traditional family systems in medieval and modern poland

*update below*

i had a post up a few months ago about mating patterns in medieval eastern europe which i said at the time was just a preliminary view on that whole region of the world since eastern europe is a pretty big place and i want to look at the mating/family patterns for that whole region from at least the early medieval period up until today (*whew! – hbd chick wipes brow*). here goes another post on part of the region — poland — which, again, should just be viewed as an initial peek at what’s been going on mating-wise in that part of the world over the past several hundreds of years.

szopeno left a comment on the previous post the other day saying that the zadruga, which i had mentioned in the post, is/was mostly just a southern slav thing and not a western slavic institution.

sho’nuff, according to wikipedia, a zadruga is/was:

“[A] type of rural community historically common among South Slavs….

Originally, generally formed of one family or a clan of related families, the zadruga held its property, herds and money in common, with usually the oldest (patriarch) member ruling and making decisions for the family, though at times he would delegate this right at an old age to one of his sons….

The zadruga eventually went into decline beginning in the late 19th century, as the largest started to become unmanageable and broke into smaller zadrugas or formed villages. However, the zadruga system continues to color life in the Balkans; the typically intense concern for family found among South Slavs even today is partly due to centuries of living in the zadruga system. Many modern-day villages in the Balkans have their roots in a zadruga, a large number of them carrying the name of the one that founded them.

Villages and neighbourhoods that originated from zadrugas can often be recognized by the patronymic suffixes, such as -ivci, -evci, -ovci, -inci, -ci, -ane, -ene, etc., on their names.”

so that’s the southern slavs. what about the western ones? – in particular the poles?

in The Explanation of Ideology, emmanuel todd says that the traditional family system in poland was the egalitarian nuclear family (see map here) which is also found in parts of france and spain and southern italy. the characteristics of his egalitarian nuclear family include:

– no cohabitation of married children with their parents
– equality of brothers laid down by inheritance rules
– no marriage between the children of brothers

todd’s sources for poland, however, number only four. two of them are a census and a survey both from the 1970s. while those are interesting, they don’t tell us much about the (evolutionary) history of polish family- or mating-types. the third source [in french] relates to the 1700s, again fairly “recent,” especially given that todd claims to be talking about traditional family systems dating from 1500 to 1800 — i already discovered that he had some very late data for ireland — now it looks like todd’s kinda fudged the data for poland, too. anyway…

his final source is a book entitled Poland, Its People, Its Society, Its Culture [pg. 348]:

“The Polish family is characterized by marked internal strain and attenuation of family ties which are the final product of a long process of disintegration. Before Poland’s partition in the late eighteenth century the family was given cohesion by an ideal of family solidaritary extending to a large number of relatives by blood and marriage. The ideal, which is still held by all strata of the population [this was published in 1958 – h. chick], stressed the feeling of belonging to the family group, the integration of activities of family members to obtain common objectives, the utilization of family resources for needy members, and the maintenance of continuity between the parental family and new family units. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, family ties had become so attenuated that the ideal was rarely attained except by upper-class and intelligensia families. The nuclear family of husband, wife, and children, rather than the extended family (which includes many other relatives), became the norm among all social groups.”

so the nuclear family is relatively new in poland — the first partition of poland was in 1772, so 1770s until 2010s that’s ca. twelve conservative generations (a generation equalling twenty years).

in the medieval period in poland, community families were the thing. from East Central Europe in the Middle Ages, 1000-1500, Volume 3 [pg. 85]:

“A common residential pattern in the villages of medieval East Central Europe was an extended family of some kind. Nuclear families were not unknown, but the larger kinship group offered greater economic security in an uncertain environment, since its members could help one another. In Poland the so-called large family typically included three generations of men with their wives and children. The entire family worked the land together under the direction of the father or grandfather, and constituted the basic unit of social life.”

i don’t know if that qualifies as a zadruga, but the poles were definitely living in communal family arrangements in the middle ages.

here’s more from alan macfarlane [pgs. 18, 24-25, 31-32]:

“The central feature of traditional East European peasantry was that ownership was not individualized. It was not the single individual who exclusively owned the productive resources, but rather the household…. Galeski writes about the Polish family farm that ‘the children are both the heirs of, and workers on, the farm. As heirs they are also co-owners.’ ‘The farm is handed down from generation to generation, while the family — the successive usufructuries — carries a responsibility to its own children (and to village opinion) for the property in its charge….’

