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Thread: Medieval Germanic Kindreds and the Ditmarsians

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    Lightbulb Medieval Germanic Kindreds and the Ditmarsians

    It’s been asked a few times around here: was there something special about the pre-Christian Germanics? Something special that perhaps made them more open to the Roman Catholic Church’s/kings’ & princes’ demands to outbreed (i.e. quit marrying their cousins — and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that they were marrying their cousins before the arrival of Christianity — see here and here and here)?

    One possible thing i have come across (and there could of course be others) is that kinship was reckoned bilaterally in pre-Christian Germanic populations — in other words, down through both the father’s and mother’s side of the family.

    Related to this (and Wikipedia backs me up on this) is that the form that “clannishness” took in Germanic society was that of kindreds rather than actual clans (like you found in places like Scotland or even today in parts of the Balkans).

    As we saw in this previous post, a kindred is a set of relatives based around a core individual — so your kindred might include your parents, your siblings and their kids, your uncles and aunts on both sides and their kids (i.e. your cousins), your second cousins, all of your cousins’ kids, and so on (however far out your particular society happens to reckon kindreds).

    This is different from a clan which is based upon a specific ancestor in the past. a clan can continue to live on when any individual member dies, while a kindred is more ephemeral — when an individual dies, his kindred sorta … dissipates.

    As we’ve seen, Anglo-Saxon society was based around kindreds; so, too, were all of the Germanic groups in pre-Christian (and post-Christian for differing lengths of time as we’ll see below) Europe. These kindreds were called Sippe.

    Now, i have been searching and searching … and searching! (even in german) … for more info on Germanic kindreds. all i ever find are general statements by historians that the medieval Germanic groups were based upon the sippe/kindred, blah, blah, blah, but no specifics on when or how this changed — Germanic populations are not centered around the Sippe today — or if there were any differences between the different Germanic groups when it came to kindreds.

    Pretty much of all the historians i have read generally refer back to just a handful of sources which usually include Lorraine Lancaster’s work on Anglo-Saxon kinship from 1958 (which i covered in these two posts here and here) and dame Bertha Phillpotts’ work on kindreds and clans which was published in 1913.

    In 2010, Cambridge university press republished phillpotts’ classic, Kindred and Clan in the Middle Ages and After: A Study in the Sociology of the Teutonic Races, so — taken along with the fact that this is one of the sources everyone refers back to — i’m going to assume that phillpotts is the definitive work on germanic kindreds (unless someone out there can direct me to another source!).

    Dame phillpotts looked at the laws and wills and literature from seven medieval germanic societies — iceland, norway, sweden, denmark, north germany & holland, belgium & northern france, and england — to find out what role the kindreds played in these societies (especially wrt wergild payments/feuds) and when the kindreds faded out.

    I’ll probably talk about the former in some later post(s), but let’s see now what she had to say about the latter: what was the timing of when the importance of kindreds disappeared in each of these populations [pgs. 245-46]?:

    “In Denmark, signs of the partial survival of the kindred are not wanting even at the dawn of the 17th century, in spite of the hostility of powerful kings (from 1200 onwards), and of the Protestant Church. In Schleswig the old customs defy legislation levelled at them by king, duke or *Landtag* for another century still.

    In Holstein, though it is probably that the participation of the kindreds in wergild disappeared sooner than in Schleswig, they yet left their mark on other institutions, and certain of their functions continue to be exercised until near the end of the 18th, and indeed even into the 19th century.

    This is especially, but not solely, true of Ditmarschen, within whose territory alone we find the fixed agnatic kindred which can be loosely termed clan. In Friesland the kindreds survive throughout the 15th century. In Hadeln and Bremen, and in the neighbourhood of Hamburg, they seem to have held out against adverse legislation until about the same date.

    “In the more northerly parts of Central Germany we find occasional traces of their existence throughout the earlier Middle Ages. In southern Teutonic lands the last trace of a real solidarity so far discovered dates from the 13th century. In Holland and Belgium the kindreds remain active throughout the 15th century, and indeed into the 16th, and hardly less long in Picardy.

    In Neustria, too, there are traces of organized feuds and treaties between kindreds until far into the 14th century, and so also in Champagne. Normandy, on the other hand, yields no evidence. In England the activity of the kindreds seems reduced to a minimum already in the 7th and 8th centuries, when we first catch a glimpse of Anglo-Saxon institutions….

    In Iceland we have seen good reason to believe that the solidarity of the kindred was a thing of the past by the time the emigrants landed on the shores of the new country.

