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Lying at the far southwestern corner of Europe, with 10 million inhabitants and one-fifth of the Iberian Peninsula's space, Portugal is diminutive in terms of population and territory, and comparatively homogeneous in ethnic terms. Yet it remains noteworthy for the variability of its social life, and no less so in marriage and the family than in other social domains. Analysts of marriage practices and family structures in Portugal have attended to two main axes of variability: those based in social class and regional differentiation. This traditional framework provides the structure for the current discussion, as well. The most important aspects of family and marriage that vary along these axes are the relative position of women, the shape taken by households, inheritance patterns, and the extent of genealogical knowledge.

In a pioneering article from 1962, Emilio Willems posited class as the basic social division and region as the secondary social division influencing variation in marriage and the family in Portugal. Regarding class, the urban bourgeoisie was distinctive in being what he termed family-ridden. That is, this class contrasted with the lower classes in its focus on controlling the social relations of its members through kinship. One form of control was particularized homogamous mating, or the practice of restricting marriage not just to the bourgeoisie, but to a limited number of kinship groups within the class known to have comparable stores of wealth and attitudes toward its disposition. A special focus of control was women, who were kept secluded as part of what Willems labeled the virginity complex. In fact, only in the context of their restricted courtship groups were women allowed any real freedom of movement outside their own households. On the lower side of the class divide, proletarian and peasant men could not afford to sequester their wives, daughters, and sisters in the household, and with wider social exposure came significant premarital sexual intercourse and even what Willems called matripotestal tendencies, meaning tendencies for women to have significant power of decision within families. Still, he saw peasant families as relatively solid because they were anchored in landed property. Proletarian families, on the other hand, he considered anomic, due to their lack of such a material basis for continuity.

Willems made no hard regional distinctions, but his examples of peasant families came mainly from the north of Portugal, whereas his proletarian examples came from the south. The illustrative material is divided neatly, then, according to regional differences that have structured much of the social scientific literature on Portugal at least since Orlando Ribeiro's 1945 geographical masterpiece on the distinction between a wet, mountainous "Atlantic" and a dry, rolling "Mediterranean" Portugal, Various studies of social structure in Portugal have shown that women in the lower socioeconomic classes—including small farmers, sharecroppers, and agricultural laborers—are not as restricted in their movements and have more decision-making power within families than their upper-class counterparts. OWEN FRANKEN/CORBIS which corresponds roughly to a north/south division. The Tagus River forms the boundary. It runs from the northeast to the southwest, emptying into the Atlantic at the country's metropolitan center, Lisbon, bisecting the country into nearly equal parts. For Ribeiro, these basically ecological divisions had consequences for land ownership and settlement patterns, with large holdings in the south setting wealthy owners off from the landless proletarians who worked them, whereas in the north there were smaller, more evenly distributed holdings in land. Anthropologists connected these to differences in family structure and marriage patterns. Jorge Dias (1963) pointed out that in the south kinship ties were weaker and less extensive than in the north, and cohabitation without marriage was more frequent. Corresponding to this, the southern father had comparatively less power within the family. It is interesting to note that the "spiritual family"—made up of godparents and godchildren—intensified in compensation. Still, it was a fiction (often firming up relations across class boundaries—between landowner and laborer), and had virtually no effect on the formation of new families.

In his groundbreaking ethnography of the Alentejo region, south of the Tagus River, Jose Cutileiro (1971) provided dense detail on the relation between the rich and the poor in the region, deepening Dias's insights and providing nuance to some of Willems's claims. He delineated a range of social classes in the region—estate owners, smaller farmers, sharecroppers, and agricultural laborers—and observed that the position of women varied across them. In the two upper groups, women's exposure to public space was much more controlled. As both smaller farmers and sharecroppers can be likened to Willems's peasants, we can see that peasant status alone did not determine the position of women in the family. Premarital virginity for women was a core value shared by all groups, but women from the lower groups were less likely to adhere to it rigidly. If marriage to the first sex partner was somehow prevented, women's impure status made marriage to another highly unlikely. This contributed to the relatively high rates of cohabitation outside of marriage in the region. In Cutileiro's Alentejo region the class division affected family life most notably: not only did women's position differ significantly by class, but the family was differentially organized around connections through women. In wealthy families, control of women consigned them to a hazy role in family integration; in poor families, "mothers, daughters, and sisters form[ed] the only operative groupings based on kinship found" (Cutileiro 1971, p. 127) In more general terms, landed families had a keen sense of kinship outside of the nuclear circle due to competing claims to inheritance, whereas poorer families were comparatively ignorant of the family tree. Naming, a practice crucial to family formation, varied much more among the poor than among the landed. Although the norm in Portuguese practice is that the father's surname end the child's full name, giving it special emphasis, among the poor the mother's surname was often given emphasis, or other names from the eight possibilities provided by the pool of grandparents were used. Thus, in the Alentejo region increasing property holdings corresponded with increasing patriarchy, which provided, in turn, a more fixed notion of family membership across the generations.

