ninth century european (and by european i mean mitterauer’s europe: germanic areas, northern france and england, more-or-less) and nineteenth century amharic society are rather reminiscent of one another. they’re not exactly alike, of course — different peoples, different environments, different histories — but there are some interesting similarities, particularly in family/societal relations. (there are also some interesting differences that i’ll talk about in a follow-up post.)
both societies practiced outbreeding:
– the europeans were not allowed to marry anyone closer than second-cousins — this included in-laws. no polygamy and absolutely no divorce. all of this was pretty strictly enforced by the church since you had to marry in the church, although dispensations were sometimes granted. these marriage laws were introduced to the northern europeans during the fifth and sixth centuries, although it may have taken a couple of generations for everyone to comply. so, by the ninth century, early medieval europeans had been outbreeding for three- to four-hundred years — something like twelve to sixteen generations of outbreeding, counting a generation as twenty-five years.
– the amharans were not allowed to marry anyone closer than sixth cousins, although divorce was common and “serial monogamy” was the norm. (at different points during its history, the shewa kingdom, where the amharans live, was under the control of muslims. i’m guessing that the amharans picked up the quick-and-easy divorce thing from them, unless it was an indigenous practice.) it’s not clear to me how the cousin-marriage prohibition was enforced apart from it simply being tradition — despite being christians, most amharans did not traditionally marry in the church — but the tradition seems to have be pretty well-enforced amongst ethiopian jews, and so may it have amongst the amharans as well. (it’s also not clear to me if every marriage had to be beyond the sixth cousin, or just the first one.) this sixth cousin proscription seems to have been introduced to ethiopia in the 1400s or 1500s, so by the mid-nineteenth century, the amharans would’ve been outbreeding for three-hundred-fifty to four-hundred years — or fourteen to eighteen generations — comparable to the europeans.
so, what was ninth century european society — in particular its family-relations — like? from “Why Europe? The Medieval Origins of Its Special Path” [pgs. 60, 62-5, 67-8, 77]:
“It was primarily the parent-child group that lived on the mansi and hides of the Carolingian villicatio, occasionally with servants or people who may or may not have been their relatives. This kind of group indicates a conjugal family structure. From today’s point of view, this type of structure does not seem worth emphasizing at first glance because it has become generally accepted in European societies….
“In his survey ‘Characteristics of the Western Family Considered over Time,’ Peter Laslett grouped specific characteristics of the European family into four areas. His first point is that family membership ‘in the West’ was confined for the most part to parents and children, the so-called nuclear family or the simple family household. Carolingian sources show that with regard to generational depth this form of household was clearly dominant at the time….
“Laslett’s fourth characteristic of the ‘Western family’ is particularly important: the presence of servants who were not kin but were still fully recognized household members. These servants who were not related by bonds of kinship did not serve in one household throughout their lives but only from youth to marriage. This is why Laslett speaks of ‘life-cycle servants.’ Life-cycle servants were people in the household who were different from the domestic slaves found in many cultures, and they were sometimes included among members of the family…. [T]hese domestics were often found in property registers as early as the Carolingian period.
“All four characteristics of the ‘Western family’ that Laslett lists go far back in history. All four indicate the influence of the manorial system. All four can be connected with the hide system. All four point toward different facets of the conjugal family: In the simple family household, the conjugal couple were the nucleus….
“The most important feature of the Western family is doubtless the fact that it was not constituted by bloodlines but was a house or household community largely free of kinship ties. English-language family research uses the very apposite concept of the ‘coresident domestic group’ that is based on family contexts in more modern time but also fits medieval ones perfectly. Living in a family that includes non-kin goes back a long way in European history…. The life-cycle servant was the prototype of the non-kin coresident who would be taken into the family to augment the work force temporarily. We already find him listed in the polyptychs of Carolingian monastic estates in the early days of the manorial system. Other kinds of unrelated coresidents were added wherever the manorial system continued to develop in Europe: inmates, lodgers, guests, foster children, and elderly reirees and children left behind by previous owners who shared no bond of kinship.”
so, the basic unit in early medieval (north-western) european society was the nuclear family which was not attached to extensive kinship groups like clans or tribes. households would also typically include non-relatives. this is quite a contrast from many areas of the world where a large, extended family would make up the household and the labor force of that household. also, young people in medieval europe were particularly mobile, often leaving home to work as servants in other households.
“As a rule, manorial and lineage structures are in conflict with each other, but this opposition alone cannot satisfactorily explain the profound changes in European kinship systems. These processes of change go back to well before the rise of the Frankish agrarian system; in spatial terms, they extend beyond that system’s area of dissemination. So we must look for other determining factors that might allow us to understand why Frankish systems of agrarianism, lordship, and family could evolve in which lineage principles play so minor a part….
