kinship in anglo-saxon society

why are the english so special? why do they have such a strong sense of individualism (see here and here and here and here)? or are so civic-minded? why do they live in (absolute) nuclear families? why are they not clannish or tribal? why are they so nonviolent — and why did their levels of violence start to decrease so long ago? how come it was the english who pretty much invented liberal democracy?

i think a lot of these things have to do with england’s outbreeding project which began sometime in the early medieval period (see here and here), but could there have been something special about the pre-christian anglo-saxons (or danes — think the danelaw — see this comment and subsequent discussion)? were they individualistic, civic-minded, living in nuclear family groups, not clannish or tribal, nonviolent, and liberally democratic? or, perhaps, predisposed to these things in some way?

well, i can hardly answer all of those in just a blog post (and, to be honest, i don’t know the answer to most of them), but i’ll try to address a couple of them by taking a look at anglo-saxon kinship (the anglo-saxons after they got to england). i’ll be mostly working from lorraine lancaster’s two articles: Kinship in Anglo-Saxon Society I and Kinship in Anglo-Saxon Society II. from what i can make out, lancaster’s work on anglo-saxon kinship between ca. the 600s-1000s, which was published in 1958, is still considered to be the definitive one — anything i read about anglo-saxon society and/or kinship always refers back to her. so, let’s see what she had to say.
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kinship terms for collateral kin

in this previous post, we saw how kinship terms amongst germans on the continent became less precise over the course of the middle ages. the different terms for “father’s brother” and “mother’s brother” were collapsed into a single term for “uncle.” similarly, previously existing differentiating terms for the various cousins — “father’s brother’s daughter” or “mother’s brother’s daughter” — got collapsed into just “cousin.”

there are probably a lot of good reasons for having separate, distinct terms for all your family members, but one of the most important ones (i think) is to distinguish for yourself and everybody around you who can marry whom (see also julian pitt-rivers’ “The Kith and the Kin”). so, in societies where a certain form of cousin marriage is preferred — like father’s brother’s daughter (fbd) marriage amongst the arabs (see here) or mother’s brother’s daughter (mbd) marriage traditionally amongst the chinese (see here and here) — all of the cousins get specific names (this is known as the sudanese kinship form). (check out all the names for paternal and maternal relatives in the chinese kinship system!)

another way of naming kin is the system most common in the west, and the system we have in the english speaking world, and that is where we do not distinguish between different uncles or aunts or cousins. one’s cousin is one’s cousin, end of discussion. this is probably a result of the fact that, throughout the medieval period in europe, cousin marriage was prohibited by the church and frequently by secular authorities as well. since it became no longer necessary to distinguish one cousin from another — since ALL of them were off-limits to marry — they all eventually became known as simply “cousins” (or whatever term you happen use in your western european language). (this is known as the eskimo kinship form, btw — although why lewis h. morgan dubbed it that i don’t know since most of the eskimo groups i’ve read about don’t use this form!)

so what about the anglo-saxons in early medieval england? well, wikipedia tells us that they used the sudanese kinship system. and from lorraine lancaster [I – pg. 237]:

“There was a distinction drawn between ‘father’s brother’ and ‘mother’s brother’ which is not preserved in the modern English ‘uncle’ (<Latin *avunculus*). A father's brother was *fædera* and a mother's brother, *eam*…. The terms *nefa* and *genefa* seem to have been general ones, applicable to both a brother's and a sister's son, but *suhterga* and *geswiria* served to specify a brother's son and the term *swustorsunu* was, as its form suggests, only applicable to a sister's son.

“It is most significant that a term existed (*suhter-(ge)fæderan*) to refer to the relationship between a man and his father's brother. There was no special term to refer to the corresponding relationship on Ego's mother's side.

“The words *nift* and *nefena* appear to have applied to either a brother's or a sister's daughter, in the same manner as we use 'niece'. But the more specific terms *brodor-dohtor* (‘brother’s daughter’) and *sweostor-dohtor* (‘sister’s daughter’) were also used….