“[O]n the whole peasant societies are geographically relatively immobile. In the context of Poland, for example, this is taken for granted, our authors only alluding to it in asides. Thomas and Znaniecki suggest that one reason for the absence of romantic love is that it is psychologically impossible because ‘in most cases … all the possible partners are known from childhood.’ Galeski refers to the ‘marked spatial stability’ of the inhabitants of villages, stating that it is ‘a characteristic of the village community that the persons living in it are connected primarily by social, but also by territorial origin. They were usually born in the village or in a neighbouring village….’ The idea that people should spend their lives in half a dozen villages, or move from village to town and then back to the village is largely absent. Most of those who live in a community pass through all the major phases of their life in one area among a group of people they know from cradle to grave. Many of those around them are neighbours, but many are also kin, for one consequence of limited geographical immobility and an association between land and family is that territories fill up with kin….

[W]e find Galeski referring to the ‘strong ties of kinship among the families which make up the community.’ This is reinforced by the frequent intra-village marriages and results in the fact that ‘there are usually only a few family names in the village community. The village consists of several interrelated large families (or clans). For this reason, a village is sometimes defined as a family neighbour group….’

“Shanin [who was writing about russian peasants – h. chick] observes that ‘the village community operates to a great extent as an autonomous society….’ This author speaks in many places of this community-based society, of the hostility to ousiders, the satisfaction of all wants within the community, and other features. The same phenomenon is noted by Galeski for Poland, where he argues that the local community acts as the central economic, ritual, cultural and social control unit: the ‘village community is a primary group. Relationships among the inhabitants are based on personal contacts.’ The result of this is that a peasant society is made up of a host of largely identical, but mutually antagonistic and bounded territorial groups…. Although it is clear that peasant societies will vary in strength of community boundaries, it appears to be generally true that such nations could be called ‘particularist’ rather than ‘universalist.‘”

so, from around 1000 to 1500, poles were mostly living in community family groups. i’m not sure what happened after 1500, but it sounds as though extended families and strong family ties lasted well up and probably into the 1800s.

what i don’t know is what the mating patterns of poles were historically. did they marry cousins? the russians did from time to time, but hey — that’s the russians. the poles became roman catholics in 966, so they ought to have followed all the church’s bans on cousin marriages. but being catholic and marrying cousins never bothered the irish much and, of course, dispensations have often been available (southern italians have very frequently married their cousins up until quite recently). from galeski we learn that, at the very least, marriage was pretty endogamous amongst polish peasants. sounds like the poles are more like the greeks than the english or the medieval rural northern italians.

macfarlane quotes galeski as saying:

“Relationships among the inhabitants are based on personal contacts.”

well, not just personal contacts but genetic relatedness. most of a polish peasant’s relationship were with immediate family, extended family, or distant family. as macfarlane said, territories pretty quickly fill up with kin.

update 04/18: i don’t have access to this dissertation, but it looks like a good deal of medieval poles paid little heed to the church’s regulations on marriage. not surprising. several other medieval (and modern!) european societies did the same (egs. the italians, the irish).

previously: mating patterns in medieval eastern europe

(note: comments do not require an email. traditional polish house.)


  1. This is probably the reason why Polish are the most normal nation on the Earth.

    Anglos – hyper-individual alienated freaks with no ties and obligation to anything, have empty souls that are filled over and over again with new idiotic ideologies, cultural trends and so on. This is the reason why Anglos specialize in creating new ideologies all the time. To fill the emptiness of an hyper-individually alienated life. All in vain.