Later analyses turned northward in their regional focus, and provided for synthetic accounts of Portuguese marriage and family in regional terms. The north is divided roughly between the Minho, in the humid northwest, and Trás-os-Montes, in the dry northeast. Caroline Brettell (1986) turned both her historical and ethnographic attention to the Minho in large part because it was a region long characterized by heavy male emigration. This emigration contributed to the matricentic—or mother-centered—character of small land-holding families in the area studied. In accordance with this focus came a significant autonomy among women in such families. This was indexed by the practice of men being identified with reference to their mothers and wives (for example, Josés were distinguished by such designations as "Maria's José" or "Olinda's José"). Women's relative autonomy was also registered in the practice of giving daughters the family name of their mothers, and men that of their fathers (also noted for the Beira Baixa region, in the center of the country, by Santos [1992]). The families of larger landowners were more patriarchal. João de Pina-Cabral (1986) drew a similar conclusion in his study of Minho social life: households based in farming, often combined with male emigration, were associated with women, and kin groups were centered on groups of sisters. In bourgeois families, male dominance was the norm. Among small farming families premarital sex was not condemned, though the formation of households outside of wedlock was considered shameful. (Brettell, in contrast, described more calibrated local judgements about the degree of shame to be attached to particular households.) Sally Cole's (1991) monograph on the Minho is consistent with many of the findings of Brettell and Pina-Cabral, though she focused her attention on fishing women, and discerned a women-centered—not just a mother-centered—character among their families; landed families were decidedly patriarchal.

Studies located east of the Minho, in Trás-os-Montes, have emphasized the principle of the household and its durability through the generations. Brian O'Neill's (1987) work is one of the key texts, with its finding that historically in this area matrimony has been far weaker as a social objective than retaining the patrimony intact. There has been significant effort to prevent—or at least postpone—marriages of individuals in order that the land fragmentation associated with inheritance by multiple sets of heirs legitimated by marriage be avoided. This has led, in O'Neill's view, to high levels both of formal celibacy and of birth outside of wedlock, something that analysts such as Brettell attribute to other causes in their regions of focus, namely the imbalance between women and men in combination with women's need for social security in their old age. The commitment to patrimony in O'Neill's Trás-os-Montes has also led to natolocality (also known as night marriage), in which spouses continue to reside with their birth families, changing their premarital activities only by sleeping together in the natal home of the bride (a practice confirmed later by Brito [1995]). Heirs inherit property only at the death of parents, with favored heirs buying the shares in the inheritance possessed by the (often unmarried) co-heirs in order to consolidate the original holding. This is achieved in spite of the Portuguese law specifying equal inheritance among all heirs. There is no gender bias involved in favoring an heir. The bourgeoisie plays no role in local village life, though there are divisions that approach social classes—the crucial inequality generated by inheritance practices that exclude family members.

Though an argument could be made that the variation in marriage and the family noted in the north is basically rooted in class differences, thus making it of a piece with the south, in synthetic accounts of marriage and the family in Portugal, writers like Pina-Cabral and O'Neill argue that there are regional differences irreducible to class structure. For Pina-Cabral (1991), northern Portugal forms part of a Galician-Portuguese Regional Complex, whereas significant parts of southern Portugal belong to a Mediterranean Regional Complex. In the former, the principle of the house predominates, whereas in the latter, the principle of conjugality is emphasized. An emphasis on the principle of the house means that those who make specific households durable through time are accorded social respect by their communities and more or less egalitarian relations hold among houses (Pina-Cabral 1992); such an emphasis also means higher rates of celibacy. Emphasis on the principle of conjugality leads to an emphasis on social hierarchy between domestic groups and lower rates of celibacy. This contradicts Willems and Cutileiro, who emphasized the class basis of cohabitation outside of marriage in the south. (The issue remains controversial.) It is consistent, however, with O'Neill's (1987) claim that in significant parts of northern Portugal patrimony is emphasized over matrimony, as well as with his (1995) correlation in northern Portugal between a stress on patrimony and relatively equal relations between the genders, and his findings that in southern Portugal an emphasis on marriage is related to the subordination of women. The issue of how class relates to region in shaping marriage and family life in southern Europe as a whole awaits resolution (Kertzer and Brettell 1987), and Portugal is no exception.

