happy council of agde day!

september 10, 506 — 1,508 years ago today — was the final day of the council of agde, a meeting of bishops from all over what was then the visigothic kingdom in southern france (and spain, too, obviously). the council was headed by caesarius of arles and held at the basilica of st. andrew. (don’t know on which day the council was convened — sometime in late august.) the church is still there, btw!:


an interesting little sidenote is that the visigoths at the time were still arians, so this meeting of bishops really related to, and would’ve affected only, the gallo-roman population of the region. in fact, the bishops were all very much gallo-romans themselves!

anyway, the council issued numerous canons, one of which forbade marriage to first and second cousins. this is the earliest official cousin marriage ban by the church that i know of, although st. augustine of hippo (d.430) certainly discussed at length in his The City of God (early fifth century) how it would be a good thing if christians were to marry out, a theme that st. aquinas would later pick up on.

people often ask me: “so why did the church get it into its head to ban cousin marriage, hbd chick?”

i. don’t. know. (*^_^*)

as i said above, this is the earliest official ban against cousin marriage from church authorities that we know of. what possessed the gallo-roman bishops at agde to do so, i have no idea. bishop caesarius was certainly an interesting fellow though. for instance, he thought that all priests and bishops (and nuns) ought to live austere lives like monks, and he actually instituted that policy in his own disocese, so i suspect that he was one of these guys who really did want to recreate god’s kingdom here on earth as much as possible, and he seems to have practiced what he preached.

caesarius’ teacher was one julianus pomerius, and his teacher was st. augustine, so here we have a direct line from augustine — who thought that christians ought to marry out — to caesarius and his council issuing this marriage canon. the funny thing is, though, augustine’s teacher was st. ambrose (d.397) who also had some things to say about cousin marriage — in fact, it was apparently he who recommended to theodosius i (d.395) to issue a secular ban against cousin marriage in the empire (theodosius did, but it didn’t stick — theodosius ii rescinded the ban). funnily enough, ambrose, like caesarius, was also from gaul (trier), so we come nearly full circle with these connections.

i suspect that the idea of avoiding cousin marriage was somehow a roman idea which was familiar to these early, urbanized, roman (or romanized) church leaders, one which they began to utilize when they encountered all these clannish barbarians (in gaul and in north africa, for example) and, as christopher burd put it on twitter, uncivilized, inbreeding country “hicks” in general. my guess is that they were trying to come up with a way to get rid of all the clannish infighting — and their plan just happened to work MUCH better than they ever imagined.

what i don’t understand — and what i need to find out more about — is how the early medieval church functioned. how the hierarchy worked and how the issuing of rules and regulations happened.

i’ve read a little about this council of agde now, and the historians i’ve read describe it as a “national” council — their scare quotes, not mine — since, unlike one of the huge church councils such as nicaea, the bishops who attended agde were only local — just from the areas in southern france held by the visigoths. what i want to know is, were the canons issued at agde binding everywhere then, or just in southern france there? could bishops in southern italy or ireland or constantinople just say, oh h*ck, we’re not going to follow those silly canons, or were they obliged to? or did canons issued by “national” councils need to be approved by rome first? i have no idea. Further Research is RequiredTM.

if canons issued by local councils only applied locally, that might explain why cousin marriage appears to have continued for some time after 506, like among the franks, for instance, who were just a stone’s throw away in northern france (until they took over the visigothic kingdom!), but who don’t seem to have taken these cousin marriage bans seriously until something like the 700s.

we do know, though, that rome was definitely behind the cousin marriage bans by the late sixth-early seventh centuries. augustine of canterbury (d.604) was sent in 595 to convert the anglo-saxons in england by pope gregory the great. he wrote to pope gregory in a panic asking what he should do about all the cousin marriage among the anglo-saxons, to which gregory replied that the newly converted should be allowed to remain married to their cousins, but going forward, NO cousin marriage.

how and when hq back in rome began backing this idea remains to be discovered.

anyway…happy council of agde day to you all! (^_^)

(note: comments do not require an email. 12th-century reliquary of caesarius of arles.)


  1. Fascinating. I’m glad to see you doing some historical research that isn’t directly related to measuring cousin marriage rates for once, hbdchick!


  2. people often ask me: “so why did the church get it into its head to ban cousin marriage, hbd chick?”

    i. don’t. know. (*^_^*)

    Do you reject the idea that it was just a power grab; a means to disrupt traditional authority that competed with the church?


  3. @ihtg – “I’m glad to see you doing some historical research that isn’t directly related to measuring cousin marriage rates for once, hbdchick!”

    i can do more if you like! (but you might wanna be careful what you wish for…. =P )


  4. @anon2 – “Do you reject the idea that it was just a power grab; a means to disrupt traditional authority that competed with the church?”

    i don’t reject it entirely, no. i’m sure that was part of the motivation — or even all of the motivation — in many places and times. and the secular powers, too, were involved — sometimes to curb the powers of clans, othertimes to scupper the marriage/alliance plans of their rivals. but i do think that some of these early church fathers were really the idealists that they appear to be, and this idea to insist on outbreeding seems to have originated with them, even though others after them may have had different, more selfish reasons for promoting the idea.


  5. An interesting thing to look at is whether other powers have tried to ban cousin marriage in the ancient/medieval past. If so, comparing/contrasting these might shed some insight.


  6. Perhaps cousin marriages led to money and land being held tightly in families, and out-marriage made it more likely that money or assets would be left to the church?


  7. hbd chick

    I didn’t mean that I thought power grab was a bad thing. I guess the phrase has bad connotations. I think it just depends on who’s grabbing the power and what they do with it.
    I agree with you about the idealists. I know of no reason to not believe that most of them were righteous people whose intent was to propagate the faith.


    No doubt there were opportunists for which accumulation of wealth in the hands of the church (themselves) was a prime mover.
    I lean toward the idea that this just turned out to be a side benefit. Even the righteous would have rationalized that wealth accumulation by the church was for the common good in that it would facilitate the propagation of the faith.

    Much like to today. Righteous people believe in the confiscation of private property for the benefit of the common good.

    You could even say that the church was just trying to introduce diversity to the in-breds for their own good. Just like the powers that be are doing today.


  8. A “national” council’s authority would then (and still is now) limited to the “nation”; as I understand it. Decrees made by the council are only binding within the territory of the council, and can be overruled by the Pope or an ecumenical council. Many of the decisions of councils and synods are administrative in nature, but matters of faith and morals were decided locally by provincial and national synods, especially in the past.


  9. One can read Jesus’s commands in the gospels as creating a new tribe of his followers (as opposed to the more modern reading that he was abolishing tribes – little support for that). I certainly hold to it myself. Change was slow, however, even in highly-mobile Mediterranean trade networks, and people still tended to marry in-house. Anything that would reduce the intensity of clan loyalty – often the Church’s main competitor for a believer’s attention – would likely make transfer of loyalty easier. Money and property wouldn’t have to enter into it, though such things get noticed pretty quickly. It could just be part of a general policy of loosening one’s hold on this world. Cf. Luther’s sentiment even a thousand years later “Let goods and kindred go; This mortal life also.”

    As for the bishops, think “spheres of influence,” a practice that has not entirely died out even among Catholics.


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