if i understand their argument correctly, bennett and lotus are proposing that the anglo-saxon absolute nuclear family — and the sort-of individual-based society that goes along with it — has distant roots stretching back to the pre-christian germans on the continent. they do say that there were obviously some changes to the anglo-saxon family type after the germanics arrived in (what would become) england — basically that the anglo-saxon nuclear family became even more nuclear over the course of the medieval period. but, by and large, they believe that there is a very long cultural continuity of family types and societal structures going all the way back to the early germans and that these cultural traditions are what made the anglo world pretty d*rn great.
based upon my readings over the last couple of years (feel free to flip through the “english” section in the “mating patterns in europe series” below ↓ in left-hand column), i think that bennett and lotus have got it pretty right. the anglo-saxon world IS exceptional (and, no, no one in my extended family can take ANY credit for that) — this exceptionalism has got to do with the structures of anglo-saxon society, very much so the fundamental family structures — and the development of these structures does go back to the pre-christian continental germans. HOWEVER, i think that bennett and lotus have missed some details — details which throw off the timing of their argument somewhat. for instance, as i pointed out in my last post on the book, they missed out entirely on the importance of the kindred in early germanic society, thus over-estimating the importance of the nuclear family at that point in time. early germanic society wasn’t composed of very tightly knit clans, but neither was it made up of truly independent nuclear families. the early germans were very much tied to their kindreds — including the anglo-saxons in early medieval england up to at least 1000 a.d. (see previous post).
whatever made the anglo-saxons finally give up on their extended families (the kindreds) happened after they got to england (although they may already have been primed for it). the kindred seems to be truly gone in england (at least in the south/southeast) by about 1200 a.d., the evidence suggesting that it was on its way out by at least ca. 1000 a.d. so, sometime between their arrival in the 400s-600s and 1200, something happened which resulted in the disappearance of the anglo-saxon kindred (and germanic kindreds on the continent, too, btw — but not all the germanic kindreds).
in this post, i want to nit-pick about another point that bennett and lotus made about the pre-christian germans on the continent [pg. 75]:
“They owned property individually, not communally, and not as families. Adult children and parents had separate and individual rights, not collective rights as a family.”
nope. as greying wanderer mentioned in the comments on the other post, this is incorrect.
here from “Jural Relations Among the Saxons Before and After Christianization” in The Continental Saxons from the Migration Period to the Tenth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective (2003) is giorgio ausenda on early saxon society on the continent. he’s drawing this information from the earliest written saxon laws. i’m quoting an extended bit here, since the first part includes an interesting description of how the early german kindred structure, including blood feuds, worked [pgs. 113-114]:
“There was no overarching structure with executive power in that society [pre-carolingian continental saxon society], even when stratified as in the case of the Saxons. There were no permanent ‘tribal chiefs’, but only heads of clans with little if any restraining power; the containment of violence was a private matter based on fear of retaliation between like corporate groups, i.e. ‘do not do onto others what you don’t want to be done to you’. The only restraining power the senior ‘elder’ of the group, which is also the etymological meaning of many terms for ‘chief’ all over the world, had was that of acting as an arbiter in an effort to reach consensus on compensations for murder or lesser injuries between contending parties belonging to different corporate groups under his jurisdiction; hence the Latin term *iudex* for such chiefs which were seen as acting mostly in legal palavers.
“Property did not concern land, as this belonged to the corporate group as a whole and was the object of raids and counterraids to keep neighbouring groups away, or even wars rather than legal transfers. Tools and weapons were considered individual property and, in many cases … when the owners died, buried with them…. The only transmissible property was livestock and, in general, its apportionment was fixed by custom: women obtained their customary marriage endowment and men started owning livestock after they were wedded. They inherited their part in proportion to the number of sons of their deceased father, as sons were the only manual labor available in simple societies and were engaged in herding and minding their extended family’s herds and flocks.”
the early saxons, then, did NOT have property — not transferrable real estate anyway. (we saw something similar in early medieval ireland, although in that case, it was clearly the patrilineal clan that held common ownership of land.) in the case of the early saxons, land was held in common by — well, i’m not sure by whom (ausenda doesn’t say) — a set of related kindreds possibly? in any case, there is that group membership again — kindreds and wergeld in the case of murder/injury and now some sort of corporate group wrt land ownership. the continental saxons were not entirely independent, nuclear-family based individuals. they were a bit … clannish. clannish-lite.
