the importance of the kindred in anglo-saxon society

update 10/24: see bottom of post.

this will be my last post on the anglo-saxons for a while. i promise! the following comes from some notes on anglo-saxon kindreds and feuds that have been hanging around on my desktop for a while now, and since i recently had a couple of posts related to the anglo-saxons (see here and here), i thought i may as well share these as well.

in America 3.0, bennett and lotus say [pg. 51]:

The English are descended from the Germanic conquerors who brought to England the ‘integrated nuclear family,’ in which nuclear families formed separate households, but stayed close to their relatives for mutual cooperation and defense. These people were illiterate, so we have no written records from those times, and we cannot know precisely how they organized their family life. But what we do know for sure is that over time the original Germanic family type developed into the ‘Absolute Nuclear Family,’ or ‘ANF,’ which we have today. It appears that the family type we have now has existed for about a thousand years.”

i haven’t actually read anything about the family type(s) of either the continental angles and saxons or the early anglo-saxons in england, but i’ll take bennett and lotus’ word for it. however, later in the book they go on to say about the saxons [pg. 75]:

“They traced their lineages through both the male and female line. This prevented clans or extended families from forming and becoming exclusive, as happens when lineage is traced solely through the male line. As a result extended families or clans did not have collective legal rights, or any recognized political role.

while it is correct that the germanics had bilateral kinship and, so, didn’t have strong patrilineal clans (like the irish or the scots), as i’ve discussed in previous posts (see here and here), the germanics did have kindreds which were VERY important socially AND, crucially, legally. this very much includes the anglo-saxons in early medieval england.

in early anglo-saxon england, if you were injured or killed by another person, your kindred — your closest family members on both sides of your family, probably out to second cousins — were obliged to take up a blood feud against the offending party’s kindred if you/they were not compensated by the other kindred for your injury/murder in the form of wergeld payments. this was your kindred’s legal right — their duty, in fact, since this was how order was maintained in that clannish society. (vengeance feuds have been, and still are, a common solution to keeping order in clannish societies all around the world and throughout history. unfortunately, if the feuding gets out of hand, that can, of course, lead to disorder.)

from “The Kentish Laws” in The Anglo-Saxons from the Migration Period to the Eighth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective (1997) [pgs. 214-216]:

Large sections of the Kentish laws [all dating from the 600s] (as, in particular, the largest part of the law-code of Aethelberht) are devoted to the condition of feud which came to exist between the kindred of a man (killed, wounded, wronged, or robbed) and that of the man responsible (for the killing, wounding, wrongdoing, or stealing). Kindreds were to take charge of reparation and they could (with a few exceptions, for example, when the conflict was too close in blood-line) arrange either for vengeance or for the payment of compensation to the kin of the killed. Material compensation requited woundings and offences. The reparation (expressed by the Old English verbs *forgildan*, ‘to pay for’ and *gebetan*, ‘to amend’), is meant to recover the lost equilibrium and to maintain the *frid*, ‘peace’.

“The complex system of wergild, with its different levels, which were fixed in relation to the status of the offended person, is strictly connected with feud. Payment could be made in one or more installments: the *healsfang*, which was the first payment of the wergild (that is, the first twenty shillings of the hundred-shilling wergild of a freeman), must be paid *aet openum graefe*, ‘when the grave is still open’. All the details of the feud were regulated by law, which fixed the amount of composition and the time-schedule for payment.

“Two different opinions have been put forwards as regards Anglo-Saxon legislation concerning feud. According to some scholars the kinship system appears to have been made the subject of such a large amount of legislation because it did not work: the chapters of the laws concerned with feud, in all its aspects and details, testify to an increasing failure of family concern (cf. Bridbury 1992). Other scholars have expressed the opinion that feud maintained its importance and vitality well beyond the seventh century. The bond of kinship was undeniably very important in Anglo-Saxon society and the support of the kindred was needed in all aspects of a man’s life: ‘kinship remained immensely strong in ordinary social life’ (Loyn 1974:199); at the same time, however, a strong state-authority soon developed. Kinship appears to be still powerful in the laws of Aethelberht and in those of Hlothhere. If a homicide departed from the country, his kindred were responsible for paying half the wergild (Aebt. 23)….

