early medieval germans … again!

meanwhile, back with our friends the late-antiquity/early medieval germans…

i just got through reading mayke de jong’s “An Unsolved Riddle: Early Medieval Incest Legislation”, which is in “Franks and Alamanni in the Merovingian period: an ethnographic perspective”, with my never-ending quest to answer these questions in mind: how inbred (or not) were the pre-christian germanic tribes, and what brought about the incest-avoidance obsession of the germans in the medieval period.

on the first question, de jong thinks that the pre-christian germanic tribes were probably not that inbred. they likely married distant cousins, but not so much closer relatives. i don’t really buy her argument. de jong describes how she thinks (from looking at some of the germanic laws) that the germanic tribes viewed kinship out to the fourth- and fifth-cousin as sort-of the limits of kinship (see quotes below). that’s interesting. that maybe would give an indication of the extent of germanic tribes as the germans, themselves, saw it. fifth-cousins — part of the tribe; beyond that — not part of the tribe. but this kinship limitation doesn’t, to my mind, give any indication as to which cousins the germans had been marrying before they converted to christianity.

i think ausenda and goody both make very sound arguments that the earliest of the early medieval laws specifically banned close-cousin marriage precisely because the germanic tribes had been, to some extent or another, marrying their close cousins. so, i still think close-cousin marriage amongst the pre-christian germanic tribes was quite likely.

with regard to the second question, de jong doesn’t put much stock in goody’s argument that the church tried to limit cousin-marriage (and other things related to mating) because it wanted to limit the number of heirs people could produce so that the church would benefit by receiving more legacies. she thinks that the church had more ideological notions in mind regarding the ‘pollution’ of the body and the soul — and even the community (see her chapter for details). (although st. thomas aquinas offered some more practical reasons to ban close-relative marriage.)

in addition, she thinks a lot of the push for control of cousin marriage came from the germanics, themselves — or at least that it was influenced by germanic society. she points out that most of the early medieval laws on cousin marriage — especially the earliest ones again — came from germanic regions, not from back in rome. de jong feels that the germans were really enthusiastic about following and implementing — and getting right — the new church’s rules because they were new converts and, therefore, really eager. sounds possible. whatever the germans’ reason(s), i think she is right that it was not only the church, but also tptb in germanic society that pushed for these bans.

but, only so far. de jong points out something interesting and that is that after a few centuries of bickering back-and-forth, the limit on cousin-marriage was finally set in the 1200s at fourth cousins — in other words, right at the pre-christian germanic limit on kinship.

here are some quotes from de jong:

pg. 108

“The first far-reaching decrees against incest stem from early sixth-century Gaul and Spain, and were as much a matter of kings as of clerics. In other words, the chronology and geography of incest legislation puts us firmly within the domain of the Germanic sucessor-kingdoms….”

pgs. 118-20

“Anti-incest legislation undoubtedly was an ecclesiastical priority. To a large extent, Christianization in the Frankish kingdoms can be measured by the expansion of marital impediments. But this is not the same as saying that extreme exogamy was exclusively the concern of churchmen, be they self-interested, confused or otherwise. After all, legislation against incest developed within Germanic kingdoms; unlike their Roman predecessors, Frankish rulers were in the vanguard of the battle. Moreover, the pollution-ridden type of Christianity receptive to extreme incest prohibitions was very different from its Roman counterpart. However much Augustine wrote about the inherent dangers of sexuality, the conviction that kin-marriage had to be destroyed root and branch was alien to late antiquity Christianity. It belonged to the more literal-minded religion of the post-Roman world, in which rulers increasingly presented themselves as the guardians of the New Israel….

“This much is certain: ‘the Church’ cannot be credited with the sole responsibility for change. Extensive incest prohibitions can only originate and exist in societies in which kinship networks were both extensive and vitally important. This was not the case in Roman society; by the time Christianity entered Roman society, the traditional Roman familia — which had not been determined by biological criteria anyway — had dwindled into non-existence. The basic unit of society was the married couple and their children, so often depicted together on funerary monuments. The role of the family within the successor-kingdoms was of a different nature, however. Without necessarily returning to antiquated notions of the extended family operating at all times as a unified group, one cannot deny that large groups of cognate kin surface in Germanic legislation. This happened only in specific contexts: to wash their hands of responsibility for their kinsman’s crimes, as in the chrenechruda of the Pactus legis Salicae (58.3), or to claim allodial succession, as in the equally famous de allodibus of Ripuarian law (Lex Ribvaria 57.3) [sixth century laws – hbdchick]. In such cases, the limits of kinship hovered between the third and the fifth generatio/geniculum. This coincides with the limits of forbidden kindred as defined by eighth-century capitularies; it was also the border zone in which battles over incest were fought…. There seems no reason, therfore, to credit early medieval ‘Germanic’ societies with endogamous leanings, as Goody and others have done. Noisy quarrels over the limits of kin-marriage have obscured the fact that they stretched quite far to all concerned, in spite of differences of opinion….”

just a note — when de jong uses the word “endogamy” here, she’s referring to really close-cousin marriage, like first- or second-cousin marriage — and when she uses “exogamy,” she’s referring to more distant cousin-marriages. confused me for a while.

