kinship in anglo-saxon society

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!)

so what about the anglo-saxons in early medieval england? well, wikipedia tells us that they used the sudanese kinship system. and from lorraine lancaster [I – pg. 237]:

“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

previously: english individualism and english individualism ii and english individualism iii and anglo-saxon mating patterns and more on anglo-saxon mating patterns

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this one’s for g.w.


from Ecological Sensitivity and Resistance of Cultures in Asia (southeast asia in particular) published in 1978(!):

“Ecological influences on culture have been demonstrated by several investigators. Many such studies have been done in Asia where two ecological niches extend over vast areas. One of these is the highland or mountainous territory 500 meters above sea level; the other consists of plains and plateaus under 500 meters….

“…The HRAF files were used to compare cultures in the highlands with those in the lowlands. The files indicate that certain items may be ecology sensitive (that is, more apt to change with ecologic shift). These include agricultural methods, sociopolitical organization and preferred marriage forms….

“Sociopolitical Organization. … Lowland societies had larger communities, larger states, more nonhereditary local head-men, complex social distinctions, and exogamy. More lowland [sic – should be upland] groups had small communities, small states, hereditary headmen, no exogamy, and less complex class distinctions.

“Family, Marriage and Kinship. … Eskimo/Hawaiian cousin terms corresponded to the quadrilateral/nonlateral cousin marriages found in lowland cultures. Iroquois/Omaha/Crow cousin terms were found in association with matrilineal/patrilineal cousin marriages in the highlands….”

eskimo kinship terms are the ones that we use in the anglo/western world, and the eskimo kinship system is a very generalized one — eg. we don’t distinguish between maternal or paternal cousins, they’re all just “cousins.” so lowland southeast asians have similar kinship terms to us — or they use the hawaiian system which is even more generalized — all your brothers and male cousins are just “brother” and all your sisters and female cousins are just “sister.”

the iroquois, omaha, and crow systems used by the uplanders are all more complex, each distinguishing cousins in different ways — but none of them are as complex as the sudanese system which is the one used in the arab world — and in china. and it used to be used by the anglo-saxons before the Big Change in kinship terms in medieval europe.


“As observed by previous students of southeast Asia, the most parsimonious explanation for these sociopolitical and marriage findings is the production of surplus food in the lowlands. Intensive agriculture favors both increased population density and increased total population. Communities become larger, nation states are formed, and kingship comes into existence. The cetripetal nature of kingship government probably accounts for nonhereditary local headmen replacing hereditary headmen. Surplus rice allows a money economy, towns, a priestly class, social stratification, teachers, and writing.

“Swidden agriculturists in the highlands, on the other hand, maintain simple social and political organization. Small groups migrate more easily, keeping themselves politically and socially intact during and after the move. Each family, even that of the village chief, must raise its own food. Class stratification is simple and large towns are nonexistent. There are part-time shamans, but no priestly class. Even though writing systems (such as Chinese ideography) are near at hand and readily usable, absence of surplus food and large communities obstruct the development of literacy. Such small autonomous communities, numbering between 50 and 400 persons, do not form nation states.

These data again demonstrate the political role of preferred marriage forms. Exogamy and lack of cousin marriage within large lowland nation-states aid in uniting disparate clans and villages. By contrast, the absence of exogamy and the presence of preferred cousin marriage intensify relationships within the small upland social units. Among both societies, the preferred marriage types comprise a social strategy that reinforces the political organization of the group.


i wonder if these se asian “swidden agriculturalists” are/were also pastoralists (since cousin marriage and pastoralism seem to go together — see the arab world), or if just living in a marginal — and remote — upland environment is enough to push a group towards inbreeding, irregardless of whether one’s group is pastoralist or agriculturalist?

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