In the later legal codes it becomes evident that the law attempted to control feud, as the higher authority of the king attempted to exercise some of the power that the kin used to enjoy. As for the Church, it encouraged settlements by composition rather than ‘vendetta’. Bede tells of the role of Theordore of Canterbury in the settlement of the feud between Mercians and Northumbrians after the killing of King Ecgfrith’s brother, Aelfwine. At the same time, the penitentials stressed the negative side of killing, including that perpetrated by a kinsman carrying out a vendetta. In the Penitential of Theodore we read: ‘Si quis pro ultione propinqui hominem occiderit peniteat sicut homicida VII vel X annos’ (If a man slays another one to avenge a relative, he shall do penance as a murderer for seven or ten years).”

so extended families in early anglo-saxon society most definitely had “collective legal rights” — and duties!

and don’t misunderstand this wergeld payment thing. it wasn’t just a whip round that happened within one kindred with the collected cash being passed over to a representative of the other kindred. no. it’s likely that EACH member of the offender’s kindred went and physically paid his corresponding member in the victim’s kindred — paternal uncle would pay paternal uncle, maternal first cousin would pay maternal first cousin, and so on (that’s how wergeld payments happened in iceland anyway and, so it’s supposed, in the other germanic societies). THAT’s how important an individual’s kindred was. in the event of (serious) bodily injury or a killing, TWO WHOLE kindreds would be involved in the resolution.

in Kindred and clan in the Middle Ages and after: a study in the sociology of the Teutonic races (1913), bertha phillpotts argued that kindreds had more or less disappeared in england by the 600-700s, but most historians since phillpotts’ time (except for bridbury above) — like lorraine lancaster — put the date later at around ca. 1000 or 1100. this is the earliest point in anglo-saxon law tracts in which the law allows for an individual’s guild rather than kindred to be the recipient of wergeld payments — or the executor of a feud. this is a monumental shift in thinking (and feeling) in anglo-saxon society, afaiac — this is THE change from anglo-saxon society being based upon the extended family to english society being based upon friends and associates. this is HUGE.

anglo-saxon and other early medieval kings (like the frankish kings in bavaria) tried throughout the early medieval period to dampen the power of the kindreds, especially the feuding, since all that fighting seriously gets in the way of building a productive society. in the 900s, edmund i, for instance, attempted to restrict vengeance feuding to just the individual rather than whole kindreds — he issued a law exempting the kindred members from feuds if they abandoned their troublemaking kinsman [pgs. 39-40]. it was worth a shot, but probably didn’t much diminish the kindreds’ desires for revenge:

“[T]hese very efforts or aspirations reveal counter-pressures, the continuing use of violent self-help motivated by vengenance, the continuing involvement of kin and others. There must have been resistance, unconscious and conscious, to the extension of royal authority.”

indeed, feuds continued in england throughout at least the 1000s. what changed, though, was who took up the feuds — the gegildan, or the unrelated friends/associates of an individual who were his fellow oath takers. the gegildan appears in some of the anglo-saxon laws in the late-800s as an alternative group of people to whom wergeld might be paid if the wronged individual had no kin. by the 900s, though, in southern england, the gegildan might be the only group that received wergeld, bypassing kin altogether. from Wage Labor and Guilds in Medieval Europe [pgs. 39-42]:

“The laws of King Alfred of Wessex, dated to 892-893 or a few years earlier, are more informative about the *gegildan*. Again, the context is murder and the wergild — the compensation required for the crime. By Alfred’s time, if not during Ine’s, the *gegildan* is clearly a group of associates who were not related by blood. The clearest example of this is in chapter 31 of the laws: ‘If a man in this position is slain — if he has no relatives (maternal or paternal) — half the wergild shall be paid to the king, and half to the *gegildan*.’ No information exists on the purpose of the *gegildan* other than its role as a substitute for kinship ties for those without any relatives. These associates, who presumably were bound together by an oath for mutual protection, if only to identify who was responsible, would benefit anyone, whether the person had relatives or not…. Although the evidence from the laws of Ine may be read either way, the *gegildan* seems to be an old social institution. As seen more clearly in the tenth and eleventh centuries, it acquired additional functions — a policing role and a religious character.

