pre-christian tribal anglo-saxons (and jutes, et al.) married their close cousins with some regularity (who knows what the actual frequencies were). this is evidenced by the fact that when the anglo-saxons in england converted to christianity in the 600s, they were given exemptions from the church’s cousin marriage bans (because they had married their cousins prior to converting). augustine of canterbury corresponded with pope back in rome regarding the whole issue of the cousin marrying anglo-saxons [pgs. 34-37]:

“Bede tells of some of the problems involved in converting the pagan English. He explains how after Augustine, the first archbishop of Canterbury, arrived in 597, he sent messengers back to Pope Gregory at Rome seeking advice on certain current questions, including ones relating to marriage….

“[T]he Letter of Gregory provides us with some very valuable evidence….

“Four of the nine questions on which Augustine asked advice from the Pope had to do with sex and marriage…. Augustine’s fifth question was more complicated and more revealing: ‘Within what degree may the faithful marry their kindred; and is it lawful for a man to marry a step-mother or a sister-in-law?’

“Pope Gregory’s reply clearly indicates the change that Christianity had brought to Rome and presumably to the other countries of western Europe. ‘A certain secular law in the Roman State allows that the son and daughter of a brother and sister [fzd/mbd marriage], or of two brothers [fbd marriage] or two sisters [mzd marriage] may be married. But we have learned from experience that the offspring of such marriages cannot thrive. Sacred law forbids a man to uncover the nakedness of his kindred. Hence it is necessary that the faithful should only marry relations three or four times removed, while those twice removed must not marry in any case, as we have said….’

“Since a special dispensation had to be given to those who had contracted such unions before conversion, it is clear that the practices of close marriage (presumably to cross-cousins, and possibly, as in Rome, to parallel cousins, at least to the father’s brother’s daughter) and of marriage to the widow of the brother or father (though not one’s own mother) must have been common in English, and indeed German, society. But they are now forbidden, the arguments against them being framed partly in physical terms (the likelihood of infertility) and partly in religious ones (on grounds of incest…).”

so, by the time they were all converted (700-800s?), the anglo-saxons in england shouldn’t have been marrying their close cousins anymore. the problem was, however, as it has always been — enforcement. who was going to enforce these rules, which emanated from rome, way up in yorkshire? or event kent?

because the thing was, early christian marriages didn’t necessarily have to happen in a church in front of a priest. they could do, but it was not actually required. all that was required was to abide by all the regulations (don’t marry your cousin, consent should be mutual, etc., etc.). eventually, however, over the course of the medieval period, the church did take control of marriage ceremonies, but it wasn’t until the early 1200s that marriage in a church with a priest was necessary to have a valid marriage [pgs. 146-150]:

‘In England between the seventh and the twelfth centuries the ecclesiastical authority in matrimonial questions was slowly established’ (Howard 1904: I,333). At first the Church appears only to have concerned itself with the nuptial mass but gradually it became involved both in the betrothal and in that gifta or handing over of the bride which was regarded as the essence of marriage. Finally, in the twelfth century, Peter Lombard’s annunciation of the ‘seven sacraments’ proposed that marriage be included among them….

“No public ceremony was needed [still in the 1100s] to make a marriage valid, but, in order to make it fully licit, certain procedures had to be followed….

“But while only this form of marriage was licit, other unions could be valid. The betrothal followed by intercourse became marriage, even without being solemnised in church. This being so, since men and women did not always get married in facie ecclesiae, some making their agreement at home, or in a field, a garden, or even in bed, problems often arose in proving to the satisfaction of the ecclesiastical judges that a marriage had taken place at all. Some 70 per cent of the marriages involved in cases heard in Ely between March 1374 and March 1382 took place in private surroundings. While it was doubtless the intention of most parties to follow the private with a public celebration, not in all cases did this occur….

“A better explanation of the Church’s attitude to such marriages [clandestine marriages] would seem to be based on the difficulties it experienced in imposing its will on the forms and patterns of marriage at all levels, whether that of the nobility as described by Duby, or in the more popular milieu of Ely. Only with the Council of Trent [1545-63] did the Catholic Church finally manage to impose its authority in this sphere by invalidating marriages that had not been performed in public before the parish priest, a notion that was later followed in Protestant circles….

