cousin marriage in 13th-15th century england

if anybody out there says to you – “but people everywhere in the past were always marrying their cousins!” – tell them i said no. no, no, no, emphatically no! (in a friendly, non-threatening tone, of course. (^_^) )

here, from sam worby’s Law and Kinship in Thirteenth-Century England [pgs. 92-103 – links added by me]:

“Canon law kinship rules can be seen in court records in three main ways: as a ground for ‘divorce’; a defence against an action to enforce a marriage, usually in litigation between parties; or as a matter of disciplinary action in an office case (where the canon law courts were exercising their quasi-criminal jurisdiction)….

Overall, cases involving canon law kinship did not form a large part of the business of the canon law courts in England. In York [in yorkshire in the north of england], for example, marriage made up 38 per cent of the business of the court between 1301 and 1499. Most of this was instance cases rather than ‘criminal enforcement’. Most of the marriage actions were to enforce a putative marriage and only 14 per cent were actions to dissolve. Pre-contract was the most common ground for matrimonial litigation in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (overall 46 per cent of matrimonial cases), and denial was a common response. Other grounds used to defend against marriages were force and/or non age at 13 per cent, then consanguinity and affinity [i.e. relatedness to your in-laws] at 12 per cent (a total of 9 cases) in the fourteenth century. While kinship was not a large proportion of the business of these courts it did occur more frequently than grounds such as crime, impotence and vow (i.e. a vow to stay celibate). In the fifteenth century there were slightly fewer actions where the grounds of consanguinity and or affinity were raised than in the fourteenth.

because the rates of consanguineous marriages declined? no idea.

“Overall kinship was raised in 16 out of 178 cases. In Ely [in cambridgeshire in east anglia], between 1374 and 1381, cases involving kinship were more common, perhaps because of the higher proportion of *ex officio* cases in the business of this court. Kinship was raised as a defence on ground for divorce proportionately more frequently (in 15 claims of incest). In Ely kinship was a more common defence than force and non age, but was still significantly less common overall than allegations of precontract. There is reason to believe that the Ely court was active in relation to kinship as the Ely office cases tended to be brought at the start or in the early public phase of a relationship. While neither set of figures show kinship to have been a major part of business, they both show that it was still a relatively usual part.”

was consanguineous marriage more frequent in ely which is in east anglia (where the puritans were from)? no idea. (also on ely.)

“The canon law on kinship was variously ignored, followed and manipulated (these being alternatives in different times and place, for both the courts and the people subject to them). Donahue has shown, for example, how one new judge of Canterbury diocesan court, Richard de Clyve, on visitation in 1292, fresh from the schools, began by prosecuting every case in relation to kinship, but faced some resistance as is shown variously by witnesses growing less certain and by a letter pleading mercy on behalf of a woman sentenced to whipping…”

sentenced to whipping for being in a consanguineous marriage?! talk about enforcement!

“…from a mutually acquainted royal clerk. He finished his circuit on a more flexible note and began to base his decisions on the degree of local scandal that the cases inspired. He also exhibited doubts about the application of the rules which held that affinity arose from mere sexual relationships. Thus the courts could take an accomodating attitude to the rules about kinship, and sometimes finesse (or ignore) stict application of the rules. Richard de Clyve’s experience also confirms that people were aware of the rules, made an effot to follow them (to a degree) and could be scandalised in certain circumstances by their breach. An example of such scandal is the deathbed warning of a father against his son’s marriage. Though the kinship was distant, in the fourth degree, the father allegedly said ‘they will never flourish or live together in good fortune because of the consanguinity between them’. There were also cases where people ‘hotly resisted’ marriages that were within the forbidden degrees: one woman even said she would prefer to die rather than marry her kinsman. Rhetoric or not, such a declaration in a court case would have been dramatic, and would not have been plausible were the rules not accepted….

The evidence from York and Ely shows how far down the social scale obedience to the kinship rules of the canon law reached. Some of the cases were brought by or against relatively humble people but the ‘middling’ sort were not uncommon in these courts which suggests that some attempt was being made to apply the canon law kinship across the classes….

