In this book, Hanawalt investigates the peasant family in medieval England, attempting to correct some misconceptions of previous scholarship on the subject. Her thesis is explicit: "the peasant family remained much the same throughout these two centuries of cataclysmic changes [fourteenth and fifteenth] and, moreover, ... the family was able to maintain its basic structure because it was a remarkably flexible institution, permitting the pursuit of a variety of options while retaining the integrity of the unit" (3). Hanawalt's book surveys all aspects of English peasant families.
In the first section of the book, Hanawalt provides an illuminating discussion on the material environment of the English peasantry, e.g., what kinds of fields they cultivated and what kinds of houses they built. The heart of Hanawalt's book comes in the second section where she defines the peasant family. She seeks to destroy what she calls "the myth of extended kinship in the Middle Ages" (83). She claims that English peasants conceived of the family as a relatively compact unit. The basic family structure was the nuclear family, which rarely exceeded five members. In the next two sections, Hanawalt looks at the economics of the family, describing how each member could contribute to the family's needs, and investigates each stage of life for the English peasant. Overall, Hanawalt posits a fairly rosy existence for medieval English peasants.
One interesting aspect of the book is Hanawalt's choice of sources. She uses manorial court rolls and other traditional sources, but she really relies on coroner's reports to flesh out her argument. These coroner's reports give her survey plenty of color, but they also make the book a bit morbid at times. The combination of her upbeat picture of peasant life with a parade of ghastly accidents as evidence gives the reader a sensation of dissonance. Nonetheless, the book is a good read.