The family was the basic unit of production and consumption in pre-industrial Northwestern Europe. Many of its features described below were inherited from the feudal middle ages through the "Ancien Regime" under the Habsburg monarchs, survived the French occupation and start to wane in Belgium only after the onset of the industrial revolution around 1830. The household mode of organization predominated on farms, in artisans' workshops and in small merchants' shops. This developed into what is known as the family economy.
A household almost invariably consisted of a married couple, their children through their early teenage years, and the servants. Usually the household had only 5-6 members and more than two generations living together was unusual. High mortality and late marriages precluded extended families of three generations: grandparents rarely lived with their children and grandchildren.
Children were an integral part of the household economy but in their early teens usually left to work in a household other than their own. An exception might be a child of an artisan who remained to acquire the valuable skills of his/her parent(s). In general, whether a child remained to work at home or went elsewhere depended on which way they could contribute most to the income of their own family. Sometimes when the family was on the edge of becoming destitute the children might be sent or allowed to work. Children often would be expected to work excessive hours and in dangerous situations.
Young people would eventually would leave home to marry and start an independent household of their own. The age of marriage was relatively late: over 26 years for men and for women over 23 years. After marriage they soon started a family of their own. It was not unusual for marriage to occur after a long courtship when the woman was already pregnant. The new family would soon employ a servant who, with their growing children, would contribute to whatever form of livelihood the household used to support itself.
The term servant in this context was quite different from that describing a person who worked for a wealthier family, usually of a higher social class. In the usual rural family unit a servant was not necessarily of a lower class and ate and lived 'almost' as a family member. Being a servant as long as 10 years was a means of acquire skills, often not learnable at home, and to accumulate enough money to contribute to the establishment of a new household. Women usually contributed equally to this by adding a self-generated 'dowry'. This explained the prolonged court ships and delayed age of marriage common up into the 1800s.
As noted above, the family economy was the fundamental unit of production and consumption. People thought and worked in terms of sustaining the economic life of the family, and its members saw themselves as working together as interdependent rather than in an individualistic or independent manner. The goal of the household was to produce or earn through wages enough food and other necessities. Almost everyone lived within a household of some kind because it was almost impossible for ordinary people to support themselves independently. Such people, living outside a household, other than those in religious orders, were often suspected of living off criminal activities, or potentially becoming dependent on others.
Within this type of subsistence economy all family members needed to work. On a farm much of the effort went into growing food and producing other agricultural products (flax, milk. butter, etc.) that could be exchanged for food. However few people had enough land to support the household from farming alone. In such families some members might work for wages elsewhere and send wages home. A father or older children might become migrant workers and leave their farm's work to be done by the mother and younger children. Surviving harvest failures (often every 3rd or 4th year) or economic slumps dictated no one could be idle.
In Flanders rural family income was supported by growing and processing flax into linen cloth. This cottage industry was exploited at various levels by merchants and other middlemen. It survived until the onset of the industrial revolution when spinning machines and steam-driven mechanical looms destroyed the profitability of the cottage industry. This and a succession of harvest failures brought poverty, epidemic disease and actual starvation to the region and was a major factor in encouraging emigration to North America.
A woman's life was in
large measure a function of her capacity to establish and maintain
household. For most women, except for those in religious orders,
marriage was an economic necessity and fulfilled sexual and
psychological needs. Her life was devoted first to supporting her
parents' household economy and then to assuring that she had her own
household in which to live. In most cases the bearing and raising
children were less important than the first two goals.
By the age of seven she already did housework, fed the chickens, watered the animals and carried food and drink to those working in the fields. Once a girl's parents and brother could cope with the farm work her labor at home lost its value and she left home, usually between the age of 12 and 14 years, usually to work on another nearby farm. However, she would might migrate to a nearby own or city to living in another household as a servant. Her chief aim was to accumulate a dowry which allowed her to become and equal economic partner in a new household when she married.
If her husband held enough farm land to support them, the wife would spend much of her time carrying things to her husband - water, food, seed, harvested grain and flax. To allow her to continue her contributions soon after giving birth the newborn infants often would be placed with a wet nurse. Sometimes it might prove more profitable for her to work herself as a wet nurse in a nearby town or city. But if her husband became a migrate worker she would be in charge of the farm and undertake the plowing, planting and harvesting herself with the aid of her children. If an economic disaster such as the death of her husband struck a women might maintain family income by taking outside work, send other family members off to seek work or, as is well recorded, send them to beg in the streets.
In the countryside, even though starvation might face the family, children were rarely abandoned but in the cities a surprising number of new born infants were brought anonymously to a Foundling Home.