back in the saddle again! (it chafes a little….)

this post will be about the mating patterns of the medieval franks meaning the merovingian franks (no, not THAT guy!) and the carolingian franks, but mostly the merovingians. so we’re talking from between ca. 450 a.d. to ca. 800 a.d. (charlemagne died in 814), but i’ve got a little info from later in the period, too.

tl;dr at the end of the post. (^_^)

to refresh everybody’s memory, the heartland of the franks was austrasia which today is roughly part of ne france, belgium, part of the netherlands, luxembourg, and part of nw germany [map source]:


the franks conquered most of the rest of france and large parts of western germany and even northern italy over the course of the early medieval period, but austrasia and neustria (immediately to the west) remained the franks’ stronghold and the region over which they exercised the greatest influence and control.

so…what were their mating patterns like?

first and second cousin marriages were banned by the roman catholic church at the council of agde in 506 a.d. frankish church leaders appear to have adopted and pushed for the bans almost immediately, but the secular laws issued by the frankish kings in the 500s — the pactus legis salicae — did not ban cousin marriage. from The Laws of the Salian Franks (1991) [pgs. 41-42]:

“The Frankish laws contain little direct information about the institution of marriage. A legal marriage could be contracted between an adult freeman and an adult free woman (the laws do not set a minimum age), subject to the consent of their relatives and provided the two parties were not related within the prohibited bonds of relationship. The Frankish laws specifically prohibit marriage between an uncle and niece or grandniece (and so by implication between an aunt and nephew and grandnephew), or marriage with the former wife of a brother or of a mother’s brother (and by implication marriage with the former husband of a sister or with the former husband of a mother’s sister) (XIII, ii). Note here that the mother’s brothers and sisters were evidently held to be more closely related than the father’s brothers and sisters since it is marriage with the former spouse of mother’s brother or sister that is prohibited, not that of father’s brother or sister. Admittedly the church councils of Merovingian Gaul interpreted consangunity more broadly than here defined, but these added restrictions were not enforced in the civil courts, just as among the Franks neither Christian non-dissolubility of marriage nor monogamy was enforced in the courts. A late law issued by King Childebert in 594 provided death for the man who married his father’s wife (one of the very few instances for the death penalty in the code). In the case of marriages that had already taken place and now were designated incestuous (e.g., marriage with the wife of brother, or sister of wife, or wife of uncle), they were to be corrected by proclamation of the bishop. If this was ignored, the parties were to be excommunicated and their property passed to their relatives (Cap. VI, I, 2).

“As in the case of the other Germans, the offspring of a Frankish illegal marriage was illegitimate and could not inherit (XIII, ii). There are no provisions for the offspring of unions not recognized as marriage.”

so it was not illegal for people in francia to marry their cousins for most of the 500s. at this point in time, it’s not clear if the church could’ve enforced its cousin marriage ban. however, there is evidence to suggest that by the merovingian period, at least some marriages took place in a church and were consecrated by a priest. if so, church officials (priests, bishops) would definitely have had the opportunity to check for any relatedness between the bride and groom. from Culture and Religion in Merovingian Gaul: A.D. 481-751 (1995) [pg. 133]:

The picture which emerges from the sources is, then, of an episcopal benediction in the church, at the altar, as part of the marriage rite. Furthermore, there is enough evidence to support the assumption that this benediction was given during and as part of a special nuptial mass.”

and pgs. 136-137:

Matrimonial mass was, then, known and practised in Merovingian Gaul, although one cannot tell how often and under what circumstances. It could, after all, be a question of social status or relations with the bishop and his entourage. Since there is no evidence for a secular matrimonial ceremony, it seems more than probably that a religious one was held, about which we hear from the sources. Whether it was just an episcopal benediction or a full matrimonial mass is unknown. In light of the evidence I have already discussed, it seems to me more likely that a full mass was celebrated. More evidence, however, is needed to establish this with greater certainty….

Scholars are all agreed upon the fact that Christian marriage with a full celebration of a mass was practised during the Carolingian period. Nevertheless, the evidence from Merovingian Gaul suggests that Carolingian practices and reforms were deeply rooted in Merovingian developments. It is true that during the Carolingian age the christianisation of marriage reached a certain degree of completion. Yet, the Carolingians did not invent their rite *ex nihilo*, nor did they import it from Rome. They simply continued an already existing Merovingian practice, which they further developed and adapted to suit their needs and reforms.”

so, by the 600-800s, frankish marriages were most likely held in a church and, therefore, the clerics would’ve had a chance to enforce the church’s cousin marriage bans. this may also have been the case earlier in the 500s as well, but the situation is not as clear. in 755 at the council of verneuil, pepin the short declared that “all laymen should marry with public nuptials” [pg. 407].

