Changing Social Environments in Spain

Families, New Solidarities and Hierarchical Breakdown (16th-20th Centuries)

by Francisco Chacón Jimenez (Volume editor)
©2023 Edited Collection 300 Pages


This book presents several theoretical proposals about social and familial – but also
political and cultural – change in Spain in the transition from the Ancien Régime to
the modern age. The sociocultural reality of the Ancien Régime, based on inequality
and privilege, is redefined through kinship and, both horizontal and vertical, social
relations. In this way, the transition from the patriarchal to the conjugal family
explains continuity and change in the context of new social relations that value
individual merit, the accumulation of capital, and the decisive importance of feeling
and emotion.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of abbreviations
  • Introduction. Families and social change. A new approach to Spanish history (circa mid-18th–circa mid-20th century)
  • Chapter 1. Primitive individualism. Family roots of early modern individualism in Spain
  • Chapter 2. Families and social trajectories. Some research results from south-central Spain, 18th–19th centuries
  • Chapter 3. Appearances and family consumption in interior Castile (1500–1850)
  • Chapter 4. The political and cultural class of Enlightened reformism. Avant-garde networks, reform, and resistance in 18th-century Spain
  • Chapter 5. Explaining social change through marriage, family, and kinship. Circa 1750–circa early 20th century

List of abbreviations

























Francisco Chacón Jiménez (University of Murcia)

Introduction. Families and social change. A new approach to Spanish history (circa mid-18th–circa mid-20th century)*


This work presents several theoretical proposals about social and familial – but also political and cultural – change in Spain in the transition from the Ancien Régime to the modern age. The sociocultural reality of the Ancien Régime, based on inequality and privilege, is redefined through kinship and, both horizontal and vertical, social relations. Change came from very different quarters, from the sources of wealth to political action, and we need to analyse the mechanisms that introduced change in the familial model and the tense coexistence, during the 19th and 20th centuries, of two sociocultural and family models, with their own internal contradictions. The transition from the patriarchal to the conjugal family explains continuity and change in the context of new social relations that value individual merit, the accumulation of capital, and the decisive importance of feeling and emotion. This finally leaves behind a historiographical paradigm that focused on political events, neglecting the family base, closer personal relationships, and the erosion of classic sociocultural hierarchies. If we want to explain the process that led to where we are now, the mechanisms of social reproduction and mobility, and changes in the social structure, family history must play first fiddle.

Keywords: Family, Social Change, Kinship, Modern Age, Family History

1. Introduction

Minouche Shafik, economist and director of the London School of Economics, recently pointed out that families are undergoing rapid change in the European and western world:1 couples form over the age of 30 and begin having children past that age (personal relationships have become notably less institutionalised); there is a growing proportion of single-parent families and of people living alone; population is aging as a result of births dropping below reproduction rates, because of increasingly harder access to housing and labour for the younger generations and also because of the individual choices of women in search for personal promotion. These demo-economic and social, but especially cultural, values challenge the balance of the existing model of social organisation and demand new responses that lead to a new social contract in which intergenerational covenants are not limited to the internal problems of family units, but are the concern of the socio-political and labour relations as a whole. Concerning the conciliation of family and professional life, similar arguments can be wielded: it can be solved only with the implementation of political measures that apply to both the public and the private sector, but the success and viability of these require the active participation of families and their members.

