skip to primary navigationskip to content

Elizabeth Foyster

elizabeth foysterName
Dr. Elizabeth Foyster

Clare College

What is your field of history?
History of the family and gender (masculinity and femininity) in England from the seventeenth century through to the mid-nineteenth century.

How did you come to specialise in this area?
I had an inspiring teacher of history at university who taught a course on the history of the family, and I wanted to know more. I’ve always been interested in finding out about human relationships (what makes people fall in love; why some marriages work and others go so wrong; whether there are fundamental differences between men and women, other than biological ones; what influences children’s behaviour and what we remember from childhood). As a historian, I also want to know whether people experienced family life differently in the past from us today.
On a more trivial level, I’m a pretty nosey person, and history lets me poke into other people’s personal lives!

What sort of source material do you tend to use, and what are its strengths and weaknesses?
In the period I'm researching, when marriages didn't work, couples could seek permission to legally live apart. We are very fortunate, because many of the papers from court cases that were heard in this process survive. These contain statements from the couples themselves, so we hear both sides of the story, as well as witness statements from those who lived near or with them. So we can learn what children, servants, neighbours and friends thought was happening in a marriage, and get their perspective on what constituted a 'normal' functioning relationship. Hence, although a weakness of this material is that it is about relationships that were not working, by 'reading against the grain', we can also gain insights into what was expected in a stable and happy family or marriage.

Which individuals, events or forces are especially important in your area of history?
In the seventeenth century there was widespread acceptance that husbands could be violent to their wives. There was even a popular myth that a husband could beat his wife as long as it was with a stick that was no bigger than his thumb. By the nineteenth century attitudes had completely changed and violence in marriage was viewed as so intolerable that it had become a taboo subject in many social circles. Deciding what forces led to this change has been the greatest challenge to me as a historian.

How has your field developed over the course of your career?
Thirty years ago it was generally assumed that family life and personal relationships were much colder, more distant and less loving in the past. This has been shown to be entirely mistaken and inaccurate.

Which areas of your field most urgently need further exploration?
We still know very little about what men thought about their roles in family life as husbands, fathers and sons. It would be helpful to find out more about their experiences and views, so that we could put women's lives and experiences into some perspective.

What characterises good history?
It has a relevance to current day social issues and concerns.

How did your understanding of history change during your time as a university student?
At school I'd just studied kings and queens. At university, I studied social history, and learned that history was also about ordinary people. Going to university also allowed me to try other periods of history that I'd never studied. To my amazement, I discovered that I also enjoyed medieval history.

Where should somebody interested in your area of history go for further information?
Researching your own family history will start to give you some insights into some of the challenges that can face historians. The Women's History Network is a national organisation for those interested in this area of history. Their website