*Sugterga*, which we have already noted in the context of brother’s son, could also express the relationship of those whose fathers were brothers, that is, parallel cousins on the father’s side. Another term for this relationship was *fæderan sunu* (i.e. ‘father’s brother’s son’). The corresponding relationship of parallel cousins on the mother’s side could also be specifically denoted: The word *sweor* (also used for ‘father-in-law’) represented a cousin german, probably on the mother’s side, while such a cousin could be more accurately described as *gesweostrenu bearn* (‘child of sisters’) or *moddrian sunu* (‘mother’s sister’s son’).

this is very similar to the sort of cousin naming system that arabs today have — there aren’t unique words for “father’s brother’s son,” but the relationship is simply spelled out quite literally:

– father’s brother’s son = fæderan sunu = ibn ʿamm.

it’s likely, therefore, given the cousin naming system of the anglo-saxons — and the fact that the church offered dispensations to newly converted anglo-saxons who were married to their cousins, as well as the fact that many secular laws were passed in several of the anglo-saxon kingdoms banning cousin marriage (see here and here) — that cousin marriage was not uncommon amongst the pre-christian — and post-christian for a while! — anglo-saxons.

interestingly, lancaster points out that there weren’t any (many?) terms for more distant cousins in old english. there didn’t seem to be a way to say, for instance, “first cousin once-removed” amongst the anglo-saxons.

this leads into the idea of the anglo-saxon kindred (and their bilateral kinship reckoning) … which i’ll get into in my next post. stay tuned!

update 12/11: see also kinship in anglo-saxon society ii
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previously: english individualism and english individualism ii and english individualism iii and anglo-saxon mating patterns and more on anglo-saxon mating patterns

(note: comments do not require an email. the specials.)

27 Comments

  1. They are not non-violent. Look at all the countries that the English invaded to create the British empire. Do you really believe that happened non-violently?

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  2. . You’re putting a lot of weight on kinship terminology, but it wasn’t just the Saxon words for cousin that got simplified, there were many other changes. in English there is now no inflection, plurals are formed by adding an s, adjectives remain the same whether singular or plural, nouns are not masculine or feminine as in other European languages. Eskimo words for snow.

    The Church ban was important, no question,and civil authority had its own reasons for supporting it, but neither of the motives for the powers in the land to discourage inbreeding were unique to England. How explain England taking the prohibitions so seriously that they altered the gene pool faster than anyone else?

    The South East English were not prone to private violence such as vendettas, but they were not slow to public violence against the politically or religiously recalcitrant. They rebelled to punish what they saw as tyranny. EG the Peasants revolt and Jack Cade’s rebellion came from there. Also “East Anglia played a major role in the Civil Wars which swept over the British Isles in the 1640s. Not only was Parliament’s leading soldier, Oliver Cromwell, MP for Cambridge, but the bedrock of parliament’s support was to be found in this region, support which was organised into the Eastern Association. East Anglia was also the nursery of the New Model Army.”

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  3. Very nice post. I was interested in the distinction Pitt-Rivers makes between kinship and friendship. Is it possible that friendship grows in importance as the importance of kinship wains? How important is friendship — between-non relatives that is — in highly inbred societies? When Jesus says in the New Testament that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend, does this mean for a non-relative? I think also of the story of the good Samaritan, Or Paul’s statement that there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile, but all are of one blood and one race, or words to that effect. Thus this reflect changes in the importance of inbreeding in the Roman empire during Hellenistic times? Lastly there is the importance of guanxi (connections) in China which (while it can certainly include relatives) is by no means restricted to them. Client patronage relations generally are not between relatives are they? Anyway, in the case of China I wonder if there is a reverse correlation between the waning importance of kinship (including cousin marriage) and the growing importance of guanxi? Or has guanxi always been important?

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  4. Luke here again (that was me about friendship above):

    In classical Athens we know clans were made less important by cross-cutting precincts for purposes of voting: clans did not sit together in public gatherings, etc. We also read about homosexual patron/client relationships such as the one between Socrates and Alcibiades. Did this have anything to do with outbreeding? And, if so, why did Alcibiades betray his country?

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  5. BTW, is it merely coincidental that in ancient Athens we behold for the first time a mode of rational discourse that seems almost modern (compared to the Bible for instance, or any other discourse of the period anywhere on earth) and also the appearance of something that looks like individualism in that tons of famous individuals appear in society.

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  6. @sean – “You’re putting a lot of weight on kinship terminology….”

    no, I’M not. please, READ THE REFERENCES I’VE GIVEN YOU.