    Yellows – hyper-collective ants, with no individual soul, no individual aim in the life. At least they posses one national spirit, so a Chin owes 1/1 500 000 000th of a soul.

    Polish – in the middle. Rare sane man on the planet. Is individual, has individual aims, but is deeply connected with a society. Very healthy from psychological point of view.

    I think we Polish should build a fence around our The Brightest Republic to separate from Western savages and Eastern Hordes.


  2. @aldi – “Anglos – hyper-individual alienated freaks with no ties and obligation to anything….”

    yes, i think you’ve hit the nail on the head there, although you’ve probably exaggerated a tad in your description.

    @aldi – “I think we Polish should build a fence around our The Brightest Republic to separate from Western savages and Eastern Hordes.”

    the trick, though, is, if you prefer polish society the way it is right now and want to maintain it that way forever, how to do so? if my ideas on inbreeding/outbreeding and social behaviors like altruism are at all right, then you’ve got to somehow maintain the inbreeding/outbreeding rates in your country the way they are right now … or, perhaps, the way they were two or three or maybe even ten generations ago (h*ck, how do i know?!) since there’s probably a lag-time in the evolution of these behaviors.

    in other words — how does one stop time? difficult.


  3. Ah, back to Eastern Europe, at last!

    The text in French by Witold Kula talks about manorial life in 18th c. Poland. It says the peasants were strictly controlled by the lords, for example a widow or widower was obliged to re-marry within a year or risk losing the family plot. Children were forbidden to go hire themselves out to families on other domains, on pain of paying a fine. And parents were forbidden from marrying their kids off to someone from another manor.

    Also it says the Polish peasants were adamant about dividing up the land equally between male heirs, and Polish lords were dead set against it. From the lord’s perspective, he wanted only very large plots, because they could support pack animals and he preferred ‘pack animal corvée’ to ‘human corvée’ (way more efficient).

    Also, Kula quotes a 1773 order to the administrator of a domain which says, ‘As for the abandoned farms, set up some well-behaved young men there, separating the sons from the fathers and the brothers from the brothers if they live all piled up in one house.’ Essentially it sounds like he’s saying many Polish manor peasants preferred to split up their lands equally but to remain living, as adult children, in the same house and work the lands together, at least until the early 1800s. A little more nuanced than Todd’s rendering. (though we’ve seen before that Todd’s incredibly invested in his model, sometimes to the exclusion of messy facts)

    Kula says nothing about cousin marriage though! Wonder if the Catholic Church held sway on that count or not?


  4. Looking more closely those two links above are to the same document. Formatting different is all.


  5. @m.g. – “The text in French by Witold Kula talks about manorial life in 18th c. Poland….”

    ah ha! thanks so much for summarizing the article for me! i “read” it using google translate and, well, THAT was an interesting experience. (^_^)

    i did manage to pick up on the points in your first two paragraphs, but i completely missed out on this:

    “Essentially it sounds like he’s saying many Polish manor peasants preferred to split up their lands equally but to remain living, as adult children, in the same house and work the lands together, at least until the early 1800s.”

    that sounds like the joint-family system of medieval kent — separate residences but working the inherited lands together. makes sense if, after too much partible inheritance, the plot sizes are too small to sustain a family — makes sense to work together then.

    todd does seem to sort-of fudge a bit on the details, but — to give him the benefit of the doubt — he never claims to be looking at family types and ideologies from an evolutionary point-of-view, so perhaps he really didn’t think it important that, say, the stem-family system was less than one hundred years old in modern ireland whereas it was (i think) several hundreds of years old in modern germany. maybe he really doesn’t think a thing like that would matter. (and maybe it doesn’t … but it might.)