whatever happened to make the anglo-saxons independent, property owning, absolute nuclear family individualists happened after they arrived on albion’s shores (but, i agree, their germanic background probably made a difference). and judging by what i’ve read (again, see the “mating patterns series” below), whatever happened doesn’t appear to have gained traction until about 1000 a.d. by 1200 it’s well underway, and by 1400 — well, i think you could probably drop a modern day englishman back into 1400s england, and he wouldn’t feel that disoriented. bennett and lotus are missing this timeline, because they are projecting too much anglo-saxonism too far back in time.
otherwise, they are very correct about the origins of anglo-saxon exceptionalism! (^_^)
(except for the fact that they believe it ALL to be about culture. that’s impossible, of course. at least in this universe. maybe in some alternate reality things are different. (~_^) )
edit: interesting. here is a quote from “The Kentish Laws” found in The Anglo-Saxons from the Migration Period to the Eighth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective (1997) regarding the beginnings of a shift from communal to private property (land) in kent in a law from the seventh century [pg. 217]:
“The Kentish laws portray a society where the change from movable to landed wealth was under way so much so that even the oldest laws contemplate fines for the breach of enclosures (Aebt. 27-9). It is clear here that land is no longer handled in tribal terms but as belonging to individuals.”
bonus content!: here are a couple of things i came across tonight re. the anglo-saxons and other early germanics that i found interesting, so i just thought i’d share….
1) in early medieval kent, arranged marriages were all the rage. from “The Kentish Laws” in The Anglo-Saxons from the Migration Period to the Eighth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective (1997) [pgs. 211, 216 – links added by me]:
“The three laws contain a series of decrees about matrimony and have been made the object of considerable research into the (legal) position of women and its evolution…. 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.“
there’s the importance of the kindred again — in early medieval anglo-saxon (and jutish) england even.
interestingly, this is pretty much what happens in some parts the arab world today — arranged marriages, but the woman’s kin keeps an eye on her to make sure she’s ok. i just read recently, in fact, that in the hejaz, it’s very common for hejazi women to be set up with their own bank accounts by their family so that they have a set of financial resources independent from their husbands (but then they share a common household budget). who knew?
2) several readers have wondered out loud here — and so have i — why on EARTH did the northern europeans/the germanics (or any europeans for that matter) adopt christianity at all? why wouldn’t you just do what the frisians did when st. boniface or his ilk showed up and (presumably) tried to chop down the locals’ sacred trees — hang him from the nearest one?!
well, the saxons were forced to convert. by tptb (in this case the invading franks). huh. imagine that — so-called leaders forcing policies down the people’s throats. hard to imagine!
again from “Jural Relations Among the Saxons Before and After Christianization” [pg. 117 – links added by me]:
“The first ones [written saxon laws] were issued directly by or under the supervision of Frankish authorities. The first group, know as *Capitula de partibus Saxoniae*, issued in 777 at the end of centuries-long conflict with the Saxons, is none other than a martial law enforcing both public order and wholesale christianization. Of the total number of 31 articles, the first five list the penalties for crimes against churches and priests; the next four establish stiff penalties for acts of ‘paganism’ including the death penalty for whomever should refuse to be baptized. Among them a lone ray of light: law number 6 which prohibits witchcraft accusations *’secundum more paganorum’*…. Law 14 is for repentants who, having committed a crime, might confess to a priest, hence would be exempt from the death penalty *’testimonio sacerdote’*.
“The next group of laws from 15 to 19 lays down the duties towards the Church, consisting of a certain number of inhabitants in each hamlet donating to the church *’servum et ancillam’*, and that the tenth part *’decimam’* of the value of penalties incurred, or of one’s subsistence labour must be given to the church. The remaining articles list the prohibitions and duties following on religious festivities and ceremonies.
“This brief set of laws ends with … a final prohibition of unauthorized assemblies….”
previously: the anglo-saxons and america 3.0
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