“The nobles, clergy, and commoners of London agreed upon a series of regulations for the city, with the encouragement and approval of King Athelstan, who caused the rules to be set down some time in the late 920s or 930s. The primary purpose of these ordinances was to maintain peace and security in the city, and all those supporting these goals had solemnly pledged themselves to this *gegildan*. This type of inclusive guild, sometimes referred to as a peace guild, was an attempt to create one more additional level of social responsibility to support the king and his officials in keeping the peaces. This social group of every responsible person in London is a broad one, and the law does not use the term *gegildan* to describe the association in general….

“The idea of a guild to keep the peace was not limited to London, and a document from the late tenth century contains the rules and duties of the thegn‘s guild in Cambridge. This guild appears to have been a private association, and no king or noble is mentioned as assenting to or encouraging this group. Most of the rules concern the principle purposes of this guild — the security of the members, which receives the most attention, and the spiritual benefits of membership itself. The guild performed the tasks of the old *gegildan*: the members were obliged to defend one another, collect the wergild, and take up vengeance against anyone refusing to pay compensation. The members also swore an oath of loyalty to each other, promising to bring the body of a deceased member to a chosen burial site and supply half the food for the funeral feast. For the first time, another category of help was made explicit — the guild bound itself to common almsgiving for departed members — and the oath of loyalty the members swore included both religious and secular affairs. Although in many respects this guild resembles a confraternity along the lines Hincmar established for the archdiocese of Rheims, the older purpose of the group — mutual protection with its necessary threat of vengeance — makes the Anglo-Saxon guild something more than a prayer meeting. To include almsgiving to members in distress would be a small step, given the scope of activities this guild established. There is no sign that the thegns cooperated in any economic endeavors, but older rules of rural society had already determined methods of sharing responsibility in the villages, and the thegns cooperated on everything that was important in their lives. The thegns of Cambridge had a guild that resembles in some important ways the communal oath, that will be discussed below, of some Italian cities in the next century.”

fantastically, by the twelfth century it appears that many of the terms related to the feud were not understood and no longer really used by legal scholars and scribes [pg. 43]. in the space of about three hundred years, then — from the 900s to the 1100s — feuding in southern england seems to have gone from a regular activity engaged in by relatives, to something that a group of friends might do for one another, to eventually pretty much dying out altogether [pgs. 49-52]. but not in wales. or northern england:

What is also clear, however, is that by the twelfth century, and perhaps before, England was perceived as an area of particular peace. Authors contrasted such peace with the disorder of other areas. Writing at the end of the twelfth century, Gerald of Wales commented on the Welsh greed for land, stating that ‘law-cases in court and quarrels result, killings and arson, and frequent fratricides’, a situation he thought was made worse by the custom of partible inheritance.

“Can we tell if perception corresponded with reality? There is certainly a strong case to be made that the core of the English king’s lands differed in their practices from the periphery, most notably Northumbria. The violent dispute narrated by the ‘De obsessione’ may be the product of particular circumstances rather than a rare survival of a more general English pheonomenon. At the highest level of Northumbrian society, killing certainly was more frequent than elsewhere in England. It has been pointed out that ‘of the fourteen men to rule part or all of Northumbria between 993 and 1076, nine were killed, four had an unknown fate, and only one, Earl Siward, is thought to have died from natural causes.’ As John of Worcester’s account of the killing of Bishop Walcher of Durham in 1080 makes clear, the death of even post-Conquest rulers of Northumbria took place in a context of insult, killing, negotiation, and vengeance. If Northumberland was different, various explanations can be offered, from its geography and economy to the lack of royal presence and the conflicts between the earls and those responsible for Yorkshire.

“Difference from practices in Celtic lands may have existed well before the time of Gerald of Wales. ‘Domesday’ records the following custom under Archenfield of Herefordshire:

“‘If anyone kills one of the king’s men and commits housebreaking [*heinfaram*], he give the king 20s concerning payment for the man and 100s concering the wrong. If anyone kills a thegn’s man, he gives 10s to the dead man’s lord. But [*quod*] if a Welshmand kills a Welshman, the relatives of the slain man gather and despoil [*predantur*] the killer and his associates [*propinquos*] and burn their houses until the body of the dead man is buried the next day about noon. The king has the third part of this plunder, but they have all the rest free.’