There are also several cases that show people seeking dispensations, again suggesting that the system could operate effectively. In *Wistow c Cowper*, a York case of 1491, a papal dispensation (for spiritual affinity) overcame the attempted defence. However, in several cases a papal dispensation was held to be, or appeared to be, insufficient. In the remarkable *Hiliard c Hiliard*, a York case of 1370, the couple had been previously cited for a consanguineous relationship, but the sentence had been deferred to allow them to obtain a papal dispensation. A priest had attempted this and failed. He testified that in the papal court he was told ‘that he could not get such a dispensation for a hundred pounds’. Since the relationship was in the fourth degree of consanguinity this statement is unlikely to be true….

Divorce cases on grounds of kinship were not the norm. Despite the occasional outlandish case, such as *Ask c Ask and Conyers* where a son alleged that his parents had divorced collusively on grounds of spiritual fraternity to deprive him of his interitance, the case evidence reveals a very different world from that where Maitland had proposed that almost any marriage could be dissolved on grounds of kinship. Clearly, consanguinity and affinity could be used or discovered to escape from marriages, but the records suggest that they were not often used to escape from current marriages; instead they were more common as a defence in marriage enforcement cases. In fact, the court records seem to show that the underlying system that was meant to prevent incestuous or harmful (i.e. non-dispensable) marriages operated with some level of success. It may be that a genuine sense that ‘incestuous’ marriages were wrong prevented kinship from being used as a casual route to escape marriage. There is evidence that shows that incestuous marriages were a matter of bad conscience. For example, both Donahue and Sheehan consider that John de Lile of Chatteris resisted cohabiting with his ‘wife’, Katherine, in the late 1370s, once affinity was discovered between them. Some effort was made to observe the rules: people would not have paid for a dispensation or for a priest to travel and gain a dispensation if there were no need and no social pressure to conform. It may also have been that kinship sufficient to dissolve or defend against a marriage was difficult to prove to a level that satisfied canon law rules of evidence. Whatever the reason for the comparatively small role of kinship in litigation, it seems clear that the canon law kinship system operated in practice and that some people obeyed it and were (publicly at least) scandalised when it was disobeyed….

“In a sample of sixty-two instance from York, Ely, Lincoln [in the east midlands], Wisbech [also in cambridgeshire, east anglia] and Canterbury [in kent in the southeast] that raised kinship in some manner, by far the

worby - types of kinship alleged in the canon law sample

greater majority raised objections on grounds of affinity: thirty-three affinity and sixteen consanguinity (see table 1)…. The disparity is interesting, however, as it suggests that people were either more likely to obey the consanguinity rules than the affinity rules, or that people were more likely to falsely allege an affinial relationship. There is some evidence for the second suggestion arising from the number of cases (at least twenty-three) based on affinity through illicit intercourse, a less public relationship than a marriage or betrothal. Yet the pattern was sustained in office cases where it can be supposed that there were fewer opportunities for collusion (thirteen out of eighteen cases alleging affinity of any type). Therefore it is likely that a combination of both factors was at work. It is enough to not that consanguineous relationships seem to have been more scandalous than relationships with affines.

it’s interesting that there were no cases related to consanguinity or “other incest” at all in fourteenth century canterbury which is all the way in the south of england in kent, just across the channel from northern france. kent had one of the earliest secular laws against cousin marriage in england that i have come across, the law of wihtred from the 690s, while at the same time it experienced a late adoption of manorialism, if at all (probably not so much in the east where the “men of kent” come from!). so, not the full package of outbreeding tricks for kent, but a very early start to cousin marriage bans.

previously: more on medieval england and france

(note: comments do not require an email. invicta!)

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21 Comments

  1. “was consanguineous marriage more frequent in ely”

    It was in a swamp for a long time so it’s possible

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isle_of_Ely

    Some of the other comments are interesting in that it makes me wonder if after a while the church ban made people superstitious about cousin marriage i.e. not just devout or pseudo-scientific objections but witchy objections too – bad luck.