    @sean – “How explain England taking the prohibitions so seriously that they altered the gene pool faster than anyone else?”

    i haven’t said that it happened faster in england than in “anyone” else. it also happened (i think/theorize) amongst all my “core europeans” — the dutch, the french, northern italians, belgians, germans, danish, possibly the other scandinavians — which i’ve said over and over if you would just read some of the links i’ve offered you.

    the process did seem to happen with the most rapidity in ne france, the netherlands, and se england, though (the areas where manorialism first got going — ne france and the netherlands, anyway — austrasia). the difference between england and the other regions may have something to do with the fact that, unlike the continent, england never developed “banal lordships” which might’ve (might’ve) left room for greater amounts of outbreeding in southern england.

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  7. @sean – “The South East English were not prone to private violence such as vendettas…”

    during anglo-saxon days they were. stay tuned for the next post.

    @sean – “…EG the Peasants revolt and Jack Cade’s rebellion came from there. Also ‘East Anglia played a major role in the Civil Wars which swept over the British Isles in the 1640s. Not only was Parliament’s leading soldier, Oliver Cromwell, MP for Cambridge, but the bedrock of parliament’s support was to be found in this region, support which was organised into the Eastern Association. East Anglia was also the nursery of the New Model Army.'”

    once again, you’re confusing your time periods.

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  8. @ Sean’s ““East Anglia played a major role in the Civil Wars which swept over the British Isles in the 1640s.”

    I dare say the Protestants were more out-bred than the Catholics. Don’t know it for a fact though. In any case the English Civil was was a struggle for political dominance between the old nobility (highly intermarried) and the rising gentry/merchant/journeyman/yeoman class. Had a lot of foreign policy angles too: competition for hegemony between England, France, and Spain. Catholicism was a real political force in those days. No wonder Protestants were afraid of Catholic for generations to come.

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  9. @luke – “Is it possible that friendship grows in importance as the importance of kinship wains?”

    that would be my guess. more need for and more possibilities for reciprocal altruism versus my “familial altruism.”

    @luke – “How important is friendship — between-non relatives that is — in highly inbred societies?”

    i dunno! and that’s something i’ve actually wondered about. i wonder if there are any questions in the world values survey related to friendship? i’ll have to check it out!

    @luke – “When Jesus says in the New Testament that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend, does this mean for a non-relative? I think also of the story of the good Samaritan, Or Paul’s statement that there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile, but all are of one blood and one race, or words to that effect. Thus this reflect changes in the importance of inbreeding in the Roman empire during Hellenistic times?

    yes, i’ve wondered about this era many times and wondered if some outbreeding thing was going on with the early christians — either amongst jews in judea at the time and/or the greeks. i have no idea.

    you’ve probably seen this post already, but there are some linguistic indication in greek as early as the fifth century b.c. that there was a shift in relatedness there.

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  10. @luke – “Lastly there is the importance of guanxi (connections) in China which (while it can certainly include relatives) is by no means restricted to them. Client patronage relations generally are not between relatives are they?”

    right about the guanxi — and no about the patronage — patronage relationships are generally not between relatives (although i suppose relatives might be included there). but it’s curious that these are the sorts of reciprocal altruism solutions that more inbred societies come up with — more “formal” in a way. it’s not just this sort-of free-flowing reciprocal altruism between individuals in all directions (i’m exaggerating how it works in the anglo world, of course, but you know what i mean).

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  11. @luke – “Anyway, in the case of China I wonder if there is a reverse correlation between the waning importance of kinship (including cousin marriage) and the growing importance of guanxi? Or has guanxi always been important?

    that, i don’t know. i would like to know! but i don’t. (^_^)

    i also wonder how much cousin marriage has been waning in china. i’m not convinced about that. need more data!

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  12. @luke – “In classical Athens we know clans were made less important by cross-cutting precincts for purposes of voting: clans did not sit together in public gatherings, etc.”

    yes, cleisthenes really had a good plan, there! i think the reforms didn’t last, though, because all he did was to shuffle up the clans, not encourage consistent outbreeding.

    i think what happened is that the ancient athenians kinda/sorta outbred for a while because they were forced to, but they just wound up forming new clans. the system didn’t really change — not fundamentally. cleisthenes’ new political regions — created by the cross-cutting of the precincts that you referred to — just became new clans — eventually (or several new clans).

    the structure of society didn’t change enough, i don’t think. there wasn’t the same push for outbreeding and strong selection pressure for individualism at that point in time as there was later in medieval europe. they didn’t get rid of their “clannishness genes” i don’t think.

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  13. @luke – “…is it merely coincidental that in ancient Athens we behold for the first time a mode of rational discourse that seems almost modern….”

    i think the coolest guys are these guys. i want to know where they came out of!