Feud in Wales would continue beyond the twelfth century.

and in highland scotland until the 1500s. and in ireland in the form of “faction fighting” until the 1700- and early-1800s.

so, even though they may have been living in nuclear family units, early anglo-saxons were very much tied to their extended families (kindreds) legally — and, presumably, socially — and those ties didn’t dissipate until around ca. 1000-1200, some six to eight hundred years after they settled in england. i have my own ideas as to why that was — and most of you know what they are, so i won’t repeat them now (you’re welcome! (~_^) ). a couple of important things to keep in mind, though:

– family types must be looked at in context — for instance, just because a group lives in nuclear family units does not necessarily mean that its members don’t have strong ties with their extended family;

– kinship ties are not broken quickly and certainly not via laws that only address the superficial symptoms of those ties (like feuds) — the fundamentals must be changed (and those fundamentals are mating patterns, i think … sorry! couldn’t resist saying it. (^_^) )

*update 10/24: i meant to say in the post, and i forgot (typical), that bennett and lotus acquired a lot of their info about — and have based much of their thinking on — anglo-saxon family types and the importance of the nuclear familiy in anglo-saxon society from f.w. maitland‘s historical work on english law.

i haven’t read maitland, so i can’t comment on any of it, but i will do one of these days and will no doubt post about it. if you want to get a head start on me, check out these sources (h/t michael lotus – thanks, michael!):

F.W. Maitland And The Making Of The Modern World [pdf] from alan macfarlane.
The History of English Law before the Time of Edward I, 2 vols. [1898] by pollack and maitland. see vol II, ch VI, first 10 pgs re the kindred per michael lotus.

previously: the anglo-saxons and america 3.0 and the saxons, the anglo-saxons, and america 3.0 and medieval germanic kindreds…and the ditmarsians and more on medieval germanic kindreds and kinship in anglo-saxon society and kinship in anglo-saxon society ii

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



  1. The ‘Irish Travellers’ seem to be an (the only?) indigenous British Isles population that maintains the custom of kinship feuding. There have been a couple recent cases of such murders in my local part of London. The men kill each other, never women, and not normally non-Travellers, as far as I can tell.
    I guess criminal gang wars such as among the Italian mafia are very often essentially kinship feuds. ‘Organised crime’ seems to be essentially ‘family crime’. By contrast youth ‘street gangs’ have a kinship element but seem to be organised more as bruderbonds/warrior societies that depend much less on relatedness.


  2. Medieval Welsh Galanas (Weregild) was payable out to the fifth cousin, on both sides, including females at a rate of half the males. The amount to be contributed halved with each degree of relatedness. Reckoning 5th cousins as responsible members of the family suggests a rather strong clan system to me. In a small community of a few hundred people or even 100 hearths, the chances must get strong that the payers and receivers of Galanas would be the same people, albeit in different degrees. You would have to be very inbred for it to be otherwise.


  3. @philip – “Reckoning 5th cousins as responsible members of the family suggests a rather strong clan system to me.”

    yes, i think that is probably right. by all accounts, early medieval/medieval wales sounds very much like the irish/highland scots societies of the same time periods — iow, very clannish. literally clan-based.


  4. @simon – “I guess criminal gang wars such as among the Italian mafia are very often essentially kinship feuds.”

    oh, yeah! very much so. the sopranos — and the godfather movies — were really very accurate (in many ways).

    @simon – “‘Organised crime’ seems to be essentially ‘family crime’.”

    staffan had a very interesting post about this not that long ago. (^_^)


  5. Given a system of weregild, it would seem that family members should have the right to veto marriages. If your sister or brother marries someone with a bad temper, then the resulting nephews could end up costing you a lot of weregild. A related question, how many degrees of relatedness would have veto rights over a marriage?


  6. awesome data-nuke there :)


    Simon in London
    “By contrast youth ‘street gangs’ have a kinship element but seem to be organised more as bruderbonds/warrior societies that depend much less on relatedness.”

    Yes, i was wondering if that might have been the origin of these “gegildan.”


  7. @jm – “…how many degrees of relatedness would have veto rights over a marriage?”

    good question! i have absolutely no idea — or if that was the case at all.

    patrizia lendinara says of the early anglo-saxons in kent [pg. 216 – see previous post] that:

    “This is one of the fields where the control of the kindred remained stable: the kinsmen arranged marriage and, after the wedding, continued to watch over the woman.”

    but she doesn’t elaborate on which kinsmen she’s talking about.

    i shall have to see if i can find out anything more about this. one thing is for certain, with the arrival of christianity, the church instituted regulations stipulating that no one should have a say in who marries whom except the individuals getting married. this was, in fact, one of the main objections that martin luther and the germans had that brought on their reformation: medieval german parents very much WANTED to have a say re. who their kids married.


