i’ve started reading alan macfarlane’s “The Origins of English Individualism” in which macfarlane makes the case that english individualism stretches back to (at least) the 1200s. haven’t finished it yet — but luke reminded me of this article by macfarlane: “The Origins of English Individualism: Some Surprises” [pdf] (thnx, luke!).

in the article (and the book), macfarlane argues that during the medieval period — going as far back as the 1200s — the english were not peasants, unlike most other europeans (and many other populations around the world), but rather individual farmers for whom the nuclear family was the most important kinship group. he describes a peasant society thusly [pgs. 255-56]:

“The basic element of society is not the individual, but the family, which acts as a unit of ownership, production and consumption. Parents and children are also co-owners and co-workers. The separation between the household and the economy … has not occurred. For our purposes, the central feature is that ownership is not individualized. It was not the single individual who exclusively owned the productive resources, but rather the household. The present occupants of the land are managers of an estate; they cannot disinherit their heirs, the father is merely the leader of a production team…. Land is not viewed as a commodity which can be easily bought and sold. There is a strong emotional identification with a particular geographical area. Consequently, there is rather little geographical mobility; any movement to the towns is one-way, with few people returning to the countryside. The villages are thus filled with people linked by real and fictive kin ties and marriages often occur over a short distance…. The society is also divided into many self-contained, though identical, local communities, with their own customs, dialect and beliefs.”

that the english were not peasants has several implications, according to macfarlane, including [pgs. 262-63]:

“[I]f the argument is correct, one of the ‘most thoroughly investigated of all peasantries in history’ turns out to be not a peasantry at all. The classical example of the transition of a ‘feudal,’ peasant-based society into a new, capitalist, system turns out to be a deviant case.”

in other words, if we want to understand how the first society to become an industrialized one did so relatively painlessly (maybe why they did so at all) — and if we want to figure out how other societies might follow suit — it’s a good idea to truly understand what pre-industrial english society was like, i.e. that it was not a peasant society made up of extended-families and strong kinship connections, but had, in fact, been an atomized, individualistic society for quite a long time before industrialization.

macfarlane wrote these works on individualism in england in the late stone age 1970s** and, at the time, there wasn’t all that much evidence to back up his argument. plenty of historical research since then supports his idea. i posted about one example of such research here.

there is also a very good summing up of what fourteenth and fifteenth english society was like in barbara hanawalt’s “The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England” published in 1989. in this book, hanawalt describes anglo-saxon (i.e. early medieval) kinship terminology [pgs. 79-80]:

“Kinship terminology in English is not very diversified. Anthropologists expect to find rather elaborate kinship terminology in societies where kinship plays an important part of an individual’s life, but even Anglo-Saxon had few words to describe any ties but those to the nuclear family. They did not even have a word for cousin until the introduction of French. This paucity of kinship terms is in startling contrast to the continent, which had extensions to fourth cousins. The minimal kinship terms already common in the seventh and eighth centuries in England did not appear on the continent until after the Black Death.

“Anglo-Saxon kin terminology had an easy flexibility, with the same word used for grandson and nephew, granddaughter, and niece. The interchangeability of terms suggests that the modes of behavior toward these family relationships were similar. Nuclear-family terms were virtually the only ones that were important, and compounds based on them formed lineal ascent and descent. The only extended family member meriting a unique appellation was the father’s brother, indicating a special relationship with the spear-side uncle.

“Middle and modern English adopted from the Normans the French root words for kinship terms such as uncle and aunt, but no more complicated term than cousin was used for more distant kin. Although the special term for a relationship to father’s brother was dropped, the kinship terminology perpetuated Anglo-Saxon practices. Thus we continued to form clumsy compounds such as grandmother or fourth cousin once removed. The lack of words for extended kin indicates that they were not a part of daily parlance because they were not needed….”

a linguistic shift in kinship terminology in german did, indeed, happen during the medieval period starting in the twelfth century. in the case of german, all cousins became just “cousin” (or whatever it is in german) because all cousins were off-limits to marry. before that, the germans used to distinguish between cousins on the mother’s side and cousins on the father’s side, likely because it was preferential to marry one over the other — or forbidden to marry one over the other. (arabs today, for instance, have separate terms for all the cousins since they still prefer to marry the father’s brother’s daughter. the chinese, too, distinguish between certain cousins.)

if the anglo-saxon terminology was already simplified as early as the seventh or eighth centuries (and i hadn’t read that until tonight), that is remarkable. that would mean that either: 1) the church’s ban on cousin marriage took hold very strongly amongst the anglo-saxons in the 600s (see below) — this seems unlikely; or 2) that anglo-saxon kinship was already very loose before they adopted christianity.

i’m not sure where hanawalt got her info on anglo-saxon kinship terminology. i think it might be from here. i’m going to double-check this since it’s so unlike the rest of the germanic tribes — but maybe it’s correct! if so, maybe this is related to the distribution of todd’s absolute nuclear families? that the anglo-saxons have, in fact, been outbreeding for a very, very long time? dunno.


christianity was first brought to britain by some of the romans, but it had to be reintroduced to the anglo-saxons (and jutes) once they got there. we’re talking the 600s a.d., so any adoption by the anglo-saxons of the church’s bans on inbreeding would date from after that time.

via a series of letters from augustine of canterbury (late 500s-early 600s) to the pope back in rome, we know that the anglo-saxons at the time of conversion were marrying their cousins [pgs. 34-37], so that seems to contradict hanawalt. my guess still is that, beginning in the 600s (and the start was probably slow), the anglo-saxons, et. al., began loosening their genetic ties until by at least as early as the 1200s (who knows? might’ve been earlier) those ties were loose enough so that the english, as we can call them by then, were behaving like a bunch of individuals and not a bunch of clannish peasants. on the other hand, maybe the anglo-saxons had a head start over other europeans.

undoubtedly there were selection pressures on the medieval english population related to altruistic behaviors other than just their mating patterns which got them from point a — clannish/tribal peasants — to point b — atomized individualistic farmers/craftsmen/traders. but outbreeding was definitely one of them and, i’d argue, the most important one since you can’t even begin down the road towards point b without it (i think).

interestingly, marriage in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in parts of rural northern italy was also, like medieval england, very exogamous.

previously: english individualism i and but what about the english? and exogamous marriage in northern medieval italy

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