however, st. boniface (boo!) was freaked out by the franks’ marriage habits — in particular what he viewed as their incestuous practices as well as their habit of committing adultery — and he lived between ca. 675 and 754, so it sounds as though the franks may still have, in actuality, been regularly marrying close cousins into the early 700s. from Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister, 500 to 900 (1981) [pgs. 75-76]:

“The marital customs he [st. boniface] observed among the Germanic tribes in general and among the Franks in particular troubled Boniface deeply. He sought advice from popes on the definition of adultery and incest. Gregory II answered him with a series of prescriptions on incest, and Pope Zachary sent Pepin excerpts from the *Dionysiana* on impediements to marriage. The church’s concept of incest was so broad, extending the prohibitions to the seventh degree of consanguinity, as well as to relationships by affinity and spiritual kinship, that it considerably restricted the capacity of aristocratic families to form extended alliances through marriage. Introduced into the Frankish councils by Boniface, the prescrptions were included by Pepin the Younger in the capitularies. As a further measure for exercising control over marriages, the national synod of Verneuil, over which Pepin presided, declared that ‘all men of the laity, whether noble or not, must marry publicly.’

“In an effort to eradicate all forms of incest, Boniface also concerned himself with extramarital fornication between relatives. Sexual intercourse before or after marriage with a relative of the spouse was held to constitute a bond of affinity similar to that arising from betrothal, marriage, baptism, or confirmation. Disregard for these bonds of affinity or for consanguinity, even in the case of casual intercourse, was considered a serious offense and disqualified the transgressors from marriage for the rest of their lives. Their punishment was lifelong penance, to which Charlegmange added confiscation of their property.”

not sure which capitulary this was in which pepin the younger (aka pepin the short) banned cousin marriage for the franks. if it was a capitula ecclesiastica, then all christians in the kingdom would’ve been obliged to follow the church’s cousin marriage bans. this would’ve been issued sometime between a.d. 752 and 768.

from “An Unsolved Riddle: Early Medieval Incest Legislation” in Franks and Alamanni in the Merovingian Period: An Ethnographic Perspective (1998), a collection of papers from an “historical archaeoethnological” conference [pgs. 109-110]:

In the course of the eighth century the Frankish campaign against incest gained momentum, aided by papal decrees and letters which began to circulate in the North (De Jong 1989:38-41). When it came to blood relations papal guidelines were more radical than Frankish episcopal and royal decrees, but in other respects — such as spiritual kinship — Rome and the Frankish leadership saw eye to eye right from the beginning. Letters sent from Rome to Boniface reveal an increasingly rigid papal position. Gregory II forbade all unions between blood relations and affinal kin (‘*quamdiu se agnoscunt affinitate propinquos*’), but permitted the recently converted a marriage ‘*post quartam generationem*’; his successor Gregory III withdrew any such privilege, assuring Boniface that marriage within the seventh *generatio* was out of the question….

“In practice…it did not make any difference whether one forbade marriage ‘until the seventh *generatio*’ (Gregory III), or proclaimed an unspecified ban on all kinswomen and affines (Gregory II). Both meant the same: marriage and kindred did not go together. Pope Zachary expressed this clearly in 743, stating that no Christians were permitted to marry if they were in any way related to each other (Werminghoff 1904:19-21). Avoidance of kin-marriage had become one of the defining criteria of Christianity….

by the 800s [pg. 120]:

By the ninth century, a marriage in the third *generatio* [i.e. second cousins – h.chick] had become scandalous, but the fourth generation remained a viable option, along with a whole range of more distant kin (Le Jan 1995:316-17). This pattern persisted well into the tenth and eleventh centuries.

and by the late 800s-900s [pg. 113]:

Occasionally, one catches a glimpse of clerics acting like something of a vice-squad, tracking down incestuous unions while traversing their diocese (De Jong 1989:52-3).

Bishops seem to have taken the campaign against incest seriously. Salomo III of Konstanz [d.919 – h.chick] wrote an enraged letter to his colleague Liutbert of Mainz, complaining that ‘people of good standing’ had told him that marriages in the fourth and fifth *generatio* were publicly celebrated in his (Salomo’s) diocese; some judicial probing had proved the accusation to be true. Salomo, insisting that fourth-generation unions should be broken up, viewed such practices as a direct onslaught on episcopal authority (Zeumer 1886:416). The significance of this letter is twofold. First, a bishop who kept a ‘clean’ diocese took good care to identify incestuous partners, especially when such unions had been publicaly celebrated. Second, there was no lack of ‘honest and God-fearing people’ willing to report on their neighbours, being quite able to identify illegitimate marriages when it suited them. Apparently the public scandal of incest could shake whole communities — which suggests that abhorrence of this crime was not merely a matter of the clergy and some pious aristocrats.

at the end of this article, there is a transcript of the round table discussion which took place after this paper was presented at the conference. i enjoyed this part [pg. 128 – link added by me]:

“DE JONG: The West seems to be the great exception, as appears from ‘Epouser au plus proche’ edited by Pierre Bonte, in which Guerreau-Jalabert’s article discusses preferred marriage with very distant kin (1984)….