  8. @grey – “awesome data-nuke there :)”

    ka-boom! (~_^)

    michael lotus seems to be of the opinion that this whole kindred business didn’t really matter because it wasn’t a legal entity that could own property (there’s been a parallel discussion running on twitter).

    i don’t buy that, of course. if people are attached to their extended families due to innate behavioral traits, they’re going to behave accordingly (i.e. NOT like individualistic-collectivistic english/dutch people), irregardless of who’s owning property.


  9. “michael lotus seems to be of the opinion that this whole kindred business didn’t really matter because it wasn’t a legal entity that could own property”

    before da polis you couldn’t own property without a kindred – cos someone would take it off you


  10. In insisting on individual rather than clan decisions for marriage, the RCC had some support from the teachings of Jesus and the early church. It is not so much noticed in our clan-less societies of the Anglosphere, but much of NT teaching is “leave the clan/tribe of your birth and change your loyalty to the voluntary clan of the Church, which draws from any people.” That it may have also had convenient reasons of increasing its power by weakening clan strength is certainly also possible. That’s sort of what human beings do, and even deeply-felt religion often takes a long time to change a society’s culture.

    The rom-com plot favorite from the C of E wedding ceremony was “If anyone know why these two should not be wed, let him speak now…” I had always thought of that as put in there to prevent bigamy, and perhaps for more general objections if they were serious enough. But its main function may have been the enforcement of church laws against cousin marriage.

    When I took Beowulf and OE as an undergrad, much was made of the wergild discussion, with the subtext that it was a primitive and barbaric practice which dared suggest that precious human life could be exchanged for mere cash. That the practice might be an enormous step forward, leading to even greater improvements in the King’s Peace, did not seem to enter into it. That it was a darn sight more humane than the practice of many current societies was also not mentioned.

    I liked Bridbury’s writing on the Black Death and the Peasant’s Revolt, so I would be kindly disposed to consider his other theories. But I did have to wonder, if he thought if the kinship system was failing because of the increase in legislation about it, what conclusions he might draw about any number of government endeavors in the 21st C.


  11. @avi – “I liked Bridbury’s writing on the Black Death and the Peasant’s Revolt, so I would be kindly disposed to consider his other theories.”

    oh, right! i’ll have to check him out. i haven’t read what he had to say about anglo-saxon kinship. the referenced book of his is: The English Economy from Bede to the Reformation, which is not available on google books — and if it’s not available on google books, i probably haven’t read it. (~_^) i will put it on The List, though.

    @avi – “When I took Beowulf and OE as an undergrad, much was made of the wergild discussion, with the subtext that it was a primitive and barbaric practice which dared suggest that precious human life could be exchanged for mere cash. That the practice might be an enormous step forward, leading to even greater improvements in the King’s Peace, did not seem to enter into it. That it was a darn sight more humane than the practice of many current societies was also not mentioned.

    yeah, absolutely! you can see how the whole wergild system would put pressure on individuals to NOT do something stupid. i mean, you’d get your whole extended kindred p*ssed off at you, ’cause they’d be liable for your actions (along with you)! unless they really felt you were justified, they might take it out on YOU after they paid the wergild debt.

    my impression is that a lot of these anglo-saxon and germanic laws related to wergild amounts were ways of trying to cut out any arguing there might be about how much ought to be paid. i’m guessing that before the germanics wrote down their laws, there might’ve been a lot of “discussion” over who owed whom what amount. the various kings’ laws were attempts to eliminate that part of the dispute.

    i’d like to read beowulf again knowing what i know about anglo-saxon/early germanic society now. and by “read beowulf again” i mean read it — iirc, i think we just read a portion of it in high school.


  12. “Yes, i was wondering if that might have been the origin of these “gegildan.””

    Not sure that was clear – what i meant was the idea of gegildan originating from broderbund warrior-oaths made by the members of an associative rather than related raiding party as their way of replicating the bonds of relatedness. For example did viking ship’s crew do this before a voyage?


  13. […] and the dutch: – the anglo-saxons and america 3.0 – the saxons, the anglo-saxons, and america 3.0 – the importance of the kindred in anglo-saxon society – the transition from shame to guilt in anglo-saxon england (and “core” europe) – going dutch – […]


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