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  14. Excellent post. When the Church got to England, they also worked to instill monogamy in the people. Taylor’s “Sex in History” was pretty direct in explaining how that was a long process that changed behaviors in the English but only through massive efforts. This might be after the period you are focusing on, but it seems like the same period.

    I’ve been trying to work on a macro-theory of why the English were so special as to run the world from 1815 to now (the US is the Byzantium empire stage of British rule). While I laugh at Jared Diamond at times, I do think there is something to the English being isolated on an island yet close to a continent with dynamic changes. That is why in an earlier comment on another post I asked about Japan. I think there’s similarities with Japan. As an island nation, English focus would always be securing strong naval rights, defense and powers which requires cooperation beyond just a clan. Their focus would always be different from traditional land based powers. Great post.

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  15. @hbd chick – i think the coolest guys are these guys. i want to know where they came out of!

    Ionian Greeks, from Athens and the surrounding area, related to the Athenians. The distinction is based on the dialect of Greek they used, the main difference of ancient Greek dialects being is substitution of vowels. “e” in Ionian Athens was substituted by “a” in Doric Sparta. “a” in Ionian Athens is substituted by “o” in Aeolian Lesvos, things like that, they easily understood each other. Each dialect group felt that is belonged to a different Greek tribe and allied with other members of the same tribe. Ancient Greek philosophy was mainly an Ionian affair, with some exceptions. So was Ancient Greek naval power, so was democracy.

    There are exceptions though, Empedocles was from Akragas, a colony of Gela, which was a colony of Doric Rhodes. In all ancient Greek cities citizenship was only by patrilineal descent, it did not matter where you were born or if your family had been living someplace for 6 generations, it did not matter who you married, having a city you were not descended from grant you their citizenship was almost unheard of, unless you had won in the Olympics.

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  16. Yeah, I like the pre-Socratics too. Not sure how modern they were though. Didn’t they speak in epigrams? War is the mother of all things, etc.. In any case Aristotle if the first full-blown model of modern-style discourse, even if not actually scientific — Bacon had a tremendous problem with him, or rather his authority, because he stood in the way of the scientific method when it came to the natural sciences. But keep in mind, the Greeks did not have arabic numerals. How were they suppose to describe nature with the language of mathematics. Where Aristotle is modern — the form of his analysis I mean is in his dicussions of ethics and politics. He looks abstractly at causal relationships, conditions of moral responsibility, of happiness, etc.. Luke

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  17. Prussianism and Socialism by Oswald Spengler basically says that the world is knights (the core of continental Europe) vs vikings (England). I think that his book strongly supports your manoralism thesis. It is also interesting because it is written from the Prussian point of view, which is very alien to me.

    I think that we’ve been under-estimating the influence of the vikings on England. A new theory is that the Old English language died out and that Middle English is descended from Old Norse (with strong influence from Old English of course). The theory probably isn’t true, but the fact that it is plausible says something. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/11/121127094111.htm

    On family-type maps we see pockets of nuclear family in Scandinavia. Perhaps they brought this family type to England? Plus the constant mixing of Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Celtic, and Norman blood would by a massive outbreeding “event” stretching hundreds of years.

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  18. why are the english so special?

    Unfortunately, one of the ways they’re special is that they tolerate being told they don’t exist (“The English are a mongrel race” (C) Marxist propagandists for many years), they’re inferior (even tho’ they don’t exist), they should welcome being enriched by the non-English (who are the same as them anyway), etc. IOW, they tolerate the non-English ruling them, directing their public institutions and working non-stop to displace and dispossess them. At one point in recent history, all the major parties in England were led by people with Scottish surnames: Blair, Cameron, Kennedy. That was not chance at work, nor is chance at work in other ethnic patterns plainly visible (but not mentionable) in English public life.

    I would like to see anyone try the same tricks in China, India, Scotch-Irelandia, etc.

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  19. @sobl1 – “When the Church got to England, they also worked to instill monogamy in the people.”

    yes, they absolutely did! in other areas, too, like amongst the germans on the continent and in far-flung places like ireland.

    @sobl1 – “Taylor’s ‘Sex in History’….”

    oh, thanks for that reference! haven’t read that.

    @sobl1 – “I think there’s similarities with Japan.”

    there could very well be. one big difference, though, is that fundamental difference between europeans and east asians in the different frequencies of the different drd4/adhd alleles. i think that that one, almost tiny little shift altered the entire “flavor” of western vs. eastern culture(s).

