Continuity and Change



Family strategies: patterns of inheritance in Odiham, Hampshire, 1525–1850


BARRY STAPLETON a1
a1 Formerly of the Department of Economics, University of Portsmouth

Abstract

In recent years the analysis of individual communities in England has shed increasing light on their economic, social, demographic, cultural and religious development during the three centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution. Contemporaneously, and to some extent resulting from these local studies, there has been a growing interest in the family and patterns of inheritance. Similarly, among social anthropologists there has been the development of the concept of ‘strategy’ with writings on marriage, fertility, inheritance and migration strategies, although these may be regarded as components of general family strategies. Whereas in some writings strategies are shown as being pursued by individuals for their own purposes, others focused on family strategies, particularly ones designed to keep a family landholding from being divided. However, whether these studies of social organization in continental Europe and Asia can be applied to the English experience remains to be seen. To begin with they are all concerned with peasant landholding and as such may not be appropriate to the English experience where the debate on whether a peasantry even existed was begun by Macfarlane's The origins of English individualism in 1978.

Secondly, there is no universal agreement on what kind of strategies were being followed, either individualistic or familial. Thirdly, there remains the question as to whether the strategies were intentional and the outcome of rational decision-making, or subconscious and rooted in implicitly accepted and long-established principles. These could have been that a landholding should remain undivided, that men had primacy over women in inheritance, that primogeniture would be practised and that younger brothers would not challenge their eldest brother's inheritance. A refinement of these approaches has been the view that family strategies could be very different. Some may have wished to hold on to the family estate and pass it on to the next generation. Others wanted to enlarge it and may have needed to do so for familial reasons, and yet more families may have wanted to create an estate where none yet existed. But in all cases, it is stated, there were families consciously planning and pursuing a strategy for the benefit of future generations. Furthermore, it is said that these strategies could only be pursued by families above the level of the poor and only became possible in western Europe in the sixteenth century as a result of changing attitudes and growing individualistic commercialism.