  6. @m.g. – if i may bother you a little further regarding another paragraph from this article…

    …am i right in reading this paragraph [pg. 950]:

    “Du point de vue du manoir, il était important de conserver un nombre au moins invariable de colons. On s’efforçait d’atteindre cet objectif par d’innombrables ordonnances interdisant la conclusion du mariage « en dehors » du domaine. Il s’agissait le plus souvent d’empêcher les mariages des filles avec des garçons d’un autre domaine seigneurial 2, car dans de tels cas, les filles, le plus souvent, quittaient leur localité. Mais lorsqu’il arrivait qu’un garçon épousant une fille « du dehors » devait, pour des raisons de dot, s’installer dans le village de sa fiancée, le manoir, là aussi, s’y opposait. Ces interdictions sont souvent motivées par le désir d’empêcher la « sortie » de la dot au-delà du domaine, car le bien paysan appartenait au seigneur, surtout lorsque, comme celá arrivait fréquemment, la part principale de la dot était constituée par le bétail, le plus souvent une vache. Remarquons à ce propos que la liberté de choix du conjoint est plus large dans les grands domaines que dans les petits, puisqu’elle s’étend sur tout le latifundium. Pour donner un exemple, choisi parmi beaucoup d’autres : le règlement, de 1733, pour les villages Zegrze et Rataje, propriétés de la ville de Poznan, stipule : « Les paysans… ne doivent pas marier leurs filles dans d’autres juridictions (!) mais seulement dans des domaines apparte nanàt l a ville » 3.”

    …as saying that marriages of individuals from different manors was prohibited? at least in some places/times?

    merci! (^_^)


  7. @luke – “Here is some excellent (excellently rare) ethnographic description of what Polish peasant life was like c. 1900….”

    fantastic! thanks so much for that link. (the whole webpage looks pretty d*rned good! those clever jesuits.)

    the vast, vast majority of people who have ever lived on our planet have had a pretty tough life, huh? =/

    @luke – “I wonder how landed property was divided up after the extended family grew to large and had to split up?”

    probably not without an argument!


  8. it looks like a good deal of medieval poles paid little heed to the church’s regulations on marriage. not surprising. several other medieval (and modern!) european societies did the same (egs. the italians, the irish).

    Depending how strict the Church’s rules were, they would be nearly impossible to follow. Fifth cousins in a pre-modern agricultural society? That would exclude pretty much everyone in your village and most of the nearby ones, and some very large number of people you didn’t know existed. Such extreme rules probably functioned as a way for the Church to tax the nobility, by making the nobles make donations in exchange for permission to marry a 4th cousin or so. A ban on second-cousin marriage might stick, but much more than that would be hard to even know if a particular marriage violated the rule.


  9. @anthony – “Fifth cousins in a pre-modern agricultural society? That would exclude pretty much everyone in your village and most of the nearby ones, and some very large number of people you didn’t know existed.”

    indeed! and that regulation (out to sixth cousins) only lasted for a couple of hundred years. i forget the year it was instituted — sometime in the early 1000s — but it was changed down to just third cousins in 1215 a.d.

    extraordinarily, some people do seem to have at least tried to abide by the catholic church’s regulations — at least the third cousins one. other people haven’t really tried at all. (~_^)


  10. @HBD chick–
    Yes indeed, he’s talking about how lords of the manor were eager to control the number of workers on their lands. So any marriage that took a young healthy person away from the manor (usually a young woman, more rarely a young man) was a big no-no and could be punished. Also, since a bride took a dowry with her (often one cow) this was a big loss to the lord that he wanted to avoid. But this varied–each lord made up his own rules.

    For this reason, Kula says, a young person on a very large manor had a bigger choice of marriage partners. Also, as far as ‘some places/times,’ Kula makes it sound like in the 18th c. this rule was very common–he talks about ‘countless ordinances forbidding marriage outside of the manor.’