If we situate family units – regardless of their structure and formation process – at the core of social organisation, we must take them into account in the analysis of social and cultural change. If the future family depends on collective decisions made on what we call the present,2 we must realise that the true protagonists are not families, kinship, lineages, or patronage systems, important as they are, but the relational system. Despite the methodological problem of moving across scales, we must get out of the family and the individual, but without abandoning them.3

2. Presentation

Over the period 2006–2021, the research group formed around Seminario Familia y elite de poder, Universidad de Murcia (1982–83), has comprehensively analysed Spanish society from the family perspective. Over the last ten years, the group has worked in coordination, from a compared perspective, with several universities – País Vasco, Castilla La Mancha-Cádiz, Valladolid-León, Extremadura, and Barcelona – in three research projects.4

We conceive society as a dynamic, integrated, and interconnected system in which relations are marked by inequality. The legal model of the Ancien Régime, built around privilege, was defined by kinship and vertical and horizontal social relations, and also by other factors, such as wealth and political power. As such, kinship, extra-domestic social relations, and professional interaction are implicit in, and cannot be separated from, the concept of family in Ancien Régime Spain. We need to retrieve the meaning and symbology of the family in Ancien Régime society. Social groups become richer to the observer when they are not seen in isolation; relational networks are one of the tools to explain, from and towards the family, the pillars of social organisation.

At first,5 we focused on sociocultural reproduction strategies: kinship (based on blood or not); transmission (material and immaterial capital); social relations (friendship, shared geographical origins, patronage); and domination (political and economic). Social groups and families are not only defined by status, but also by their strength in terms of social relations and reproduction. This created new perspectives to analyse the diversity and complexity of social organisation in Spain.

The study of sociocultural reproduction strategies pointed us towards two concepts: “conflict” and “social change”, the polysemic diversity of which – especially concerning the latter – is key to understand sociocultural values and common denominators in behaviour, attitudes, emotions, and individual and collective feelings. Our second project (2010–2013), Realidades familiares hispanas en conflicto: de la sociedad del linaje a la sociedad de los individuos (siglos XVII-XIX), plunged head-first into this issue. The project aimed to understand the slow decline, in family dynamics, of such determinant variables as lineage, ancestry, and aristocratic survival ideals, within a framework of new social relations that begin to consider individual merit and wealth and, in consequence, to side-line the former importance of blood.

In this context, in order to understand the development of new strategies based on broader social links, it is important to consider social promotion processes and new social dialectics that were anything but conflict-free (for instance, the survival of primogeniture principles). It is also important to take into account the growth of the State, which began taking over fields that were previously the exclusive remit of families, as well as the impact on families of legal change, an important variable to gauge social change.

Familias e individuos: patrones de modernidad y cambio social (Siglos XVI-XXI and Entornos sociales de cambio. Familias, nuevas solidaridades y ruptura de je-rarquías (siglos XVI-XX) were the projects undertaken in the 2014–2021 period. These projects analysed the factors that triggered change in family models and individual dialectics within family structures. The projects examined the tense coexistence, weaknesses, and contradictions of two sociocultural and family models during the 19th and 20th centuries. The transition from family to individual is not a trivial development. The idea was to avoid tautological or finalist explanations of the transition from patriarchal to conjugal families, and to explain continuity and change within the framework of new social relations that, for the first time, consider individual merit and the accumulation of capital. This was also a world in which feelings and emotion began to play a major role and, even, to feature in the written record.

We witness the separation of the political and the socio-familial spheres, the formation of separate identities and representations, which gave shape to a new socio-political and cultural system. To date, all attention had focused on political change, without taking families, the new relations of close kinship, and the decline of classic sociocultural hierarchies into consideration.

Understanding and explaining this ongoing process gives family history a dimension that demands historical nuance and rejects easy presentist arguments, but which also provides tools to analyse complex processes of social promotion and change and the role played by the family in them. Since the 1980s, the access of women to the labour market, an ageing population, and the need to care for the elderly, a role traditionally assigned to women, have transformed family behaviour and sociability patterns. Tradition remains strong, but the cracks widen with the new generations that enter marriage and parenthood from a perspective of independence and, especially, individuality.

Family groups still act as a support network during hard times; all surveys confirm that, for young Europeans, family is still, to a large extent, regarded as a basic social institution and space; this illustrates the complex situation that we see today. The contradictions explain why, despite the important social role played by families, they have not been regarded as a historical subject until recently.