“The Church had recognised the problems created by ‘private’ marriages long before the Council of Trent. From late in the twelfth century local attempts were made to ensure that the priest made a public proclamation of a proposed marriage sufficiently far in advance to allow anyone to make an open objection to the union. The procedure became generalised under canon 51 of the Fourth Lateran Council [1215] when the priest was required to announce the marriage and to investigate the possibility of impediments. In England the announcement took the form of reading the banns on three Sundays. In fact this procedure appeared to have more effect on the enforcement of the prohibitions than on the publication of the marriage itslef…. In his study of a register of court cases from fourteenth century Ely, Sheehan remarks that it was possible to get round the banns not only for ‘the large group that avoided religious ceremonies entirely’ (1971: 239), but even for many who wished to have the blessing of the Church; the latter simply went to a distant parish where people were not aware of any impediment to their marriage….

When a marriage was discovered to have taken place outside the parish, the parties were liable to punishment….. If a couple did not wish to run the risk, it did not have to undergo a church wedding at all. In Ely such uncelebrated marriages were frequent at this time. Out of 101 unions mentioned in the register, 89 were of this ‘irregular’ kind. Of course it was precisely these marriages that were likely to come before the court, for the large majority of disputes were not about divorce but were demands to recognise a marriage as valid; pleas of annulment were infrequent, as were references to parental consent….

[I]n general the impediments arising from ‘blood’ marriage and ‘spiritual’ ties, which according to many commentators, offered an easy way out of marriage, formed the basis of relatively few disputes in the medieval English courts (Helmholz 1974: 77ff). When the Fourth Lateran Council reduced the prohibited degrees from seven to four in 1215, it also tightened up the proof necessary to establish these ties for legal purposes. While we know that the nobility treated these restrictions with little concern, obtaining dispensations when they were needed, surviving court records give little indication that the prohibited degrees presented any major problem for the bulk of the population. Hemlholz argues that the actors accepted the rules, and sees evidence of this in the large percentage of marriages which were contracted outside the village (about 50 per cent)….

so, for four hundred years — from, say, 800 to 1200 — the enforcement of the close cousin marriage ban in england by the church was probably pretty patchy. the ban was there — and people obviously knew about it (since some of them tried to get around it) — but enforcement by the church was definitely not 100%.

still, helmholz apparently argues (i haven’t read him yet) that, by and large, ordinary englishmen and women largely abided by these regulations.


well, they might have done so for religious reasons — many may have simply wished to follow the church’s teachings in order to stay in god’s good books. but, there was also incentive from another direction — secular laws which backed up the church’s regulations.

in “Kinship and marriage among the Visigoths,” ausenda makes it clear that secular rulers (kings, prices) across northwest europe also issued decrees against cousin marriage, no doubt with an eye on breaking the social and economic power of clans (they weren’t the first — chinese rulers tried this as well, but they ran into the enforcement problem) [pg. 147-48]:

“Langobardic [Lombardian] laws concerning forbidden marriages also became stricter over time. Liutprand 33 [8th century] forbade marriage with the widow of a cousin, but no further prohibitions were reflected in the laws. We know, however, that more extended prohibitions were made compulsory by the Church….

This shows that both Church and State were interested in forbidding close kin marriages. Their common concern becomes clear when one bears in mind the recognized difficulty the Church had, from the fourth century onwards, in expanding into the countryside….

“In conclusion, the strenuous effort [by the Church] to penetrate the countryside entailed a long-drawn battle against traditional religion, whose vehicle was the kin group, and substituting the authority of the elders of the kin group with that of a religious elder, the presbyteros. At the same time the king’s rule was undermined by revolts on the part of the most powerful kin groups, clans or sections, whose conspiracies and murders menaced the power of the state. Thus Church and State became allies in trying to do aways with the political power of extended kin groups utilizing all manners of impositions. One of the most effective among them was to destroy their cohesiveness by prohibition of close kin marriage.” [more here.]

in parts of (all parts of?) anglo-saxon england, the secular laws prohibiting close cousin marriage were quite severe [pgs. 39-40]:

“[M]arriage to any close kin was forbidden by the Church and its proscriptions were given legal sanction by Christian monarchs. In Anglo-Saxon England the punishment for breaking these rules was very heavy, namely slavery (that is, according to the late text, Edward and Guthrum, 4, Whitelock et al. 1981), with the man passing into the ownership of the king and the woman into that of the bishop (Whitelock 1930: 111; 1981: I, 307).”

whitelock’s primary sources date to the 900-1000s, so we can say that from at least that point onwards, anglo-saxons had some powerful incentives to stay away from close cousin marriage. it’s difficult — probably impossible — to reconstruct what the actual close cousin marriage rates in anglo-saxon england were, but they must have been very low indeed after ca. 800-900s. especially when compared with other regions of europe/the world in which cousin marriage was encouraged rather than discouraged.

see also: The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe by jack goody.

*update 08/24: see also more on anglo-saxon mating patterns.

previously: inbreeding amongst germanic tribes and more on inbreeding in germanic tribes and but what about the english?

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