mating patterns in medieval eastern europe

i said i would start taking a look at the mating patterns of eastern europe after christmas, so here i am! (^_^) hold on … here we go …

first of all, eastern europe is a big place, not to mention the medieval period, so consider this a premlinary view of things (which it is).

the second thing to note is that, except for the southern areas of eastern europe that were part of the byzantine empire, christianity arrived later in eastern europe than in western — for instance, the serbs converted between the seventh and ninth centuries, while the rus not until the ninth and tenth. so, whatever the pre-christian mating practices of all these slavs were — no doubt quite endogamous since we’re talking about slavic tribes here — they probably continued with those practices for several hundred years longer than western european populations did. the catholic church had put a ban on cousin marriage as early as the 400s; and the germanic franks and visigoths, for example, already had complimentary civic laws banning cousin marriages by the 500 and 600s. (not all western europeans stopped inbreeding so early. see the “Inbreeding in Europe” series down below ↓ in the left-hand column for more details.) so, eastern europeans were probably inbreeding for at least a couple of hundred years longer than (north)western europeans.

now, eve levin in Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs, 900-1700 describes how both pre-christian southern slavs and the rus lived in extended familiy communal groups called zadruga or obshchina in russian. these family groups were patrilinear and patrilocal and often consisted of up to four generations of an extended family living together with great-grandpa in charge. most slavs continued to live in such extended-family households post-conversion, too.

levin says that the pre-christian slavs were concerned about inbreeding within the zadruga, so it’s likely that they avoided first- and second-paternal cousin marriage. i would guess that maternal cousin marriage was the norm since that is the most common form of cousin marriage globally, but that is only a guess on my part. (see the paragraph about the south slav trebnici in the excerpts below, tho.) the christian church in the east banned first- and second-cousin marriage, which coincided well with slavic family structure, and in addition also, of course, banned both paternal and maternal cousin marriage.

in russia specifically, the canon laws regarding marriage varied over time (they did so in western europe, too). between the 1100s and 1400s, there were no specific bans on cousin marriage, only a ban on “marriage within the clan.” levin claims that during this time period, the russians did not consider mating by cousins to be incestuous, so you would think there would’ve been a good deal of cousin marriage during these centuries amongst the russians. so that’s another four hundred years or so of close mating practices by the russians as compared to western europeans. recall that during the 1000s and 1100s in western europe, the church had banned marriages up to and including sixth cousins. after 1215, it was up to and including third cousins. by the end of the 1400s in russia, marriage with persons up to fourth cousin was banned by the orthodox church.

levin also points out that the serbs seemed to, overall, have more regulations about cousin marriage than either the russians or bulgarians. the serbian church had heavy penances for even second cousin marriage, so perhaps the serbs have been outbreeding for longer than the russians.

here are some excerpts from Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs, 900-1700. more on this part of europe anon! pages 136-144 (links added by me):

“The Slavs abhorred incest long before the introduction of Christianity. Authors condemned outsiders, usually unjustly, for their incestuous customs. The traditional definition of incest, however, seems to have been a sexual relation between members of a family living as a unit. In-laws were included, but not more distant relatives who did not share the same household, especially through the female line. Thus Slavic notions of propriety in matters of consanguinity did not coincide in all respects with the dictates of canon law….

“Orthodox canon law recognized four types of consanguinity: by blood, by marriage, by adoption, and by spiritual bond. Slavic hierarchs recognized restrictions on intermarriage and extramarital intercourse for all four causes. The Byzantine sources — the nomocanon, the syntagma, and secular codes — offered a wide variety of rules to chose from on consanguinity and affinity. For example, Byzantine canons prohibited marriage among distant cousins and families of in-laws, while civil law labeled as incestuous a narrow range of relations: between parents and children, stepparents and stepchildren, brothers and sisters, uncles and nieces, aunts and nephews, brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, and first cousins. The adoption of laws governing consanguinity roughly matched the dominant family structure….

“Among the South Slavs [bulgarians, serbs, croats, macedonians, slovenes, bosniaks & montenegrins], the extended communal family (zadruga) was established as the basic social unit. The zadruga commonly included the patriarch and his wife (who directed the other women in the household), his sons and their wives and children, and even those children’s grandchildren. The family house could contain four generations at a time, and persons as distantly related as second or third cousins. The Slavic zadruga was almost exclusively patrilinear and patrilocal. Descent was traced through the father, and inheritance of land passed primarily through the male line. Sons brought their brides into the parental household, while daughters were married out into other families.

“When the family became too numerous to live together comfortably, or a dispute arose over shares of property, the zadruga would dissolve itself into nuclear families. In time, through marriage and the birth of children, each nuclear family would again become an extended zadruga….

“The canon law’s ban on the marriage of third cousins thus coincided with the South Slavs’ conception of the family unit. Relatives in the male line to four generations would be living in the same household; marriages between them would fall under the nearly universal incest taboo. Relatives in the female line, other than the mother’s immediate family, might well be strangers. Thus South Slavic trebnici raised questions concerning marriages among bratucedi, literally ‘brother-children,’ but rarely mentioned the question of sestricni, or ‘sister-children.’ The traditions of Orthodox canon law, on the other hand, required equal observance of degrees of consanguinity in both male and female lines.

