if you haven’t been following along, i’ve been trying to find out as much as possible about medieval germanic kinship and kindreds with the idea that there might be something there to help explain why the germanic populations seem to have went along with the church’s/kings’/princes’ medieval outbreeding project with the most enthusiasm.

most of the populations of peripheral europe — the scots & the irish, the iberians & maybe even the southern french, the southern italians, eastern europeans to differing degrees, and especially the balkan populations (see Why Europe? and the mating patterns in europe series in left-hand column below ↓ for more details) — took up the outbreeding project much later than nw europeans, with the result (i think) that most of them remained “clannish” to some degree or another, or even tribal like the albanians and montenegrins, up until comparatively recently. was there something different about the germanic societies that predisposed them to adopting the cousin marriage bans of the various medieval religious and secular authorities? were they already kinda outbred, perhaps, pre-the arrival of christianity…?

i said in my previous post on medieval germanic kindreds that i wasn’t having much luck finding any recently published info about them, so i was reading a book on germanic kindreds published in 1913(!) (reprinted in 2010, mind you). well, now i’ve come across a whole gaggle of more recent sources (yay!) — in william jervis jones’ German Kinship Terms, 750-1500: Documentation and Analysis (mentioned previously in this post, btw).

jones thoughtfully summarized the current (as of 1990 when his book was published) thinking on medieval germanic kindreds. here’s what he had to say [pgs. 80-82]:

“Social and legal historians have long debated the size, nature and function of early Germanic and medieval German kin groups. The traditional, though by no means unquestioned, assumption has been that early Germanic society was dominated by the clan or lineage, and by unilinealism, a fabric which was then alleged to have dissolved in the age of the barbarian kingdoms.[5] Fleckenstein (1978: 2ff.) distinguishes here the agnatic and the cognatic clan, and argues in favour of assuming the early existence of the clan as a ‘rather flexible institution’, which was later circumscribed by royal power, overshadowed by more powerful social groupings, and transformed into the lineage and the family. Murray (1983), on the other hand, finds no compelling reason to think that the (for him) mainly cognatic medieval systems were born of a unilineal system in transition: ‘Probably Germanic society always displayed a variety of kinship forms, and various peoples developed systems to meet specific needs.’ For Germanic times, Murray emphasises ‘the notion of the bilateral kindred as the basic kin group of society’, and alongside this ‘the antiquity and vitality of cognation’ (223). He further observes that, in earliest times, kin groupings had effectively no legal limit ‘since the form and dimension of the kin groupings often varied in particular circumstances’ (21).

The size and function of kin groups, as reflected in Germanic laws from the 5th to the 9th century A.D., have been examined by Katherine Fischer Drew (1988). Though traces of a prehistoric Germanic extended family can still be detected (for example in the blood feud, compurgation, and inheritance practices), the basic unit by the time of the barbarian kingdoms is seen by Drew as the small family, supplemented where necessary by recourse to a larger kindred. This was not a fixed association, but was defined by reference to Ego, and thus differed for every group of individuals who had parents in common. On the evidence of Visigothic, Lombard and Frankish laws, the limit of kinship seems to have lain for certain purposes at the sixth or seventh remove, the distance being counted upwards to (and downwards from) the common ancestor….

so, my first cousin would be removed from me to the fourth degree (e.g. me -> my father -> my grandfather -> down again to my uncle -> my cousin. count the arrows — there are four). my second cousin would be removed from me to the sixth degree — so drew concluded that early medieval germanic kindreds were reckoned out to second cousins. this is pretty standard for most clannish groups, actually — understandable ’cause it can get hard to keep track of relatives farther out — and one is not very related to them beyond that point anyway.

more from jones:

“For the early medieval period, the traditional view (reported, for example, by Leyser 1968: 32ff.) was that the aristocracies of Carolingian Europe consisted of very large family-groups, in which maternal kin mattered at least as much as paternal. The shifting, cognatic *Großfamilien* were seen as giving way in the 11th and 12th centuries to smaller and more closely-knit agnatic dynasties with a continuous history.[6] Questioning the sharpness of this discontinuity, Leyser warns against excessive reliance on the early testimony of the ‘Libri memoriales’, and adds: ‘The circumstance that nobles entered their kindred and affinity, living and dead, does not prove that they failed to distinguish between nearer and more distant ties of kinship or rule out close agnatic feeling and thinking’ (36).[7] Bullough, equally, argues for a differentiated view: ‘The likelihood is that the circle of kinsmen [...] was differently conceived not only among different Germanic peoples but locally according to custom and differently when the issue was one of inheritance of land or a monastery, vendetta and composition or who should be present at a wedding feast. The only consistent feature [...] is the bilateral nature of the kin-set and the fact, therefore, that such a set can have no structural persistence through several generations’ (1969: 15).