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  2. @hbd chick “if anybody out there says to you – “but people everywhere in the past were always marrying their cousins!” – tell them i said no. no, no, no, emphatically no! ” Hmm. Very interesting. You do, realize that every sweet little one of us is related to every other one of us the world over and history throughout. Except for direct ancestors, decendants siblings and uncles and aunts we are all cousins. There isn’t anybody else out there. Get a grip.
    When you say “cousin” you need to say to what degree. Otherwise you might be including non mamalian verteberates. How in the world court cases are supposed to reflect what’s going on I do not know. They are exceptionsl. In fact it looks like there are less than a hundred cases in the area and time you present. That means REALLLY esceptional.
    Of course you knew what I was going to say and that I mean it in in a friendly, non-threatening tone, of course. Beside you’re technicaly right. Your uncle isn’t your cousin so not EVERYBODY married cousins. Did I misss something?

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  3. @linton – “You do, realize that every sweet little one of us is related to every other one of us the world over and history throughout. Except for direct ancestors, decendants siblings and uncles and aunts we are all cousins. There isn’t anybody else out there. Get a grip. When you say “cousin” you need to say to what degree”

    heh. (^_^) yes, you are right, linton. we are all cousins to some degree.

    when i use the word cousin (without specification) i really mean first and second cousins. i’m pretty much only interested in the evolution of altruism, and the connection of inclusive fitness to that, and since the genetic “payoff” for altruistic behaviors falls off pretty rapidly already after first cousins (although in a very inbred society, not so much), i’m not so interested in cousinship beyond that.

    also, most regular people out there (who don’t have cousin obsessions like us, i mean (~_^) ), when they use the word cousin, they generally mean first — maybe second — cousin, and those are the sorts of people i was referring to — the ones who often say “but people everywhere in the past were always marrying their cousins!”

    interestingly, though, these people from medieval england, THEY were worried about marriage out to THIRD cousins. and, oddly, marriage out to third cousins-IN-LAW!

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  4. @grey – “It was in a swamp for a long time so it’s possible.”

    ah ha! the isle of ely. i didn’t know. thanks!

    @grey – “Some of the other comments are interesting in that it makes me wonder if after a while the church ban made people superstitious about cousin marriage i.e. not just devout or pseudo-scientific objections but witchy objections too – bad luck.”

    could very well be! even today, most people in the west don’t consider marrying their first cousins just because they have an ewwww! reaction. even in the u.s., where many states have anti-cousin marriage laws, most people don’t (i don’t think) avoid marrying their cousins because of the laws, but just because they think ewwww! i wonder if northern europeans pretty quickly internalized the idea that one just doesn’t marry one’s cousin (unless you’re one of the upper crusties!), and they really didn’t have to be told to avoid it after a while (a few generations? a couple hundred years?).

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  5. @grey – “It was in a swamp for a long time so it’s possible.”

    when they drained the fens in the 1600s, tptb brought in foreign (dutch) workers. =/ some things never change — tptb always bringing in (presumably) cheap, foreign labor!:

    “1626-37 – Draining of the Fens – An experienced embankment engineer, Vermuyden, was employed in 1626 by King Charles I of England to drain Hatfield Chase in the Isle of Axholme. Jointly financed by Dutch and English capitalists, Francis, Earl of Bedford and 13 Adventurers, the project was a controversial undertaking, not only for the engineering techniques used, but also because it employed Dutch, rather than English, workmen. The fenmen, men who made their living from fish and fowl in the Fens, attacked the Dutch workers. An agreement was finally made in 1630 to complete the project, the engineer had to employ English workers and compensate the fenmen for the loss of hunting and fishing rights….”

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  6. It seems that there is no shortage of examples of papal dispensation for royalty in cousin marriages. Henry VII married his 3rd cousin Elizabeth of York. Her grandfather had married his 2nd cousin and got papal dispensation and so on. This was the whole point of the white and red Tudor Rose.

    I am thinking for the top 1% in England, the Gentry tried to marry close to the local Nobility and Nobility tried to marry close to higher Nobility or Royalty. The Catholic canon law gave the papal authority veto power over the kind of alliances that could be formed by the political class.