Often, theoretical and epistemological renovation revolves around the creation of new subjects of research. Interdisciplinarity has turned what used to be the outcome of the interaction of history and the social sciences into autonomous subjects. This has led to theoretical and methodological fluidity. In our opinion, by developing autonomously, some objects, such as women, the family, the State, and social groups, have brought about veritable theoretical revolutions, drawing solid interdisciplinary links and attracting categories and methods from other social sciences to historical analysis. Particularly, the adoption of the nominative method, rather than the aggregative, has had far-reaching implications, as illustrated by the interrelated use of prosopographic and biographical sources and databases; the crossbreeding of data to reconstruct parishes rather than families; and network analysis. In many instances, this has resulted in the revision of existing sources and the addition of new ones.

The main problem is how to adjust methods adopted from other social sciences to the categories and sources of each discipline, considering that, when it comes to history, time, context, differences in social systems and conceptions of space, force us to be thoroughly critical with sources and methods. As pointed out by Gerard Delille, the historian cannot be the anthropologist of the 15th, 16th, 17th, or 18th century, and the same could be said about the remaining social sciences. However, analytical categories such as social reproduction and promotion, or methods like microhistory or social networking, have exponentially, comprehensively, and logically expanded historical analysis.

One of the most significant novelties is the emergence of the individual in legal, political, and social spaces, beginning with the family and, from there, with the household, the parish, the guild, the brotherhood, the council and, more broadly, the community. Obviously, each of these socio-political scales presents, from the family perspective, wide analytical horizons, insofar as concepts such as life cycle, trajectory, and strategy are part of the analysis which, from the nominative approach and by integrating the family object in the explanation of social organisation, considers temporal and genealogical dimensions alongside horizontal relational factors between the individuals that form a community.

In this way, historiography’s main challenge was to try to understand and explain processes of continuity and change triggered by specific historical events and resulting in legal reforms promoted by certain social groups within a set socio-political framework. In consequence, the study, analysis, and understanding of everyday reality rests on a historical process characterised by complex, diverse, and multicausal factors.

Now that the isolation of scientific disciplines, the histoire en miettes6 (the result of the multiplicity of objects), is something of the past, we are demanded global and longue durée explanations. Only synthetic and integrating hypotheses, references, definitions, and notions can capture the true evolution of this, extremely complex, 150 year-long process (circa 1750–circa 1900) of political-legal and social change.

New problems loom over the horizon: 1) hot to integrate kinship in its social dimension; 2) to analyse and explain links between individuals; and 3) situate families within solidarity networks, relations of dependence, and the life cycle. Kinship and, in this context, anthropology, becomes the mortar that holds these basic approaches together.

2.1. Historical time

The social contract that consolidated in the late 19th century, which was inspired by the principles and values of the Enlightenment, sprang from the transformations that allowed the emergence of the class system in the closing decades of the century. Particularly, the decline of lineage; the end of primogeniture as a system to regulate social reproduction of elite groups, and its immediate outcome: the dissolution of the difference between first- and later-born children and the equalisation of siblings; the co-narrative of individualism; increasingly endogamic marriages, caused by changes in degrees of consanguinity (1917); and the gradual disappearance of matrimonial reciprocity along with the acceptance of sororate and levirate (marriage of widowers with the deceased wife’s sisters, or of widows with the deceased husband’s brothers). All these factors force us to challenge classic historical periodisation, too often understood as a division into sealed compartments with no point of contact with one another; no explanation is possible without a degree of chronological continuum.

American sociologist and social theorist Andrew Abbot argues that time is the main category in the social sciences.7 Seeking continuity and change over long time periods opens the way to think about the historical relations of the social actors that trigger social events with their actions. The study of families allows us to detect, understand, and illustrate behaviours that reflect changes in broader communities. They can be the true gauge of major historical processes – e.g. the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the Bourgeois Revolution – or highlight the need to add nuance to our definitions, stretch them over longer time spans, or simple replace them with new ones. Let us see three examples:

1) After the separation, in the course of the 19th century, of home and workplace, families continued regarding themselves as labour units.