“For the High Middle Ages, the verdicts again differ. Genicot states with some firmness the view that after the end of the first millennium the looser cognatic kin-groupings fell into decline, as society proceeded to organise itself into individual and well-structured agnatic families (Reuter ed. 1970: 27).[8] According to Duby (1973: 283), the years between 900 and 1050 saw the gradual transformation of European kinship structure, from an imprecisely limited, horizontal perception to a more strongly vertical, agnatic view. Against or alongside this agnatic consolidation, it may be salutary to recall Marc Bloch’s opinion (1939: 201) that the victory of the agnatic principle did not eclipse the cognatic one. Due weight must be given, also, to Leyser’s more differentiated observations, that ‘the development of a more restricted, “dynastic” kind of family in the *Reich* was not as whole-hearted as in the West’ (1970: 133), and that the degree of agnatic perception depended on the importance of the lineages (1968: 31).[9] In Reuter’s view, also, consciousness of distant kinship must have varied with context, both before and after the 11th century: ‘it might be useful or it might not’ (1979: 7).

“Whatever its nature and scope, the recognition and reckoning of kinship pervaded many aspects of medieval life, and assumed particular importance in the pursuit of feuds and vendettas,[10] in impediments to marriage,[11] and in the laws of inheritance.[12]“
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so, it’s hard to say what the structure of early (pre-5th century) germanic societies was — clans? kindreds? who knows? there does seem to be something of a consensus, though, that from ca. the 5th century onwards (until…?), germanic societies were featured by bilateral kinship and kindreds. lorraine lancaster concluded this about the anglo-saxons, phillpotts about the germanics across europe, and now nancy drew and others referred to in the above quote from jones.

the fact that germanic populations were probably kindred- and not clan- or tribal-based at the time that they converted to christianity leads me to think that, while they probably did practice cousin marriage (as suggested by the fact that the church/authorities DID have to ban it starting in the early medieval period), it probably wasn’t practiced extremely frequently, and probably a very close cousin form of cousin marriage (like father’s brother’s daughter [fbd] marriage) wasn’t preferred.

what do i mean by “wasn’t practiced *extemely* frequently”? i’m not sure. just that cousin marriage couldn’t have been as regularly occuring as it was in, say, medieval scotland (or ireland) or else (i think) that germanic society would’ve been structured in clear-cut extended families or clans rather than these more floating kindreds. similarly, i don’t think early medieval germanic couin marriage could’ve been very close (e.g. fbd marriage) or else, again, they would’ve had more tightly structured clans/tribes. the pattern seems to be — and i could be wrong about this — the closer the long-term marriage practices, the tighter and more structured the extended family structures within a society. kindreds are neither very tight nor structured — they vary with every individual (or every set of siblings, rather). they’re floating. kindreds are clannishness-lite.

there was close — including probably cousin — marriage in pre-christian germanic societies, otherwise the church/secular authorities wouldn’t have had to go through all the trouble of banning it. but i think that most early medieval germanic populations (looking away from funny little groups like the frisians and ditmarsians) must’ve been already comparatively loosely structured, and, therefore, were predisposed to accepting — or at any rate being more receptive to — the medieval cousin marriage bans. they were already not that clannish compared to most other european populations at the time, so it didn’t take much, i think, to push them out of clannishness altogether.
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need to get my hands on drew’s Law and society in early Medieval Europe: studies in legal history. unfortunately there isn’t a preview available on google books. dr*t!

i also need to check to see if other populations based on kindreds (especially bilateral kindreds) have relatively low levels of close marriage. somebody remind me if i forget! (^_^)

previously: medieval germanic kindreds … and the ditmarsians and kinship in anglo-saxon society and kinship in anglo-saxon society ii

(note: comments do not require an email. nancy drew.)

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