  11. @m.g. – thanks so much, m.g.! google translate is really cool, but often it leaves you guessing more than anything else. (~_^)

    restricting manor workers’ choice of marriage partners to just the manor they are attached to obviously probably increased the likelihood of inbreeding/endogamous mating — i mean, how could it not? that’s why i was curious.

    @m.g. – “each lord made up his own rules.”

    interesting. so it varied. that’s to be expected. but sounds like during the 1700s, this was a common practice.

    thanks again! (^_^)


  12. Remember that “lords” made up on average 10% of population, and in some regions (Masovia) even more. Also, the conditions of peasants in XVIII century in the legal system were much worse than in XVI century. The process of depriving peasants their laws and turning them into serfs was long and complicated.

    I wanted to quot Ceazry Kuklo, however, he is writing about XVIII-XIX century. On the other hand, I think the things he writes about has not started abruptly and may show some parallels to earlier period. E.g. in Warsaw district he writes that 80% of marriages were between members of the same church district (forgot hwo is “parafia” in english).

    He writes, that at the end of first RP (that is, in the end of XVIII century) nuclear families were 70-80% with more wealthy peasants, 64% with poorest ones. He continues with asserting, that 1-4% of families were singles, and 20-25% were extended and “complex” families.He also writes that according to preliminary research, almost all nobles lived in nuclear families, and “complex” and extended families were up to 6% . In cities, he writes that nuclear families were up to ~~80%

    He concludes that in the end of XVIII century, majority of families in Poland were nuclear.

    AS for the fence around our serenissima. It wouldn’t work. We would kill each other. I do not know whether there is other country in Europe with so much love for quarrels.


  13. @szopeno – “Ceazry Kuklo”

    thanks for dropping that name. i did some googling for articles/books by him — this looks like just the book for me!…

    “Rodzina w osiemnastowiecznej Warszawie”

    …unfortunately i don’t speak/read any polish. =/ (although i have now learned the word “rodzina”! (~_^) )

    however, in my googling, i did find some other sources — in english! — related to polish marrying patterns/family types, so i’ll work up a post or two from them soon.

    @szopeno – “AS for the fence around our serenissima. It wouldn’t work. We would kill each other.”

    heh. (^_^) well, good luck with that!

    @szopeno – “I do not know whether there is other country in Europe with so much love for quarrels.”

    italy perhaps? (~_^)


  14. Extend of serfdom:
    1496 — only one son per year from whole year could leave a village to learn or earn. After finishing studies, he should come back. in 1509 lord had to agree for studies and studies had to start before 12 y
    1511 — marriages were “free”, but in later constitution the right of free marriage (outside the village) were regulated by lord.

    HOWEVER, what is important is the “zbiegostwo” (my dictionary give “flight” or “escape” os translation, but not sure whether it is good). It is described in WIEM encyclopedia as being very common. Peasants were escaping to other villages, other lords, when they had chance to get better conditions. Elsewhere it is described as “huge”, “massive”. Definetely it was another thing which reduced inbreeding. Another one were wars (really, really), as passing units were likely to leave their genes in the villages :)


  15. @szopeno – “It is described in WIEM encyclopedia as being very common.”

    common from the fifteenth century onwards, and most common in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, according to the encyklopedia wiem (if google translate has tranlated this correctly for me, that is!):

    “Począwszy od XV w. przybrało charakter masowy, osiągając największe rozmiary w XVII-XVIII w. z powodu ciągłego wzrostu wymiaru pańszczyzny i ograniczania wolności osobistej chłopów.”

    thanks for pointing this out to me! you are absolutely right that such movements of people would probably affect mating patterns in a population. the question is, in what direction(s)?

    this looks like THE book on the topic:

    Zbiegostwo chłopów w dawnej Polsce jako zagadnienie ustroju społecznego

    guess i’ll have to spend the weekend learning polish so i can read it. (~_^)

    oh — see here. (^_^)


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