    I say this because some of the names given in the text cited appear to be from the Gentry/Nobility. The Ask(e) and Conyers families in Yorkshire were landed gentry. The Hiliard c. Hiliard Yorkshire case of 1370 was probably Lord John Hildyard who married his 4th cousin Catherine Hildyard. But, the canon at the time allowed 4th cousin marriages. So, why were they picked out?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consanguinity#Religious_and_traditional_law

    I suspect selective enforcement since the examples given by the author were more high born which the author does not seem to notice. On the other hand, I think the many of the Gentry also married down with the more successful portion of the yeomanry (or artisan class) forming Gregory Clark’s “strivers”.

    So, the medieval top 1% might be >20% of an average European’s ancestry today. But, I am not confident in the authors coverage of how well the canon law affected the poorer medieval folk.

    Perhaps there was more consanguinity among the below average folk and that decreased fitness further?

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  7. @andrew – “I am not confident in the authors coverage of how well the canon law affected the poorer medieval folk.”

    both worby (above) and charles donahue, jr. — whose tome on medieval law and marriage in england and northern france/the low countries runs to 696 pages! — seem convinced that the lower and middle classes were, indeed, pretty observant of the cousin marriage bans in these regions. smaller studies as well — like judith bennett’s — indicate the same.

    plus the fact that, as you point out, the ecclesiastical authorities were picking on people married to their fourth cousins indicates that that’s the degrees we’re talking about here. the issues aren’t with first or second cousin marriages (which half the population in saudi arabia today engages in), but with fourth cousin marriages. fourth starts to be pretty distant genetically, and probably has little — or, rather, the reverse — effect when it comes to inclusive fitness and the selection for certain types of altruism genes (genes for “familial altruism” for instance).

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  8. So the canon law puts pressure to deselect genes for familial altruism in medieval England. My point is that the canon law may not have been applied evenly.

    The aristocracy was under social pressure to marry up and the fewer choices pushed them to marry cousins more often and they often received papal dispensation.

    The lower classes I doubt that there were any records to prove/disprove whether a couple were say 3rd cousins. Perhaps the lack of mobility may have made a 3rd cousin marriage more incidental. How would the authors verify this since there is a lack of primary source information other than the instance where a couple self-report their relation?

    The middle sort probably had land records that could be used to determine relation in a couple. So, the canon law had the greatest pressure to deselect genes for familial altruism on the middle sort.

    Medieval England was not homogeneous. Your blog does a good job of pointing to the evidence. East Anglia and Yorkshire had different populations when the canon law was applied.

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  9. @andrew – “My point is that the canon law may not have been applied evenly. The aristocracy was under social pressure to marry up and the fewer choices pushed them to marry cousins more often and they often received papal dispensation.”

    yes. and if anyone could’ve afforded to pay the costs for the dispensation, it would’ve been the aristocracy.

    but, again, if you look at the data in the table, you’ll see that there were exactly zero cases re. consanguineous marriages in the archdiocese of canterbury throughout the whole of of the 1200s, and only handfuls of cases in the other dioceses in the 1300s and 1400s — and these courts probably, like you suggest, covered mostly the upper AND the middle classes. certainly the upper classes could’ve afforded to buy dispensations, so maybe they were legally marrying their cousins left and right, but would the middle classes have been able to afford dispensations? probably not so much. you would think, then, if the middle classes had been actively marrying their cousins, there would’ve been many, many more cases brought before the courts during these centuries. but the cases are just not there.

    also, starting in the 1200s, the church required that you had your upcoming marriage in the church announced in the weeks before your wedding (the reading of the banns) in order that anyone who knew of any impediment could step forward [see jack goody]. this would’ve affected all classes. of course, you could get around that regulation by simply not marrying in the church (that was not required until the 1500s), but the pressures to avoid cousin marriage were obviously there on everybody.

    finally, smith et al. looked at the dispensation records for the mid-1500s in england and found exactly zero first cousin marriages and that 1% of the marriages were to second cousins. that’s a loooowww consanguinity rate. maybe that just suddenly happened in the 1500s, but i doubt it.

    edit: there were also secular laws, too — at least there were in the early medieval period (like the law of wihtred that i mentioned towards the end of the post). i’m not sure what they all were, however, or if there were any/many in the high middle ages. i need to look into those further.

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  10. But doesn’t Gregory Clark’s book A Farewell to Alms argue that most English people are descended from the aristocracy? If this is true then most English people must be closely related unless the English aristocracy numbered in the millions.

