Campus & Community

Charting familial territory

9 min read
Steven Ozment, McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History: “I never feel I need the armor of theory when I function as a historian. The good historian knows how to vanish before his or her source, to drop readers into another culture so they can see it and experience it. (Staff photp by Jon Chase)

You wouldn’t think someone could get in trouble for saying that people in the past loved their children or that husbands and wives, at least in some cases, cared about and respected one another.

And you’d think that if someone produced authentic letters, diaries, and other first-person documents from a certain period (15th, 16th, and 17th centuries) that contained evidence of these feelings, the court of scholarly opinion would declare the case closed, the assertions proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

Steven Ozment knows otherwise. One of the foremost authorities on the history of the family in the early modern period, Ozment has, from his first forays into this field, attracted controversy. His latest book, “Ancestors: The Loving Family in Old Europe” (Harvard University Press, 2001), is a summing up of that work. It is also a lucid window through which the layperson can glimpse some of the most important struggles taking place among historians today.

“I’m a lightning rod, I really am. People used to say, whenever I walk into a room, there’s going to be an argument, and I’m not sure I would consider that a criticism.”

Ozment, the McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History, does not strike one as a belligerent person. Gracious and a bit diffident on first meeting, he speaks in a soft, modulated voice whose accent betrays his rural Southern origins. He was born in Mississippi, the son of doctor who is still practicing medicine at the age of 86. He grew up in south-central Arkansas, earning his B.A. from Hendrix College before coming north to do graduate work at Harvard.

Speaking with Ozment, however, one soon realizes he is a man of strong opinions on how scholars ought to deal with the past. He is particularly irked by historians who view past centuries through the lens of a modern ideology, and he finds this tendency to be particularly strong in his own field, German history, where the rise of Nazism in the 1930s seems to provoke endless searches either for the roots of totalitarianism or for evidence of democratic movements that might have led in more benign directions.

“It’s so important, I think, to go back and read the past chronologically forward rather than taking an agenda or questions from our present and seeing who agrees or doesn’t agree,” he says.

And yet, while Ozment believes the past must be understood on its own terms, he also feels there are more similarities between the people who lived then and ourselves than many historians suppose.

“Whether you’re dealing with the period that Ancestors’ addresses or whether you’re going back to ancient Rome, the people who lived in these periods had lives just as rich and complex as our own,” he says.

Nowhere does he see this similarity between past and present manifest itself more strongly than in the family, which Ozment considers a kind of bedrock to human culture.

“The familial dimension of our lives is just irradicable. I think it persists when everything else falls apart. And I think there’s something optimistic about that because we’re all looking for something in life that is permanent.”

This is where Ozment parts company with the Sentiments School, a group of scholars who take their cue from a French historian named Philippe Ariés who published a book in 1960 called “Centuries of Childhood.”

According to Ariés, parents in the premodern period did not see their children as we see ours – beings progressing through unique developmental stages – but rather as little adults. It was only, the theory goes, when families gave up the practice of sending young children outside the home to pursue apprenticeships that parents began to recognize childhood as a world unto itself and to respond to children in a warm, nurturing way.

In 1977, the British historian Lawrence Stone published “The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800,” which developed the ideas of Ariés into a sharply delineated scheme of family evolution. During the period 1450-1630, Stone sees the English family as a cold place, marked by “distance, manipulation, and deference.” Child-rearing practices that included the swaddling of infants, placing children with wet nurses in their early years, methodical efforts to break the child’s will, and early apprenticeships outside the home created adults “whose primary responses to others were at best a calculating indifference.”

It was primarily Stone’s book with its extreme but persuasively argued views that spurred Ozment to enter the lists with his own research into the premodern family. His first major effort was “When Fathers Ruled” (1983), in which he took a more balanced view of the family in Reformation Germany. The title, he says, is somewhat ironic. “The point of the book was that these guys were not nearly as much in charge as we would think.”

The book argued that while families of the past were different from ours, that did not mean that parents had little feeling for their children. Ozment quoted from popular guides to parenting and household management, religious and political pamphlets, popular sermons, family chronicles, and other contemporary sources to show that while child-rearing practices were different from ours, there was still tender concern for the child’s welfare, development, and happiness.

“All I’m trying to do in all my work on the family is to get historians to give people of the past credit for having enough complexity to know what a child was and know how to relate to a child.”

“When Fathers Ruled” was followed by “Magdalena and Balthasar: An Intimate Portrait of Life in Sixteenth Century Europe” (1989), “Three Behaim Boys: Growing Up in Early Modern Germany” (1990), “The Bürgermeister’s Daughter: Scandal in a Sixteenth Century German Town” (1996), and, finally, “Ancestors,” which Ozment calls his “swan song,” at least as far as the history of the family is concerned.

Not only did Ozment’s revision of family history bring criticism by adherents of the Ariés/Stone school and others who insisted on seeing the family of premodern times as cold, harsh, and manipulative as compared with the closer, more nurturing family of the modern era, but the methods he used to support his ideas plunged him into conflict as well.

Most of Ozment’s books about the family dwell on original documents from the period. “Magdalena and Balthasar” presents a series of letters between a traveling merchant and his wife; “Three Behaim Boys” uses the letters of three generations of young men to illustrate child-parent relationships, the process of settling into a profession, and other issues; and “The Bürgermeister’s Daughter” shows what happened when a young woman in 16th century Germany engaged in premarital affairs and then dared to fight her family and city hall when they tried to punish her.

These books thrust the reader into a past that is complex and surprising and refuses to conform to either popular or scholarly stereotypes. But their weakness is that the letters and other documents that form their core constitute a very limited sample. Historians who believe that the only valid way to study the past is through broad, statistical evidence fault Ozment on his approach.

“One of my heresies is that I consider this to be the hard data, more so than the demographic studies and the structural studies, which I don’t think penetrate very deeply beneath the surface.”

Ozment has learned vernacular German dialects in order to explore as far as possible “down the social strata,” but his reliance on written sources still obliges him to study people who were literate, which in most cases means members of the middle or upper class. This focus puts Ozment at odds with an anti-elitist perspective currently fashionable among historians, a feeling that scholars ought to devote their attention to the long-neglected and generally inarticulate lower classes. The data for such studies is generally statistical in nature or else comes from transcriptions of court cases or other official documents.

Ozment considers such work valuable, but feels that it doesn’t illuminate people’s lives the way personal written sources do.

“I would much rather generalize from a handful of people in a particular place than rely on a shallow survey of what seems to lie on the surface. There’s a lot of dog paddling on the surface of history that goes on in the name of objectivity that really tells us much less about the period than a good deep dive in just one part.”

Ozment has an almost reverential attitude toward these old letters and diaries, which exist in great abundance in archives like that of the German National Museum in Nuremberg. His idea of a good historian is not one who uses such sources to prove a theory, but rather helps readers to understand the source well enough to enter into its world.

“I never feel I need the armor of theory when I function as a historian. The good historian knows how to vanish before his or her source, to drop readers into another culture so they can see it and experience it.”

Ozment’s next project is a large-scale history of Germany from Roman times to World War II, a book that he has had in mind for a long time. Like his work on the family, it runs counter to current trends – narrative history and histories that encompass large periods of time are in disfavor nowadays. But Ozment feels that this “big river approach” is the only way of achieving a comprehensive understanding of the German people.

But Ozment, ever an optimist, is confident that the scholarly tide will turn in his favor, both in regard to this project and his work on the history of the family.

“You know, young historians do not want to repeat what the previous generation has said. So for one reason or another, I think that my approach to these subjects is going to come back in favor.”