2) Many decisions which are today regarded as individual choices – enter the labour market, leave home, marry – were believed to affect, and be the concern of, the whole family.

3) In short, families retained those traditions that suited them the most within the new socio-political and legal setting.

Bringing this analysis to a more specific historical plane, the period spanning the second half of the 18th century (circa 1750) and the mid-19th century was characterised by change, the crystallisation of new family patterns; bourgeois marriages became increasingly closer in kin once the ecclesiastical principles introduced by the Lateran Council (1215) lost sway and were replaced in 1917; this, in turn, consolidated the separation between work and family. Frederic Le Play’s concerns are the best illustration of the relationship between the transformation of family models and historiographical interest.8

In Spain, debates about family patterns in the turn of the 20th century were not only reflected in Joaquín Costa’s (Costa, 1885–1902) criticism of family law and the equal inheritance system in place in Castile; apart from the importance of the new Civil Code of 1898, a prize – Derecho consuetudinario y economía popular prize, awarded by Real Academia de Ciencias Morales y Políticas in 1898 – and a national survey – the Costumbres populares de nacimiento, matrimonio y muerte survey, undertaken by Ateneo de Madrid in 1901 – illustrate a widespread interest in, and concern about, family processes.


Current historiography is greatly interested in understanding forms of collective solidarity vis-à-vis the State Leviathan.9 It is peculiar that, in the early 19th century Spanish political life revolved around conflict and the Carlist Wars, which pitched two radically different social perspectives against one another: the supporters of a more secular society and the followers of the union between Church and throne. The problem, however, was not exclusively Spanish, but affected the whole of Europe.10

In this setting, kinship and patronage, along with the idea of reproduction, are the channels through which the hierarchy, projected onto social practices and relations based on social links and personal ties, circulated. Hierarchy, however, was undermined by wealth, capital, and emerging cultural and political values, and gradually disappeared, while the reference points for individuals – lineage, household, republic, reputation, fame – changed. We are recovering a sense of historical temporality that should have never been abandoned.

The period circa 1750–circa 1900, is packed with political, social, and economic change, new lifestyles and habits that reject the old civilisational order. The force and influence of religion is replaced by a market society, and this had implications for family models, making them permeable to individual rights and the spirit and systems of reason.

It is not a coincidence that, in Spain, the periodisation of the changes that crystallised during the 19th century begins with the Concordat signed in 1753 and the Royal Decree of March 1776 – ratified in 1803 and again in June 1862 – about parental consent and marriage; this was followed by the new Concordat in 1851, the Civil Marriage Act of 1870, and the right to rectification of 1875 (beginning of the Restoration); the end point could be set in the Civil Code of 1889 and the changes in consanguinity rules of 1917, which superseded ecclesiastical norms in place since 1215. Therefore, this far-reaching process of change extends over a long times span, between the royalist Concordat of 1753 and the Civil Code of 1889 and the changes in ecclesiastical matrimonial caveats of 1917.11

That families and kinship relations were a determinant factors in this process of sociocultural change is demonstrated by the slow and gradual separation of the political sphere – the changes undergone by which in the early 19th century did not fully percolate the social fabric until a century later, vindicating Juan Pro’s thesis – and the family system.

This sociocultural and political-administrative transition had considerable impact on everyday life and transformed social relations. But families continued playing a decisive role in the configuration of the new, Enlightenment-inspired, social contract that led to political transformations that cannot be divorced in the explanation from social change.