    In Norway we have caught a glimpse of a gradual disintegration of the kindred, beginning perhaps as early as the 9th, and consummated by the end of the 13th century.

    In Sweden, on the other hand, everything points to the survival of kinship-solidarity throughout the 14th century [footnote: except in Gotland], and possibly for very much longer.”

    i’ve mapped phillpotts’ outline indicating which century saw the end of kindreds in any given area. the purple square in northern germany is dithmarschen, which looks to be the medieval epicenter of the germanic kindred — it’s the place where, according to phillpotts, the kindred was the strongest — was really a patrilineal clan, in fact (kinda like in scotland — click on map for LARGER version):


    Phillpotts’ theory for why the kindred was so weak so early on in england, and not really present at all in iceland or normandy, was that this was due to the fact that these populations had migrated by sea to new lands.

    This could make sense. in migrating by sea in the early medieval period, you might not load up scores of boats and move with all of your extended kindred. you might just load up a couple of boats with you and your immediate family and maybe your brother and his immediate family. Then, when you arrive in your new world, you don’t have a very extended kindred, so the kindred is not very important in your society (england, iceland, normandy).

    So what about those Ditmarsians, eh? they’re kinda cool! they are right around the corner from the frisians who were also pretty clan-like, especially with lots of feuding. what they had in common, of course, was that the two groups resided in marshy areas which could not be manorialized (er, well, there was no point to manorialize those regions since you couldn’t really conduct agriculture there — not with medieval technology anyway). about the ditmarsians [pgs. 199-200]:

    “The marshes of Friesland (in the Netherlands), as well as the northeastern corner of Germany and southern Denmark, formed another region of peasant liberty against seigneurial power. As already noted, in 1240 Bartholomaeus Anglicus remarked on the exceptional freedom of the inhabitants of Frisia, who appeared to live without lords.

    Just east of Frisia and slightly north along the North Sea coast, at Stedingen, peasants revolted against the archibishop of Bremen and the count of Oldenburg beginning in 1200.

    They refused to pay oppressive dues (tributa) and, according to the ‘Rasted Chronicle,’ sought to defend their ‘liberty’ against all claims of lordship. They were eventually subjugated but only with great difficulty. It required the proclamation of a crusade against these ‘heretics’ by Gregory IX to bring an end to their decades of successful resistance. The Stedingen peasants were decisively defeated at the Battle of Altenesch in 1234.

    “Among the indirect beneficiaries of this war was a federation of independent peasant communities in another small marshy territory, Dithmarschen in Holstein. Lying slightly north of Stedingen, Dithmarschen was protected by the Danes against the ambitions of the counts of Holstein and others who had expanded in the wake of the Wendish Crusade of 1147.

    The Dithmarschen peasants abandoned the alliance with the Danes and so profited from the military setback suffered by Denmark’s King Waldemar in 1227 at the hands of the city of Lubeck, the counts of Holstein and Schwerin, and the archbishop of Bremen.

    Their autonomy under the lordship of the archbishop of Bremen was acknowledged in the aftermath of the Danish War. Dithmarschen supported the crusade against the Stedinger and found its nominal subordination to the archbisops convenient during the thirteenth century.

    The power of family clans grew at the expense of the lesser nobility, and the Dithmarschen peasants formed capable military forces that could defeat mounted knights on the swampy terrain of their homeland.

    “The extended families of Dithmarschen established a confederation that would be defended against the claims of the counts of Schleswig and Holstein beginning in the early fourteenth century and the kings of Denmark in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. In 1559 the Danes at last successfully invaded Dithmarschen, defeating the peasants and massacring the inhabitants of the capital, Meldorp, whereupon Dithmarschen was annexed to Denmark.

    “Dithmarschen was, therefore, a free peasant community from the late thirteenth century until 1559, aware of itself as an anomaly and with a strong political cohesion born of military necessity. Dithmarschen litigated, signed treaties, and concluded agreements with Denmark, Holstein, and other neighboring powers. It also successfully defended itself in battle.”

    So it seems as though the germanics had a comparatively “weak” kinship system before they ever encountered christianity. one historian, giorgio ausenda, has suggested that the pre-christian germanics practiced father’s brother’s daughter (fbd) marriage like the arabs today.

    I think this must be completely wrong. with fbd marriage you get strong, patrilineal (unilineal) clans/tribes, not kindreds based on bilateral descent. the germanics probably married maternal cousins of some sort, and maybe even relatively infrequently compared to a population like, say, the chinese.

