The Family Economy in History: 1260 to the present day

This information is for the 2022/23 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof Sara Horrell SAR 6.03


This course is available on the BSc in Economic History, BSc in Economic History and Geography, BSc in Economic History with Economics, BSc in Economics and Economic History and BSc in Economics with Economic History. This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit and to General Course students.


Introductory economics is not a strict pre-requisite for this course, but students may find a basic introduction to economics helpful in understanding some of the material.

Course content

In recent accounts the actions of individuals within families and the household have emerged as important explanations for pre-industrial and industrial economic growth. Female agency in marriage decisions resulted in a variant of household formation which allowed high living standards after the ravages of the Black Death. Later, the consumption desires of households prompted increased market participation of women and children, creating an early modern industrious revolution with the potential to evolve into industrial revolution. High wages and child labour have both emerged as contenders in determining the path to industrialisation, and shifts in the provision of education and health services have impacted women’s duties within the household and their opportunities in the wider economy throughout the twentieth century. This course examines the role played by the family in determining the path of development.  While the lectures largely relate to the British experience, the classes and assessment invite comparisons with experiences in Europe, Asia, and North America. Simple economic models of individual and household behaviour provide the theoretical basis for understanding outcomes, but the focus is on evidence, often quantitative, and critical evaluation of contending explanations.


This course is delivered through a combination of classes and lectures totalling a minimum of 40 hours across Michaelmas Term and Lent Term. 

This course includes a reading week in Week 6 of Michaelmas and Lent Term.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 essay and 1 presentation in the MT and 1 essay and 1 presentation in the LT.

Students are expected to write two essays or equivalent pieces of written work.

Students are expected to participate in group presentations of specific readings to the rest of the class twice during the course.

Indicative reading

  • Broadberry, Stephen, Campbell, Bruce M.S., Klein Alexander, Overton, Mark and van Leeuwen, Bas (2015) British Economic Growth, 1270-1850, Cambridge University Press, chapters 1, 10.
  • De Moor, Tine, and van Zanden, Jan Luiten (2010) ‘Girl Power: The European Marriage Pattern and Labour Markets in the North Sea Region in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period,’ Economic History Review, 63, pp. 1-33.
  • De Vries, Jan (2008) The Industrious Revolution: consumer behaviour and the household economy, 1650 to the present, Cambridge University Press
  • Muldrew, Craig (2011) Food, energy and the creation of industriousness, Cambridge University Press
  • Humphries, Jane (2010) Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution, Cambridge University Press.
  • Horrell, Sara, Jane Humphries and Jacob Weisdorf (2019) Family standards of living over the long-run, England 1280-1850', Past and Present. 
  • June Purvis (ed) (1997) Women's History, Britain 1850-1945. An introduction, Routledge


Exam (70%, duration: 2 hours) in the summer exam period.
Essay (30%, 3000 words) in the LT.

The summative essay chosen from a selection of topics covered during the course.

Key facts

Department: Economic History

Total students 2021/22: 14

Average class size 2021/22: 7

Capped 2021/22: No

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Course selection videos

Some departments have produced short videos to introduce their courses. Please refer to the course selection videos index page for further information.

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication
  • Application of numeracy skills
  • Specialist skills