    @sobl1 – “As an island nation, English focus would always be securing strong naval rights, defense and powers which requires cooperation beyond just a clan. Their focus would always be different from traditional land based powers.”

    yes, but i don’t think you can get to that point — thinking of your island as one entity that you need to protect — until after you get rid of the clans. compare clannish ireland next door to anglo-saxon and norman england — another island “nation” but they didn’t manage to pull together against the invading anglo-normans at all. too busy fighting each other!

    different clans/tribes might be able to pull together if you’ve got one h*ckuva strong despot of some sort — and, perhaps, if you don’t have too many rebellious adhd genes.

    @sobl1 – “Great post.”

    thanks! (^_^) glad you enjoyed it.

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  20. @vasilis – “Ionian Greeks, from Athens and the surrounding area, related to the Athenians.”

    cool! thanks for the info. (^_^) what i was wondering though, too, was — where did they came from in the sense of why did they suddenly appear there in greece at that point in time?! what was going on in the population’s genetics/culture/etc.? that they were so interested in thinking about the world in naturalistic terms and not mythological ones — unlike nearly everyone else in the world at almost any point in history/prehistory — is just remarkable! (^_^)

    @vasilis – “In all ancient Greek cities citizenship was only by patrilineal descent, it did not matter where you were born or if your family had been living someplace for 6 generations, it did not matter who you married, having a city you were not descended from grant you their citizenship was almost unheard of….”

    this makes sense to me … but i’m a little clannish creature. (~_^)

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  21. @t – “Prussianism and Socialism by Oswald Spengler basically says that the world is knights (the core of continental Europe) vs vikings (England). I think that his book strongly supports your manoralism thesis. It is also interesting because it is written from the Prussian point of view, which is very alien to me.”

    interesting. i’m definitely going to have to take a look at that.

    @t – “I think that we’ve been under-estimating the influence of the vikings on England…. On family-type maps we see pockets of nuclear family in Scandinavia. Perhaps they brought this family type to England?”

    i don’t know. i thought that the pre-christian scandinavians were living in extended family groups, but i don’t know that for sure. i will have to check. they definitely were focused on their kindreds (i’ll have more on kindreds in my next post on anglo-saxons), so in that way they were “clannish,” but it could be that they actually lived in nuclear family — or maybe stem family (grandparents+nuclear family) — units. don’t know.

    @t – “Plus the constant mixing of Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Celtic, and Norman blood would by a massive outbreeding ‘event’ stretching hundreds of years.”

    yes. you would think all that mixing would’ve had some sort of effect. but there were mixing events all over europe in the medieval period — think of spain, for instance, with visigoths coming from the north and moors coming from the south and lots of internal movement throughout the era. why aren’t the spaniards more like the northern europeans?

    and for that matter, why are the scandinavians today rather like the english — at least in terms of being peaceful and adopting liberal democracy so readily (although they didn’t invent it)? they didn’t experience as much mixing as the population in england, and yet they’re rather modern in a nw european sense. what they do have in common with the english is extensive outbreeding (although they started later than the english).

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  22. @candid k9 – “Unfortunately, one of the ways they’re special is that they tolerate being told they don’t exist….”

    yes. i think all of what you said is related to the effects of the outbreeding that i’ve been talking about: too much reciprocal altruism — too much universalism.

    btw, your comment reminded me that i forgot something yesterday. thanks!

    @candid k9 – “At one point in recent history, all the major parties in England were led by people with Scottish surnames: Blair….”

    ah! i never realized that blair was a scottish name.

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  23. Key element with England is the caste class of local gentry that interbred. So, there was outbreeding, but this was really just a eugenics project. The fixed aristocracy (England was only conquered once) meant that ancient family lines dominated communities. They interbred selectively. The local aristocrats married any up-and-coming family or other elite families. The “bloodlines” obsession of WASPs is a testament to this. The English upper classes because “noble”.. tall, intelligent, politic, restrained, charismatic, athletic, proud, brave, snobbish, refined, and fey..etc. that’s what 1200 years of assortive breeding did. You feel like a pitbull.. but one bred to be socialized, individualistic and productive.

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  24. And why all of that obscession of the church and later by secular authorities to ban or restrict cousin marriage throughout Europe? Compared with the rest of the world at that time, this is really anomalous. Where the bans put into effect to weaken the power of clans?

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