(this is turning out to be one weeeird meta-topic for a blog, but … eh … what the hey!)
in “The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe,” jack goody is in agreement with giorgio ausenda that the german tribes had had endogamous marriage practices, including cousin marriage, before the arrival of christianity. (they also had a lot of other good stuff like polygamy and concubinage. oh those wacky germans!)
goody suggests that cross cousin marriage (mother’s brother’s daughter marriage, for instance) was probably a common form amongst the germans since it is the most common form of cousin marriage in general — but, like ausenda, he doesn’t rule out father’s brother’s daughter (fbd) marriage as a possibility.
personally, i’m leaning towards the conclusion that fbd marriage was not so common amongst the germans since they had a bilateral kinship system — in other words, an individual would reckon his extended family on both his father’s and mother’s sides (like most westerners do today). in societies where fbd marriage is common — like arab countries — kinship systems tend to be unilateral, in particular patrilateral, i.e. the father’s lineage is the most important. on the other hand, ausenda showed that the father’s brothers were the most significant family members after one’s immediate family in germanic society, so maybe the germans did tend towards a patrilateral system. perhaps their most common cousin marriage was patrilateral cross cousin marriage, i.e. father’s sister’s daughter, tho and not fbd marriage. dunno.
ausenda looked at the early german law codes to see what he could infer about germanic marriage patterns and kinship systems; goody looked at some law codes (like those of the anglo-saxons in britain) plus some other primary and secondary sources like correspondence between the early church fathers and the venerable bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English Church and People” completed in 731 a.d.
here’s what goody had to say [pgs. 34-7]:
“Bede tells of some of the problems involved in converting the pagan English. He explains how after Augustine, the first archbishop of Canterbury, arrived in 597, he sent messengers back to Pope Gregory at Rome seeking advice on certain current questions, including ones relating to marriage….
“[T]he Letter of Gregory provides us with some very valuable evidence….
“Four of the nine questions on which Augustine asked advice from the Pope had to do with sex and marriage…. Augustine’s fifth question was more complicated and more revealing: ‘Within what degree may the faithful marry their kindred; and is it lawful for a man to marry a step-mother or a sister-in-law?’
“Pope Gregory’s reply clearly indicates the change that Christianity had brought to Rome and presumably to the other countries of western Europe. ‘A certain secular law in the Roman State allows that the son and daughter of a brother and sister, or of two brothers or two sisters may be married. But we have learned from experience that the offspring of such marriages cannot thrive. Sacred law forbids a man to uncover the nakedness of his kindred. Hence it is necessary that the faithful should only marry relations three or four times removed, while those twice removed must not marry in any case, as we have said….’
“Since a special dispensation had to be given to those who had contracted such unions before conversion, it is clear that the practices of close marriage (presumably to cross-cousins, and possibly, as in Rome, to parallel cousins, at least to the father’s brother’s daughter) and of marriage to the widow of the brother or father (though not one’s own mother) must have been common in English, and indeed German, society. But they are now forbidden, the arguments against them being framed partly in physical terms (the likelihood of infertility) and partly in religious ones (on grounds of incest…).”
further, on how the political powers-that-be were also in on the action (along with the church) — we already saw this in all the law codes that ausenda looked at [pgs. 39-40]:
“Yet marriage to any close kin was forbidden by the Church and its proscriptions were given legal sanction by Christian monarchs. In Anglo-Saxon England the punishment for breaking these rules was very heavy, namely slavery, with the man passing into the ownership of the king and the woman into that of the bishop. Eventually these extensive prohibitions, which varied in extent over time, were relaxed as a result of the Protestant Reformation….”
finally, here’s a summary of how the regulations on cousin- and other close-family marriage became more restrictive throughout the medieval period [pg. 56]:
“In the sixth century the ban [on cousin marriage by the Church] was extended to the third canonical degree, that is, to second cousins, the offspring of a common great-grandparent ‘in imitation of Roman law which limited inheritance to the sixth degree of kinship’ (Oesterle 1949: 233), calculated in the Roman manner, that is, the third degree reckoned by the German or canonical method, which became dominant in the medieval period. Later the prohibition was pushed out still further to the fourth degree and then, in the eleventh century, to the seventh canonical degree, when the later method was used to recalculate the earlier prohibitions. Not only were these enormously extended prohibitions attached to blood or consanguineal ties, but they were assigned to affinal and spiritual kinship as well, producing a vast range of people, often resident in the same locality, that were forbidden to marry.”
william jervis jones shows that a linguistic shift in kinship terminology took place in german starting in the 12th century and continuing through, at least, the 15th century. to give a really broooad summary of his work, he found that, starting in the 12th century, more specific kinship terms shifted in meaning to be more inclusive or have wider definitions [pg. 195+].
just one example [pg. 190]:
“(3) From late in the 13th century, evidence begins to accumulate for a set of ‘downward’ extensions, in which a given Ego employs the same term for Alter and for Alter’s children (or Alter’s sibling’s children) of like sex. Interestingly, the earliest recorded cases have the linkage via the sibling, and are exclusively on the maternal side. Thus about 1300 we have signs of aeheim … being used with reference to the ‘mother’s sister’s son’, though its sense is still predominantly ‘mother’s brother.” A similar extension of muome to ‘mother’s brother’s daughter’ dates from 1336….”
kinship terms generally outline who you can and cannot marry [<< link opens powerpoint file]. in the case of the germans, before the medieval period, they had rather specific terms for people like "mother's sister's son" and "mother's brother's daughter" in order to distinguish these individuals — because some of them were probably more likely to be spouse material than others.
starting in the 1100s and onwards, these terms became increasingly fuzzy and less specific, prolly because you could no longer marry any of them, so what’s the point of distinguishing between them! nowadays all we say (in english) is "cousin" for a broad variety of people, both male and female, from either side of our family. we don't bother to distinguish between them, because most of us don’t consider any of them to be marriable (or, depending on where you live, there are even laws against it).
(presumably the same was true for the hawaiians, on an even broader scale. i'm guessing that they couldn't marry anyone of their own generation in their own village/sub-clan — all referred to as “brother” or “sister” — because any of those individuals might have been a sibling. the arabs, on the other hand, with their strong preference for fbd marriage have very specific kinship terms for all the players.)
german peoples were probably tribal once-upon-a-time because they practiced, not just endogamous marriage, but cousin-marriage. their tribes, however, don’t seem to have had quite the same flavor as arab tribes which practice fbd marriage, so i’m guessing the germans didn’t marry in that way much. tribes are tribes because people inbreed; but there are different sorts of tribes because different peoples inbreed in different ways.
european populations used to be tribal, but because we stopped inbreeding so much (thanks to the holy roman catholic church and other powers-that-be), we’re not so tribal anymore.
previously: whatever happened to european tribes? and inbreeding amongst germanic tribes and st. augustine and st. thomas aquinas
(note: comments do not require an email. oh look! a visigoth crown! neato!)