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  11. Maybe it would be useful to look at documentary evidence, archaeology, topography, etc. to learn about population mobility in England in the pre-medieval, medieval, and post-medieval [pre-industrial] eras. For example, long before turnpike roads, canals, and railways arrived there existed packhorse roads, drovers roads, former Roman roads, and there was also significant traffic along Britain’s river valleys and coasts. If there was already movement within and between regions of England as a result of internal trading patterns, presumably this would not preclude alliances or marriages between families or groups of villagers quite far apart? So that when the church banned cousin marriage it merely reinforced a pre-existing trend within the less isolated or moutainous regions of England? I don’t have any evidence to hand to back this up right now but it would be worth looking at. Also regional population densities might be worth investigating also.

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  12. “had the densest concentration of medieval roads..”

    When you think about it that’s actually a great metric for this.

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  13. @Andrew

    “My point is that the canon law may not have been applied evenly.”

    I think it works either way. Say the poorest part of the population got around it simply by not having church marriages and having common-law marriages instead by definition if it was the poorest part of the population it’s the part with the lowest reproductive success. Similarly say the aristocracy mostly remained close-marrying by paying the dispensation. You’re left with all the middling sorts – the yeoman farmers and artisans – the people with some money but not enough to waste on dispensations and who needed to be more “respectable” than the laborers to maintain their position.

    Even if it was 70% laborers ignoring the ban through common-law marriage, 10% aristos ignorign the ban through paying dispensations and only the remaining 20% artisans and yeomen following the ban if the laborer 70% only produced 50% of the next generation while the 10% aristos produced 20% of the next generation (with half marrying down into the artisans and yeomen) and the artisan 20% produced 30% of the next generation then over time you still get the same effect.

    (I think.)

    .

    @Joe Walker

    “But doesn’t Gregory Clark’s book A Farewell to Alms argue that most English people are descended from the aristocracy?”

    I think that’s more the spin that has been put on it. If you count up all the Smiths, Cooks, Tailors, Weavers etc then i think it’s plain it was the aristos *and* the artisan/yeoman castes that had differential reproductive success.

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  14. @chris – “‘Central and southern England, where the largest number of medieval towns were located, had the densest concentration of medieval roads..'”

    cool! that is neat. thanks!

    @grey – “When you think about it that’s actually a great metric for this.”

    yes. interconnectedness! i wonder what the roads looked like across the channel in ne france/the low countries/n+nw germany?

    this is neat:

    “While the perception of Saxon and medieval roads is of wide muddy spaces through which travellers picked their way looking for a dry path, various pieces of evidence demonstrate that rapid long-distance travel was commonplace. In 1066 Harolds’ army, for instance, returning from the Battle of Stamford Bridge, marched from York to London in a week or less, while all medieval kings and their large households routinely managed twenty miles a day moving from one residence to the next.”

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  15. @chris – “Maybe it would be useful to look at documentary evidence, archaeology, topography, etc. to learn about population mobility in England in the pre-medieval, medieval, and post-medieval [pre-industrial] eras…. If there was already movement within and between regions of England as a result of internal trading patterns, presumably this would not preclude alliances or marriages between families or groups of villagers quite far apart?”

    yes. that is very good thinking! thank you!

    Reply

  16. @grey – “If you count up all the Smiths, Cooks, Tailors, Weavers etc then i think it’s plain it was the aristos *and* the artisan/yeoman castes that had differential reproductive success.”

    that’s an awfully interesting idea, grey! have you just been keeping that under your hat, or what? (~_^) seriously though. hmmm….

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  17. “have you just been keeping that under your hat, or what?”

    No i thought it was plain and the aristo spin was just elite fluffing to sell the book :)

    In a world where 80% are labourers i’d have thought the artisan caste were more or less guaranteed *relative* reproductive success.

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  18. […] England: but what about the english? english individualism ii anglo-saxon mating patterns consanguinity in england – north vs. south more on consanguinity in england (and scotland) exogamous marriage in medieval england more on medieval england and france kinship in anglo-saxon society kinship in anglo-saxon society ii cousin marriage in 13th-15th century england […]

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