“As we have seen, Goody postulated a connection between Germanic endogamy and the wish to keep property ‘within the family’; such strategies supposedly clashed head-on with ecclesiastical designs on lay property. But what if in fact a great number of paternal and maternal kinsmen had a right to inherit, as was the case in Frankish inheritance law? This would seem to render endogamy superfluous, certainly as a strategy to preserve familial property. Inheritance rules allowing allodia to be handed on to the fifth ‘geniculum’ provided plenty of opportunity to inherit ‘within the family’, without any need to resort to close kin-marriage. On the contrary, the inheritance strategies of the Germanic leges reveal a broad conception of kindred, encompassing close and distant kin. From some one could inherit, from others not; if they were too close, one could not marry them, but if they were sufficiently distant, marriage might be both possible and profitable (although not necessarily from an economic point of view)….

Recent research concerning aristocratic marriages in tenth and eleventh-century France reveals an interesting pattern: while prohibitions up to the third or fourth generation tended to be obeyed, alliances between families were nonetheless cemented by kin-marriages, albeit distant ones, repeating themselves in long-term cycles. Regine Le Jan has observed similar strategies of ‘exogamous’ kin-marriages within the Frankish aristocracy. Early medieval kinship was bilateral and based on ‘generalized exchange’, which implied an exogamy which allows for a rapid integration of different elites…. The ecclesiastical offensive against ‘incest’ was not so much directed against close-kin marriages, as against tendencies to strengthen fluid cognate kin groups by marrying affines or distant kin. Hence, Merovingian councils concentrated on affinal and spiritual kinship, while Carolingian churchmen cast their net even wider…. By the ninth century, a marriage in the third generation had become scandalous, but the fourth generation remained a viable option, along with a whole range of more distant kin. This pattern persisted well into the tenth and eleventh centuries.

“Early medieval legistlation was therefore not a matter of the Church pitting its outrageous demands against ‘Germanic’ endogamy. The clergy was part of a society in which the elite practiced exogamy, while alliances within fluid kinship groups were cemented by marriages to distant kin. Ecclesiastical legislation went ‘to the limits of kinship’ precisely because it originated in this context of exogamy…. Marriage in the fourth generation and onwards remained a bone of contention, however, with the clergy holding on to the demand that the seventh generation be observed, and the aristocracy clinging to their exogamous kin-marriages. The struggle continued until the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), when a stalemate was finally reached: from then on, forbidden kindred only included the fourth generation.”

edit: boilerplate and boilerplate 2.0

previously: whatever happened to european tribes? and inbreeding amongst germanic tribes and more on inbreeding in germanic tribes

(note: comments do not require an email. wtf?)



  1. “or at least that it was influenced by germanic society. she points out that most of the early medieval laws on cousin marriage — especially the earliest ones again — came from germanic regions”

    A thought. When you read aquinas’ thoughts on the downside of in-bred communities it makes perfect sense that you could reduce internal (from a King’s point of view) conflict by reducing local and regional in-breeding. Or does it? It made perfect sense to me. And maybe it made perfect sense to average 100 IQ germanics. But maybe it didn’t make obvious sense elsewhere? Maybe they took to the idea because the high latitude IQ boost (if that is what lies behind the IQ differences) could *see* the benefit of the system whereas others couldn’t – or more accurately a higher *percentage* of the northerners or the northern elites could see it and so they adopted the idea more readily.


  2. @g.w. – that thought is an interesting thought! smarter populations adopt this clever idea thunk up by some clever guys (augustine and aquinas) because they are smart enough to think through the logic of it and the probable implications.

    maybe it’s a similar situation nowadays with the chinese who just banned cousin marriage in the ’80s, i.e. they are also clever enough to see the implications?

    nice to have you back, btw! (^_^)


  3. “maybe it’s a similar situation nowadays with the chinese who just banned cousin marriage in the ’80s, i.e. they are also clever enough to see the implications?”

    Yes exactly.

    “nice to have you back, btw!”

    ty. riots, schmiots :)


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