“AUSENDA: The conclusion is that the West…

“DE JONG: …is an exception, the medieval West.”

there is also evidence from the ecclesiastical records that, by the 800s, questions surrounding consangunity issues in specific cases were related to more distant relatives than in earlier periods, so the cousin marriage bans were actually working. from Morality and Masculinity in the Carolingian Empire (2012) [pg. 267]:

In contrast to these cases [in the merovingian period], which concern relatively close relationships…most ninth-century cases we know of involve more distant relationships. Count Stephen enquired whether he could legitimately marry his fiancee, since he had a fourth-degree connection with her from a previous affair with her relative. Hincmar, excommunicating Fulcherus and Hardoisa, quoted prohibitions from Gregory II on marriage to one’s first cousin (*consobrina*) or to any relative or wife of a relative. Solomon II of Constance separated a couple related in the fourth and fifth degree, while in the early 860s Nicholas I confirmed the condemnation by an east Frankish synod of the noble Abbo for marrying a wife related to him in the fourth degree. There are also several references to cases involving spiritual kinship. The Council of Mainz in 888 anathematised Altmann for marrying his ‘spiritual co-mother’, while a letter of Pope John VIII discusses how Bishop Anselm of Limoges had demanded that a man separate from his wife, because he had performed the emergency baptism of his own son.

Combining this positive evidence of new incest restrictions being applied with the negative evidence for noble marriages to close kin, at least in the Frankish heartlands, suggests that while Carolingian incest provisions may not have removed endogamous marriage entirely, they did discourage its more blatant forms.

and wrt the 900s-100s, from Those of My Blood: Creating Noble Families in Medieval Francia (2011) [pgs. 43-44]:

“There is indeed evidence that many nobles were acutely sensitive to the question of incest when arranging a marriage. Faced with a choice between defying the church’s position and finding spouses to whom they were not related, the nobles of the tenth and eleventh centuries generally took the latter course. Blatantly consanguineous marriages rarely took place between about 900 and 1100, even when there were apparently strong inducements to arrange such matches. Rather than practicing endogamy, the nobles of this period almost never married anyone related more closely than a fourth or fifth cousin — that is, someone related within five or six degrees — and here it may be argued that they were simply unaware of their relationship. First-cousin marriages were unknown, and the few second- and third-cousin marriages usually ended in divorce when the couples involved could no longer tolerate the general opprobrium….”

and there are indications that this was also true of the lower classes, already by charlemagne’s day (ca. early 800s) — from Daily Life in the Age of Charlemagne (2002) [pg. 58]:

[T]here is evidence that the Carolingian family in peasant settings married not only outside the kinship group, but outside the immediately marriageable estate group. There was some movement of males from one estate to another, and the evidence suggests that frequently the newcomers had better luck marrying, while some of the marriageable males in their own estate remained unmarried.”


the church banned first and second cousin marriage in europe in 506 a.d., and frankish clerics seem to have wanted to enforce those bans right away, but they may not have been able to. in probably the 750s, the frankish king banned cousin marriage in the kingdom and demanded that marriage ceremonies be carried out in public, most likely in a church. by the 800s, second cousin marriages amongst the franks were considered “scandalous.” bishops actively enforced the bans in their dioceses and neighbors willingly squealed on their cousin-marrying neighbors to the bishops. by the 800s-1000s, there is good evidence that both the frankish aristocracy and the lower classes avoided close cousin marriage. (the frankish aristocracy began to ignore the cousin marriage bans in later centuries.)

across the channel, the law of wihtred from 690 — a secular law — also banned close cousin marriages for the people of the kentish kingdom. (there were close ties between the frankish and kentish kingdoms, btw — marriages happened between the two royal houses, etc.) this is slightly earlier — by about 60 years — than the frankish secular decree against cousin marriage, but they are nearly contemporary, imho.

these areas — austrasia and southeastern england — represent the center of “The Outbreeding Project” in europe which began in the early medieval period. these are the populations — along with possibly the danes and the northern italians? (i’ll let you know as soon as i know!) — that began avoiding close cousin marriage the earliest and have continued the practice for the longest — ca. 1200-1300 years or ca. 48-52 generations (counting generations conservatively as 25 years in length). these are my “core europeans” who, i promise you, i will talk about some more here on the blog.


previously: what about the franks? and more on medieval england and france

(note: comments do not require an email. coronation of pepin the short.)