Re-thinking the history of the European family

The ways contemporary European families are organised differ markedly, and it is likely that these variations have important consequences for the status of women, intergenerational relations and human capital formation. However, tracing the historical roots of these familial variations has never been successfully concluded. Marred by a lack of large-scale historical data and insufficient methodologies, past research has never culminated in a comprehensive reconstruction of a European historical geography of family patterns.

Mikołaj Paweł Szołtysek

This project consists in pioneering analyses of the patterns, causes and implications of European variations in historical family systems, which are tackled via a first systematic comparative approach, using Europe’s largest public-use collections of historical census microdata. Drawing on these previously unavailable data, the project addresses the three broad questions of what these major variations were, what caused them and what difference they could make in the European context, from the Atlantic to the Urals, between 1700 and 1918.

Analysis of the nearly pan-European dataset offers a multifaceted reconstruction of family patterns, seeking to understand how they clustered in space and changed over time. By asking whether these patterns stemmed from differences in socioeconomic, demographic or environmental conditions, or whether they had a deeper ‘socio-cultural’ basis, the project explores potential links between the historical family geography and Europe’s other internal divisions.

Given that families and households constitute fundamental units of economic, demographic and social behaviour, could variations in family patterns contribute to developmental inequalities between the societies of Europe? Overall, this interdisciplinary project elevates the discussion of the geography of European families to entirely new heights by revealing nuanced spatial patterns of family systems, carefully anchoring this variation in historical contexts, and by unravelling its societal implications on a hitherto never attempted scale.

The project is based on a harmonized dataset of historical public-use census microdata from the Mosaic and North Atlantic Population (NAPP) projects, comprising 14 million individuals living in 3.3 million households. These data are analysed with advanced historical demography and geospatial methodologies to provide measures of all crucial attributes of family systems across multiple settings between 1700 and 1926. Thanks to the georeferenced nature of the Mosaic/NAPP data, a thorough contextualization of the spatio-structural variation in family systems will be carried out by linking family/ demographic information at the regional level with various topographical covariates (e.g., soil quality, land-use, terrain ruggedness and population density), as well as with institutional-cum-cultural characteristics (e.g., the presence of serfdom; descent rules; religion, ethnicity and urban-rural distinction), including time-period. Major analytical tasks proceed in three consecutively intertwined stages corresponding to the three major research questions above. The 1st stage – PATTERNS – provides a comprehensive investigation of the variation in family organisation across 300 regions of historic Europe in terms of life course and marriage patterns, household structures and individual living arrangements; it then maps these out in space and time, and strives to establish spatial patterning in their occurrence across the continent and over time. The 2nd stage – CAUSES – links these fine-grained demographic data to geospatially located contextual information and uses spatially-sensitive multivariate regressions to investigate how variations in environmental, cultural and political-economic spheres affected different aspects of regional family systems across different areas. Finally, the 3rd stage – IMPLICATIONS – explores channels through which family variation could produce developmental disparities across European societies. It does so by looking at gender- and age-inequalities in the life course and residential behaviour, and by investigating the relationship between cross-cultural differences in familial organisation and regional disparities in human capital levels in the past.

The project fills the evidentiary gaps for many previously under-researched areas and yields key breakthroughs leading to a radical re-thinking of previous mainstream ‘family histories’. The new detailed geography of family patterns will become a comprehensive reference study for social and family historians, as well as for demographers, sociologists and economists alike, providing a fresh reservoir of policy-relevant insights into the persistence of and changes in basic patterns of human organisation and their causal factors. It will also form a crucial building block for future comparative studies covering the whole of Eurasia.

How did you benefit from the POLONEZ fellowship?

The Polonez fellowship allowed me to build an excellent research team, bringing together people of very diverse skills and competencies. With such human resources I was able to target the top scientific journals in the world. The Fellowship made it possible to popularize my research widely in Europe and beyond by attending conferences, workshops and seminars in my research field.


Before coming to Warsaw dr hab. Mikołaj Szołtysek worked as a Senior Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle/ Saale and as the Deputy Head of the Laboratory of Historical Demography at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock. He is interested in researching historical family systems, in which he combines demographic methods with those of economic history, social anthropology and cross-cultural studies. Szołtysek’s recent research, at the Hungarian Demographic Research Institute in Budapest, focuses on spatially contingent relationships between different aspects of family systems and environmental characteristics.