Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Family, Favouritism and Sibling Rivalry in Early Modern England

Emily New

While the relationship between parent and child in early modern England has been a staple of historical inquiry, alongside detailed debates over the nature of adult treatment towards children, much less attention has been paid to the bonds between siblings. Due to a historiographical and, no doubt, contemporary emphasis on patriarchal and inter-generational structures, the more horizontal ties between brothers and sisters have been overlooked. Yet, just like today, sibling interaction must have formed a significant part of contemporary experience, with this interaction being inevitably influenced by familiar social conventions such as patriarchy, gender and social status. This dissertation attempts to piece together the nature of favouritism within the early modern family and the impact it could have on sibling relationships. More specifically, diaries, autobiographies, journals, letters, domestic texts and any relevant literary or visual material will be used to look at the factors which could influence parents to favour one child over another. These factors include gender, birth order, character, educational ability, obedience, and so on. Was the oldest son and heir always favoured, or should we turn to other causes to provide the real explanation for early modern favouritism? The second half of this study will then focus on how this favouritism could shape the two fundamental paradigms of sibling rivalry and affection. Within the scholarship, according to Naomi Miller and Naomi Yavneh, siblings are ‘everywhere and nowhere’. This paper will attempt to begin to redress this paradox.