“Changes in Russian versions of canon law on incest coincided with changes in family structure. The proto-Slavic zadrga fell into disuse as a residential system in twelfth-to-fifteenth century Russia, although landholding continued to be communal. There the residential household usually consisted of a nuclear family, occasionally joined by an elderly parent or a young bride…. The rules on incest in the Code of Jaroslav reflect this familial arrangement. They prescribe fines for relations between parents and children or children’s spouses, brothers and sisters, and brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law. More distant relatives are not named specifically, but are subsumed under the vague category of ‘marriage within the clan.’ This categorization implies that marriage was forbidden if a familial relationship was known to exist, but the exact degree of kinship was not an issue.

“More extensive rules on incest appeared toward the end of the fifteenth century. Marriages between persons more closely related than fourth cousins were prohibited. If a union was contracted unknowingly between third cousins, it was allowed to stand only with great resistance. This alteration may be explained in part by the influx of South Slavic clerics who fled the Turkish takeover of the Balkans, bringing with them the canons and outlook of their homelands. Yet the availability of an alternative set of rules on incest does not explain its acceptance. The reemergence of the extended family in late-fifteenth-century Russia made expanded incest regulations pertinent. Land cadasters, especially from Novgorod, reveal that peasants had switched to extended family living units akin to the South Slavic zadruga….

“According to most ecclesiastical authors, consanguinity up to the eighth degree [russian calculation, which equals third cousins] precluded marriage, although some would permit a marriage between relatives in the seventh degree [second-cousins once-removed, i think], contracted unknowingly, to stand, albeit with a penance. Relationships through the male and the female lines were treated identically….

“Ignorance of kinship did not constitute grounds for complete exoneration of the offending couple. Their marriage still offended God and endangered the welfare of the community. In order to prevent incestuous unions contracted out of ignorance or deceit, priests were instructed to question prospective brides and grooms carefully, and their parents as well, in order to ascertain that marriage did not violate canon law. Observance of canons on marriage probably underlay the law in the Code of Stefan Dusan requiring all Serbs to go to their own priests to be married….

“Fewer codes of canon law and penitential questionnaries included questions about more distant relatives by blood [than parents or siblings], with the exception of first cousins. Instead, they included general prohibitions on ‘incest’ and ‘marriage within the clan’ (v rodou). The severity of the recommended penances indicate that close relatives were intended. Although Byzantine law available in Slavic translation included provisions against sexual relations with an aunt or a niece by blood or marriage, very few native codes mention these transgressions. Because the Slavic family tended to be exogamous and patrilocal, it would be unusual for an adult aunt or niece by blood to live in the same household as nephew or uncle. First cousins, however, frequently shared the same dwelling, at least as children, and their relationship was viewed as nearly as close as that between siblings or half-siblings. For that reason, analogous penances were recommended, ranging from two to sixteen years of fasting; a ten-year penance was the most common.

“Specific prohibitions on sexual intercourse between distant relatives by blood appeared only sproadically. Incest with cousins was more likely to be mentioned in Serbian penitential questions and trebnik nomokanony than in Russian or Bulgarian ones. Regulations against incest between second cousins listed a penance of nine or ten years’ exclusion from communion, which could be shortened under the rules of St. John the Penitent to one year and four months or two years of fasting. For incest between third cousins, the basic penance was eight years, but few codes included a specific provision regarding this relationship.

“Russian codes earlier than the sixteenth century tended to omit specific regulations concerning illicit intercourse or marriage between second and third cousins, although descriptions of degrees of kinship forbade intermarriage between individuals so closely related. Apparently Russians from the eleventh century to the fifteenth did not regard unions between cousins as incestuous. Even clerics who tended to be exacting in regard to the letter of the law, such as the Greek-born metropolitan Ioann II, had to make concessions to native attitudes. Ioann permitted marriage between third cousins, with a penance. The terms in which he outlawed marriage between second cousins make clear that such unions took place. The late-fourteenth-century explication of degrees of kinship in the Sofijskaja Kormcaja permitted marriages among blood relatives related in the sixth degree: a man could marry his first cousin’s granddaughter.

“Cousin marriages had a practical application: reconsolidation of ancestral lands. Because the Slave practiced partible inheritance, the ancestral lands became fragmented after a few generations. While communal ownership by the zadruga mitigated the effects of partible inheritance for a time, eventually holdings became subdivided. When a daughter-heir could be married to her male cousin, the ancestral estate could be reconstituted, at least in part….

“It was possible to contract an incestuous union unknowingly … because lineage was popularly traced more through the male line than through the female. Canon law had to make provisions for the accidental incestuous marriage of third cousins before the relationship was discovered. Clerics disagreed about marriages arranged out of ignorance between persons related in the seventh or eight degree [russian calculation]. Some ordered such unions dissolved, and the husband and wife undergo the penance for cousin incest (ten years); others permitted the couple to remain married, though with a penance.”

previously: whatever happened to european tribes? and big timeline of european mating patterns (as yet incomplete…)

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