The early 1980s and 1990s saw the popularization of the notion that progressive urbanization and movement in the countryside towards industrial and service jobs will modernize the family forms traditionally found in different parts of Portugal; regional and class distinctions will be erased by the increasing occurrence of uniformly nuclear family households—simple households, that is, as opposed to complex households made up of both nuclear families and residents (such as grandparents, aunts, or uncles) not belonging to the nuclear family. Many recent analyses of marriage and the family in Portugal, by both sociologists and anthropologists, were written in conscious engagement with this belief. Thus M. Villaverde Cabral (1992) discusses survey data confirming the ongoing importance of north/south social distinctions in the context of increasing Portuguese integration into the European economy and polity. Examples of more locally focused empirical research finding against the nuclearization thesis are Karin Wall's (1998) historically informed ethnography and Antónia Lima's ethnographic investigations. Wall argues that in the Baixo Minho subregion of northern Portugal, the 1980s brought industrialization and closer averages in family size across social groups (between three and five individuals), as well as a greater emphasis on conjugal units. Yet these conjugal units were as likely to be found in complex domestic groups as they were in the 1930s (around 20% of the time). Lima (1999) shows how in the 1990s elite business families in Lisbon have remained as committed to extended family connections as they have been in the past, with gatherings of 200 family members considered ordinary annual occurrences, and individuals able to trace, extemporaneously, the connections between 350 to 400 family members. The work of Wall and Lima is but a sample of a treasure trove of work demonstrating that region and class continue to affect marriage and kinship reckoning even as economic modernization occurs. Understanding ongoing continuity and change in Portuguese marriage practices and family relations promises to remain an exciting and complicated affair.



Brettell, C. (1986). Men Who Migrate, Women Who Wait: Population and History in a Portuguese Parish. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Brito, J. P. de (1995). Retrato de Aldeia com Espelho: Ensaio sobre Rio de Onor. Lisbon: Publicações Dom Quixote.

Cabral, M. V. (1992). "Portugal e a Europa: Diferenças e Semelhanças." Análise Social XVII(118–119):943–954.

Cole, S. (1991). Women of the Praia: Work and Lives in a Portuguese Coastal Community. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Cutileiro, J. (1971). A Portuguese Rural Society. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Dias, J. (1963). "Algumas Considerações acera da Estrutura Social do Povo Português." In Actas do 1.Congresso da Etnografia e Folclore, Vol. 1. Lisbon: Biblioteca Social e Corporativa.

Kertzer, D. I., and Brettell, C. (1987). "Advances in Italian and Iberian Family History." Journal of Family History 12(1–3):87–120.

Lima, A. P. de (1999). "Sócios e Parentes: Valores Familiares e Interesses Económicos nas Grandes Empresas Familiares Portuguesas." Etnográfica III(1):87–112.

O'Neill, B. J. (1987). Social Inequality in a Portuguese Hamlet: Land, Late Marriage, and Bastardy, 1870–1978. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Pina-Cabral, J. de (1986). Sons of Adam, Daughters of Eve: The Peasant Worldview of the Alto Minho. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Pina-Cabral, J. de (1991). Os Contextos da Antropologia. Lisbon: DIFEL.

Pina-Cabral, J. de (1992). "Family and Neighborhood in Portugal Today." In The New Portugal: Democracy and Europe, ed. R. Herr. Berkeley: Regents of the University of California.

Ribeiro, O. (1963 [1945]). Portugal: O Mediterrâneo e o Atlântico. Lisbon: Sá da Costa.

Santos, A. dos (1992). Heranças: Estrutura Agraria e Sistema de Parentesco numa Aldeia da Beira Baixa. Lisbon: Publicações Dom Quixote.

Wall, K. (1998). Famílias no Campo: Passado e Presente em Duas Freguesias do Baixo Minho. Lisbon: Publicações Dom Quixote.

Willems, E. (1962). "On Portuguese Family Structure." International Journal of Comparative Sociology 3(1):65–79.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural Aspects