the pressing concerns of his two younger brothers and a sister.

Throughout these years and beyond, he devoted a huge amount of time and effort to grappling with their problems and needs. Reviewing his situation on New Year’s Eve 1661, he reflected that his most pressing concern was to find a wife for his feckless brother Tom, as the only way to clear his debts.

Pepys did not much like any of his siblings, and never tried to conceal the fact, which makes his sense of a strong moral obligation to support them all the more striking. At the same time, he insisted on his rights as an elder brother, and expected them to be grateful and deferential. It came as a shock to him, if hardly to us, to discover that their gratitude was mixed with deep resentment.

In this family, and many others, sibling support did not necessarily indicate affection. But the ties of blood brought responsibilities that were usually acknowledged, however grudgingly. And while many contemporaries fell short of the ideal, those who repudiated their moral obligations faced sharp criticism and public opprobrium.

 

The Ties that Bind: Siblings, Family, and Society in Early Modern England
is available from Oxford University Press

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About the author: Bernard Capp is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Warwick. He is a leading authority on everyday life in early modern England, having written books on the family, gender, radical movements in the English Revolution, the impact of puritan rule during the interregnum, astrological almanacs, popular literature, and the Cromwellian navy.

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