2.2. Families, changing social environments, and contradiction

From the mid-18th century, political power gradually distanced itself from family structures, and this triggered a crisis in the relationship between different spheres of power and the gradual emergence of social environments of change: the monarch is no longer the only legitimising institution; territorial representation begets the notion and practice of national sovereignty; the end (hesitant and contradictory at the individual level) of primogeniture also means the end of the primacy of first-borns, the beginning of equal sibling-status, and the opening up of individual prospects; and changes in consanguinity rules and the subsequent tightening up of kinship ties within marriage. The Concordat signed in 1753 and the Decree of Urquijo (1799) – although annulled by Charles IV after the election of a new pope in 1800 – reinforced royalist positions and undermined the influence of the Church.

It is important to stress that changes in Church consanguinity rules and the institution’s greater tolerance to endogamy led to decisive changes in matrimonial practices and was a key contribution to the crystallisation of social classes. However, uncle-niece marriages were still common: Ferdinand VII and his brother Don Carlos María Isidro (1788–1855), second son of Charles IV, pose significant examples. They married two sisters who were also their nieces: the Portuguese María Isabel and María Francisca of Braganza and Bourbon. Carlos had three children and, after the death of his first wife, married another of his sisters-in-law and nieces, Maria Teresa. Traditional uncle-niece matches came thus together with close kinship ties and sororate.12 A brother of Charles IV, Antonio Pascual of Bourbon and Saxony (1755–1817), married Princess Maria Amalia, his niece, in 1795, when he was 40 years old; Carlos María Isidro of Bourbon and Bourbon married María Francisca of Portugal, daughter of his sister Carlota Joaquina, in 1816; in 1819, Francisco de Paula Antonio of Bourbon and Bourbon (1794–1865) (youngest child of María Luisa of Parma, present in Francisco de Goya’s La Familia de Carlos IV, 1800, Museo Nacional El Prado), married his niece Luisa Carlota of Bourbon and Two Sicilies. As noted, these practices were typical of the preceding period, as illustrated by Philip IV’s marriage with his niece Marianna of Austria, his second wife, in 1649; their daughter, Margaret of Austria, also married her uncle, Emperor Leopold I, in 1666; that is, both mother and daughter married their uncles.

We think that not enough attention has been paid by to the interaction between political factors, the sociocultural system, and the family and kinship relations that supported them. By challenging these realities, which can only be analysed and understood jointly, we make the contradictions come to the surface. The analysis of the period circa 1750–circa 1900 suggests that, no matter how important it was for social organisation, the birth of the bourgeoisie does not explain everything. Political changes reflect significant cultural changes, including the strengthening of the father’s authority with the generalisation of marriage between social peers and social practices that represent, while also diluting (gradually but incessantly), social hierarchies. Inheritance systems are more than only a set of rules to pass family assets to the next generation. They are reflection of an ideological substratum, a notion of authority and family hierarchy which, through inheritance practices and the concept of paterfamilias, expresses belonging to a family group or lineage. When this complex, dependent but also balanced, system of power and social relations dissolves, new forms of political relations and expressions find their voice; even when they are occasionally framed by the family group, the two must not be confused.13

Simultaneously, matrimonial endogamy and the supersession of ancient ecclesiastical consanguinity rules, as well as the end of the parallel honour/wealth hierarchy, undermined the prevailing social system and forced changes upon it. Antagonisms will shape the slow process of change: honour versus wealth; primogeniture versus individual property; Church versus State; tradition and lineage versus merit and personal virtue; kinship versus individualism. This is Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Il gatopardo; let us remember Prince Fabricio’s disappointment at the humble origins of Angelica, her nephew Tancredo’s future bride.14 Then, it becomes clear than capital and love are complementary.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2023 (August)
Family Social Change Kinship Marriage Individualism Modernization
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2023. 300 pp.

Biographical notes

Francisco Chacón Jimenez (Volume editor)

Francisco Chacón Jiménez is Emeritus Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Murcia. He has carried out studies and research stays at different universities and higher research centers in Europe and Latin America. His areas of interest include social history, family history, and local history.


Title: Changing Social Environments in Spain