“The introduction of Christianity always preceded the introduction of the hide system throughout the entire area of colonization in the East — often by only a slight difference in time, but occasionally centuries earlier. The time sequence was never reversed, anywhere. The western agrarian system at all times found a state of affairs where Christian conversion had either relaxed or weakened older patrilineal patterns. This process had already paved the way for the transition to a bilateral system of kinship and the conjugal family.”
in other words, you can’t have a manorial system in your society when you have large kinship groups like clans. you have to get rid of, or at least reduce, the inbreeding (in order to get rid of the kinship groups) if you want to have a manorial system. on the other hand, the manorial system further breaks down kinship connections since people shift and are shifted around throughout the system.
so, what about the mid-nineteenth century amharans? from “Class, State and Power in Africa: a case study of the Kingdom of Shewa” [pgs. 49-50, 52, 54-56]:
“The Amhara lived in hamlets and scattered homesteads rather than in nucleated villages [so did the europeans, btw – hbd chick]; the parish grouped together a number of hamlets into a unit of worship and cooperation for religious purposes; the estate of the local lord (gultagna or malkagna) served as the smallest political entity and would often differ from both the former. All three units were cut across by significant ties of kinship, friendship, and allegiance, which high mobility contributed to weakening the loyalty to any particular institution. Communal ties were thus numerous, diffuse, and subject to manipulation….
“The Shewan economy was predominantly agricultural, but there was also a considerable trade….
“A well-developed agriculture laid the basis for a class society by providing a large agricultural surplus. Shewa was set in a rich ecological milieu, the plough was in general use, crop rotation was widely practised; manure, irrigation, and terracing were well-known techniques and practised where feasible. This set the peasantry of Shewa, and northern Ethiopia in general, off from the common African agriculturalists using the hoe….
“The household was the unit or production, but was an institution which also had a wider social significance…. The household consisted of two elements, ‘tasks’ and personnel. The tasks formed a fairly stable structure, divided into male and female spheres, each strictly ranked. The personnel changed frequently and was assigned its tasks according to the size of the household and the relative standing of its members.
“The central cohesive link was the tie of marriage, but the household was often not identical with the nuclear family; it included non-kin or distantly related members according to its stage within the domestic cycle. Furthermore, marriage did not provide a basis for a stable family. Common marriage (as opposed to religious marriage) was entered into by swearing on the life of the king in the presence of witnesses and taking account of the property brough by each party. The laxity and dissolubility of this form of marriage has often been emphasied; in Menilek’s time one enterprising lady of twenty-seven was known to have had fifteen or sixteen husbands. Religious marriage, which in theory bound husband and wife together for ever, was mostly left to priests and old persons….
“Among the peasants the husband-wife relationship was one of equals, performing complementary tasks, both a man and a woman being necessary to form even a minimal household. Women had a fairly strong position in Shewan society, keeping their own name and property when marrying; the husband managed all the household’s land, but on divorce the wife resumed possession of whatever she had brought into the marriage….
“If there were no servants, the children played their part, also serving as a form of education. From the age of five or six they were given small duties in the fields or made to fetch wood or water. However, children were an unstable labour force; at about twelve many left their parents to take service in other households, only the favourite son remaining on the farm….
“The Amhara household faced two basic problems, reproduction and recruitment. Its holding of land was not a family estate cultivated for generations; the rule of equal inheritance, although not strictly adhered to, greatly reduced continuity from generation to generation. Even a favoured child inherited a share that was significantly smaller than that of his father; each generation had to build its own fortune anew, implying competition and a need for personal achievement, not an equal or inherited starting point.
“Recruitment of household members took several forms. The couple’s children, or children of a former marriage, stayed with their parents for a number of years; servants were numerous, even the peasants had at least one; finally the institution of slavery eased recruitment of personnel for the lowly household tasks….“
like medieval europe, then, the basic unit of nineteenth century amharan society was the nuclear family plus servants who came and went in the household. young people in amharan society, like their european counterparts, would also leave home to become servants in other households. the amharan nuclear family stood independent from a larger kinship group like the european nuclear family (but there is one difference here related to the inheritance of property which i’ll get to in a follow-up post — or you can just check out ege’s book starting on pg. 59). the main difference here is the fragility of the husband and wife team in amharan society — that could break-up at any moment and, apparently, did. the ethiopians also had slaves in their households.
the commonality here? i think it’s that the outbreeding creates this sort-of centrifugal force that flings kin farther away from one another in terms of social relations. with lots of regular inbreeding you get extended families, clans, tribes, etc. with lots of outbreeding, you get nuclear families and strangers in your household. of course, every society has its own particular historical (evolutionary) course, and so there are unique elements to them all.
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