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.
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!)
“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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