    Dunno. impossible to say at this point in time (who knows in the future, though … with thousands of samples of skeletal remains from the medieval and earlier periods in europe and elsewhere genetically analyzed for relatedness … an hbd chick can dream, can’t she?).

    it may not have taken that much, then, either to persuade the germanics to adopt the cousin marriage bans and/or for the practice to really loosen the genetic ties in those societies. they might have been comparatively loose already. except in places like dithmarschen and that whole area of northern germany/southern denmark. what i, of course, want to know then is did those populations continue to marry cousins for longer than those where kindreds disappeared sooner? i shall endeavor to find out!

    See also: Dithmarschen A Medieval Peasant Republic


    Source: HBD Chick


    i’ve been trying to find out as much as possible about medieval germanic kinship and kindreds with the idea that there might be something there to help explain why the germanic populations seem to have went along with the church’s/kings’/princes’ medieval outbreeding project with the most enthusiasm.

    most of the populations of peripheral europe — the scots & the irish, the iberians & maybe even the southern french, the southern italians, eastern europeans to differing degrees, and especially the balkan populations (see Why Europe? and the mating patterns in europe series in left-hand column below ? for more details) — took up the outbreeding project much later than nw europeans, with the result (i think) that most of them remained “clannish” to some degree or another, or even tribal like the albanians and montenegrins, up until comparatively recently.

    was there something different about the germanic societies that predisposed them to adopting the cousin marriage bans of the various medieval religious and secular authorities? were they already kinda outbred, perhaps, pre-the arrival of christianity…?

    [...] i wasn’t having much luck finding any recently published info about them, so i was reading a book on germanic kindreds published in 1913(!) (reprinted in 2010, mind you). well, now i’ve come across a whole gaggle of more recent sources (yay!) — in william jervis jones’ German Kinship Terms, 750-1500: Documentation and Analysis (mentioned previously in this post, btw).

    jones thoughtfully summarized the current (as of 1990 when his book was published) thinking on medieval germanic kindreds. here’s what he had to say [pgs. 80-82]:

    “Social and legal historians have long debated the size, nature and function of early Germanic and medieval German kin groups. The traditional, though by no means unquestioned, assumption has been that early Germanic society was dominated by the clan or lineage, and by unilinealism, a fabric which was then alleged to have dissolved in the age of the barbarian kingdoms.[5]

    Fleckenstein (1978: 2ff.) distinguishes here the agnatic and the cognatic clan, and argues in favour of assuming the early existence of the clan as a ‘rather flexible institution’, which was later circumscribed by royal power, overshadowed by more powerful social groupings, and transformed into the lineage and the family.

    Murray (1983), on the other hand, finds no compelling reason to think that the (for him) mainly cognatic medieval systems were born of a unilineal system in transition: ‘Probably Germanic society always displayed a variety of kinship forms, and various peoples developed systems to meet specific needs.’

    For Germanic times, Murray emphasises ‘the notion of the bilateral kindred as the basic kin group of society’, and alongside this ‘the antiquity and vitality of cognation’ (223). He further observes that, in earliest times, kin groupings had effectively no legal limit ‘since the form and dimension of the kin groupings often varied in particular circumstances’ (21).

    “The size and function of kin groups, as reflected in Germanic laws from the 5th to the 9th century A.D., have been examined by Katherine Fischer Drew (1988). Though traces of a prehistoric Germanic extended family can still be detected (for example in the blood feud, compurgation, and inheritance practices), the basic unit by the time of the barbarian kingdoms is seen by Drew as the small family, supplemented where necessary by recourse to a larger kindred.

    This was not a fixed association, but was defined by reference to Ego, and thus differed for every group of individuals who had parents in common. On the evidence of Visigothic, Lombard and Frankish laws, the limit of kinship seems to have lain for certain purposes at the sixth or seventh remove, the distance being counted upwards to (and downwards from) the common ancestor….“

    so, my first cousin would be removed from me to the fourth degree (e.g. me -> my father -> my grandfather -> down again to my uncle -> my cousin. count the arrows — there are four). my second cousin would be removed from me to the sixth degree — so drew concluded that early medieval germanic kindreds were reckoned out to second cousins. this is pretty standard for most clannish groups, actually — understandable ’cause it can get hard to keep track of relatives farther out — and one is not very related to them beyond that point anyway.

    more from jones:

    “For the early medieval period, the traditional view (reported, for example, by Leyser 1968: 32ff.) was that the aristocracies of Carolingian Europe consisted of very large family-groups, in which maternal kin mattered at least as much as paternal. The shifting, cognatic *Großfamilien* were seen as giving way in the 11th and 12th centuries to smaller and more closely-knit agnatic dynasties with a continuous history.[6]

    Questioning the sharpness of this discontinuity, Leyser warns against excessive reliance on the early testimony of the ‘Libri memoriales’, and adds: ‘The circumstance that nobles entered their kindred and affinity, living and dead, does not prove that they failed to distinguish between nearer and more distant ties of kinship or rule out close agnatic feeling and thinking’ (36).[7]

    Bullough, equally, argues for a differentiated view: ‘The likelihood is that the circle of kinsmen […] was differently conceived not only among different Germanic peoples but locally according to custom and differently when the issue was one of inheritance of land or a monastery, vendetta and composition or who should be present at a wedding feast.

    The only consistent feature […] is the bilateral nature of the kin-set and the fact, therefore, that such a set can have no structural persistence through several generations’ (1969: 15).


    “For the High Middle Ages, the verdicts again differ. Genicot states with some firmness the view that after the end of the first millennium the looser cognatic kin-groupings fell into decline, as society proceeded to organise itself into individual and well-structured agnatic families (Reuter ed. 1970: 27).[8]

    According to Duby (1973: 283), the years between 900 and 1050 saw the gradual transformation of European kinship structure, from an imprecisely limited, horizontal perception to a more strongly vertical, agnatic view. Against or alongside this agnatic consolidation, it may be salutary to recall Marc Bloch’s opinion (1939: 201) that the victory of the agnatic principle did not eclipse the cognatic one.

    Due weight must be given, also, to Leyser’s more differentiated observations, that ‘the development of a more restricted, “dynastic” kind of family in the *Reich* was not as whole-hearted as in the West’ (1970: 133), and that the degree of agnatic perception depended on the importance of the lineages (1968: 31).[9] In Reuter’s view, also, consciousness of distant kinship must have varied with context, both before and after the 11th century: ‘it might be useful or it might not’ (1979: 7).

    “Whatever its nature and scope, the recognition and reckoning of kinship pervaded many aspects of medieval life, and assumed particular importance in the pursuit of feuds and vendettas,[10] in impediments to marriage,[11] and in the laws of inheritance.[12]”

    so, it’s hard to say what the structure of early (pre-5th century) germanic societies was — clans? kindreds? who knows? there does seem to be something of a consensus, though, that from ca. the 5th century onwards (until…?), germanic societies were featured by bilateral kinship and kindreds. lorraine lancaster concluded this about the anglo-saxons, phillpotts about the germanics across europe, and now nancy drew and others referred to in the above quote from jones.

    the fact that germanic populations were probably kindred- and not clan- or tribal-based at the time that they converted to christianity leads me to think that, while they probably did practice cousin marriage (as suggested by the fact that the church/authorities DID have to ban it starting in the early medieval period), it probably wasn’t practiced extremely frequently, and probably a very close cousin form of cousin marriage (like father’s brother’s daughter [fbd] marriage) wasn’t preferred.

    what do i mean by “wasn’t practiced *extemely* frequently”? i’m not sure. just that cousin marriage couldn’t have been as regularly occuring as it was in, say, medieval scotland (or ireland) or else (i think) that germanic society would’ve been structured in clear-cut extended families or clans rather than these more floating kindreds. similarly, i don’t think early medieval germanic couin marriage could’ve been very close (e.g. fbd marriage) or else, again, they would’ve had more tightly structured clans/tribes. the pattern seems to be — and i could be wrong about this — the closer the long-term marriage practices, the tighter and more structured the extended family structures within a society. kindreds are neither very tight nor structured — they vary with every individual (or every set of siblings, rather). they’re floating. kindreds are clannishness-lite.

    there was close — including probably cousin — marriage in pre-christian germanic societies, otherwise the church/secular authorities wouldn’t have had to go through all the trouble of banning it. but i think that most early medieval germanic populations (looking away from funny little groups like the frisians and ditmarsians) must’ve been already comparatively loosely structured, and, therefore, were predisposed to accepting — or at any rate being more receptive to — the medieval cousin marriage bans. they were already not that clannish compared to most other european populations at the time, so it didn’t take much, i think, to push them out of clannishness altogether.
    Source: HBD Chick
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