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Journey to the past – a peek into family relations of the 18th century.

Jowita Janicka – the Institute of History at the University of Wrocław graduate and a PhD student at the History Doctoral College of the University of Wrocław. A scholarship holder of the Lanckoroński Foundation in 2023. Her research is mainly focused on the cultural history of the modern era with an emphasis on history and relations of families, along with upbringing methods and education of the youth.

Journey to the past – a peek into family relations of the 18th century.

A family is essentially a fundamental cell of society. It is also a topic often taken up by sociologists, psychologists and researchers of cultural and religious studies. Family relations are also explored by historians in an attempt to answer a question of how the social cell looked like and changed over the course of history. The specificity of the subject however, along with the limited availability of the source material, impose certain restrictions on the researchers seeking to explore the history of the Republic of Poland. An interesting period to analyse is the modern era, particularly the 18th century. This was an incredibly significant time for the history of Poland, especially its second half, which is typically associated by Poles with events such as the Four-Year Sejm (Sejm Czteroletni), the enactment of the Constitution of 3rd May (Konstytucja 3 maja) and the Partitions of Poland (Rozbiory Polskie). Besides these events, it was also the time of cultural and mental changes, which happened among the noble class. Enlightenment ideas were flowing into the country from the West, and the fully mature phase of that era occurred during the reign of King Stanisław August Poniatowski (1764-1795). The new currents brought a philosophy of national freedom, rationalism, a scientific worldview, common education and the development of new social and cultural life institutions. There were changes among highly educated Polish elites, along with a desire to spread the ideals mentioned above and the role model for following these aspirations became the king himself.

The influence of ideals and social changes on family relations

The situation in the nation and the social changes occurring can be studied precisely through the family’s point of view along with the processes which take place within the family itself. Diaries and correspondences are mainly used to reconstruct the details of family history. It goes without saying that the art of letter writing is on the verge of extinction these days, and the modern way of communicating is far from what it was in past centuries. It was the letter itself that was the most popular form up until the end of the 20th century, although it kept changing in its tiniest details. Thus, when it comes to the correspondence of the second half of the 18th century, what’s very distinguishable is its unprecedented individuality. And it was this individuality, in spite of the absolute preservation of the then prevailing conventions, which concerned forms, composition or graphic arrangement, that is able to bring us many details of everyday life and family relations. Parts of letters depended on the state affiliation of the addressee and the sender, the title held, the office occupied and the age. Extensive titulature was used even in family correspondence. It was not only an expression of politeness, but above all emphasised the respect and the position of the recipient. The large number of forms helped in making out subtle distinctions in the degree of distance and politeness, but also in the emotional attitude.

So how did people write to their own family members? Here are some examples which we can find among the correspondences of noblemen and noblewomen of this era:

Children to their parents – Her Majesty Duchess, dearly beloved mother and benefactor, Her Majesty Mother Benefactor, His Most Enlightened Prince, gracious father and benefactor.

Parents to their children – My dearly beloved son, my dearly beloved sir son (?), my dearly beloved daughter, my dearly beloved children.

Siblings to each other – My dearly beloved brother; my dearest brother; His Excellency dear brother, deeply from the heart loved benefactor; my dear little sister; beloved sister and benefactor; my benefactor, little sister.

They also used French expressions – Mon très cher père, frère, fils, ma très chère mère, sœur, fille.3

Family conversations in the past and today

I consciously omit phrases and titles used in matrimonial correspondence in this text, as these differences are even more individual. However, we can observe a certain degree of formalisation, respect and affection used in the letters. These formulations are hard to imagine being used in today’s world, but in the 18th century they allowed noble classes to find and mark their social positions, or in the very cell that was the family. Looking through a very abundantly collected Old Polish correspondence, both in Polish and foreign archives, these characteristic phrases used deeply encourage one to continue reading the letter and, among the common expressions, look for true feelings and relations that existed in the family.

It is worth mentioning that although the analysis of family relationships in the 18th century does not directly relate to market aspects, one can observe that certain social and cultural aspects of this period also influenced economic and commercial life.

  1. M. Klimowicz, Oświecenie, 1998, Warsaw.
  2. K. Mroczek, Tytulatura w korespondencji staropolskiej jako problem stosunku między nadawcą a odbiorcą, „Pamiętnik Literacki: czasopismo kwartalne poświęcone historii i krytyce literatury polskiej”, vol. 60, no. 2, 1978, p. 127-148
  3. Translation: My very dear father, brother, son, my very dear mother, sister, daughter
Jowita Janicka
Bio:
Absolwentka Instytutu Historycznego Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego, doktorantka Kolegium Doktorskiego Historii Szkoły Doktorskiej Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego. Stypendystka Fundacji Lanckorońskich w 2023 r.
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Jowita Janicka

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