Friday, July 10, 2009

The Subversive Family

Ferdinand Mount’s The Subversive Family: An Alternative History of Love and Marriage takes us on an amusing and informative ride through the long history of the European family.

I particularly liked Mount’s acute sense of shifting social power and its effects. So underlying persistences (such as the popular concept of marriage) interacting with different levels and uses of formal power produce fluctuating effects.

The level and locus of formal power is not necessarily what you might expect – it took centuries of effort by the Church to gain control of marriage as a legal construct, for example. Indeed, to a significant degree, modern marriage law is a return to pre-Christian forms while modern family patterns are far less unprecedented than is often suggested.

Mount’s likening of using Church statements as a source for medieval popular attitudes as the equivalent of inferring Soviet popular attitudes from reading Pravda is very amusing. As is his analysis of the commonality in Christian and Communist attitudes to marriage and family as distractions from Much More Important Things, including their frustration with, eventually triumphant, stubborn popular resistance. Both Church and Leninist State went from opposition to acquiescence to claiming they had always been a supporter of the family.

Mount argues that much current divorce and single parenthood is a sign of an elevated popular concept of marriage, rather than the reverse – a widespread refusal to engage in marriages that would not ‘meet the standard’. The Subversive Family is a highly informative book.

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