Family genres of peasant culture

From an ethnographic point of view, the family is the smallest social unit, its members being linked by blood ties and marriage. It was originally a patriarchal system, i.e. the senior male head of the family had control over the family's affairs and properties. There are small and large families, depending on the number of generations living under one roof, but the term family most often refers to the nuclear family, which is a community of parents and children.

csaladi_kep_csehbanyarol_234832.jpgThe head of the family was the person with the most power, experience and respect, usually a man in the family concept of peasant culture. In the extended family, he was called the farmer (or master) and had control over all the properties, the farm and the life of the family. The patriarchal structure has been a Hungarian tradition for thousands of years, and the shift to nomadic herding and animal husbandry may have strengthened the role of men, and thus the paternity.

egyed_beresgazda_es_csaladja_215236.jpgOne of the husband's basic tasks was to organise and lead the work, as everyone did their share of the family labour according to their age and gender. The relationship between father and child began with the family welcome ceremony, when the father - and his relatives - symbolically acknowledged the new-born child as his own, for example by picking up the child placed on the doorstep, putting his hat on it or 'mounting' it on his horse in the stable. 

csalad_kiskunhalas_392052.jpgThe male child did not have an important relationship with the father until he reached working age, he was looked after by the women of the family until then. At the age of six, a boy was already allowed to guard geese in the yard, then in the pasture field, and later his father taught him to work, i.e. to hoe and mow, and after the age of 18 they usually harvested together. Young children and daughters, who were not 'useful' within the family in terms of work, were of no importance to the father, and it was the mother's job to look after them.

The husband had the stronger say; the wife was subordinate to him in the family hierarchy, often dictating her actions and her going out, for example to fairs and weddings. It was an interesting phenomenon, and underlined the subordination of the wife, that she had to address him formally, while the husband could address her by her first name informally, and she had to follow him a few steps behind him in the street.

kalacsfono_asszony_654341.jpgThe system of demands in peasant societies on women was also stricter, and certain qualities such as obedience, diligence, thrift were considered important as a womanly virtue, and corporal punishment was often overlooked. The most important tasks of a woman were household and domestic chores: cooking, baking bread, providing dairy products and eggs, looking after the poultry and the family's clothing and laundry, but she was also responsible for weaving, sewing and preparing the dowry.

paraszt_csalad_kiskunhalas_392080.jpgShe was also responsible for the upbringing and tending the children. In the absence of contraception, the birth and death of children were natural and part of life and the bond with the mother developed later because of the high incidence of infant death. However, by the time children reached their teenage years, it was the mother's role to help them find a mate and arrange marriages. In the case of girls, the mother and the child shared the task of sewing the dowry.

parasztasszony_kislannyal_830668.jpgHaving only one child appeared in certain areas, mainly in the South Transdanubian region in the mid-19th century. Parents consciously had only one child, the main reason being to keep the family property and land together and to avoid poverty. Since there was only one offspring to care for, they tried to give them as much as possible, even spoiling them, but the one-child societies were characterised by ostentation and showing wealth to the world.

In one-child societies, women had greater prestige, because an only daughter often received a fortune as the sole heir. This custom gave rise to a strange phenomenon, called “vőség” (son-in-law). If girls could not find a wealthy husband, they would choose a poorer man who would move into the girl's parents' house and work there for his father-in-law or mother-in-law, in a subordinate, almost servant-like role - for the sake of future wealth. The son-in-law could sometimes break out of his humiliating situation, when he worked well he was honoured in time, or if he ended up a widow, the parents of the deceased wife would insist on him, mainly because of his labour.

menyecske_390706.jpgThe custom of “vőség” was unusual also because young married couples usually started life together in the house of the husband's parents. If this was the case, the mother-in-law played a major role in her daughter-in-law's life - from whom the young wife could ask for help just as she could from her mother, but her actions and behaviour could be dictated by her mother-in-law, who was above her in the family hierarchy. Their relationship - and the relationship between the women in the family - was influenced by the mother-in-law's temper. In general, the daughter-in-law had fewer rights and fewer opportunities for entertainment, but more work than the unmarried daughters of the mother-in-law - for example did, unlike other female relatives, daughters-in-law had to do agricultural work as well.

"The old farm women 'guarded the wooden spoon’; they did not like anyone else to look into their lard pot. If anyone dared to object to the food, "they'd rebuke them, saying they would trifle away the property." The younger wives worked in the fields from spring to autumn, and in winter, they were busy with flax and hemp work, but they were not allowed to bake or cook. Such preservation of the knowledge of cooking has resulted that many women aged 60-70 years have not even made soup or dough on their own, because their mother-in-law or mother was still alive. This is why the cooks at weddings and burial-feasts were all elderly women. That is why the event following the wedding, the cooks’ ball was called "banyabillegető" (hag wagging)." - Judit Knézy, The upheaval of the extended family organisation among the reformed families of Inner-Somogy after the abolition of serfdom.

idos_hazaspar_392495.jpgGrandparents also had a role in upbringing children, as parents usually worked. In particular, the maternal grandmother helped her daughter to look after the babies, and was often present at childbirth. The grandparent-grandchild relationship was of course influenced by whether they lived together as a large family, the sex of the grandchild and whether the grandchild was a child of the grandparent’s son or daughter. The grandmother usually had a closer relationship with the granddaughter, but the grandfathers preferred grandsons as future heirs, and were happy to tell them old stories and sing songs.


Translated by Zita Aknai


Balassa Iván - Ortutay Gyula: Magyar néprajz. Budapest. Corvina Kiadó, 1979. Magyar Elektronikus Könyvtár

Knézy Judit (gyűjtő): A nagycsaládi szervezet felborulása Belső-Somogy református családainál a jobbágyfelszabadítás után, 1980

Ortutay Gyula (főszerk.): Magyar Néprajzi Lexikon. Budapest. Akadémiai Kiadó, 1977. Magyar Elektronikus Könyvtár


More thematic virtual exhibitions