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)? 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!
Source: HBDChick


in the previous post on kinship in anglo-saxon society, we saw that, between ca. 600-1000 a.d., the anglo-saxons followed what’s known as the sudanese kinship naming system. in other words, like both the arabs and chinese today, the anglo-saxons had separate, distinct names for collateral kin including uncles, aunts, and cousins. as elsewhere in northwest europe, this naming system disappeared over the course of the medieval period to the point where, today, in english we no longer distinguish between father’s or mother’s brothers and so forth. this is probably related to the fact that the practice of (some degree of) cousin marriage amongst northwest europeans also disappeared over the course of the medieval period.


kindreds and bilateral kinship in anglo-saxon society

based on the two facts that 1) in old english (anglo-saxon english) there was, apparently, no way to distinguish the various degrees of cousins — i.e. a first cousin vs. a first cousin twice-removed, for instance, or even a first cousin vs. a sixth cousin — but 2) at the same time extended family relationships were very important in anglo-saxon society — for instance in the matter of wergeld and blood feuds (more about those below) — lancaster concluded that the most important kinship group amongst the anglo-saxons was not, say, the patrilineal clan (as amongst the irish and the scots — think the o’sullivans or the macdonalds) or the tribe (as amongst the arabs — think the sauds), but the kindred [I – pgs. 237-38]:

“The general characteristics of the [kin naming] system suggest three points: firstly, our belief that the *mægd* [“family,” “kinsmen,” or “kindred”] need not have been an extensive group is borne out by the restriction of specific terms to a relatively small set of kin centered on Ego; secondly, the complete lack of specificity in terms for cousins of various degrees, which would be all-important in the operation of a wide-ranging bilateral system, suggests that these kin and the distinctions between them was not regularly of major significance. Lineal ascendants could be traced back to *sixta fæder,* and in fact were traced back further in the historical and mythical genealogies of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.’ Nevertheless, the cousins who would share so remote and ancestor are not put in any particular linguistic category….”

and [II – pg. 372]:

“In Modern English society, the fact that surnames are inherited patrilineally is sometimes taken to indicate that the kinship system as a whole is a patrilineal one, although this is not so. In Anglo-Saxon society, there is no sign of what might be called patrinomial groups. Surnames did not regularly exist, although additional names could be given to a person to make his identification easier, a very reasonable thing when one considers the numbers of Ælfwines, Wulfrics, Æthelmaers, and so on that exited. Names of children appear to have been sometimes compounded from parents’ names, but there is no trace of reference to ‘the X’s’, as a named kin group.

“More important, kin, named or not, were not organized into effective patrilineal descent groups, but, as we have seen, into Ego-centred bilateral kin groups….“

a kin group that is focused on ego — on yourself — is known as a kindred. from my friend robin fox [pgs. 169-170 — see also]:

“[T]he stock of a kindred exists only in relation to a particular ego and it disappears when he dies. If a member of a cognatic lineage [like the macdonalds – h.chick] dies, the lineage still continues; when the focal ego of a kindred dies, then the stock are no more. The lineage then is defined relative to an ancestor who remains a fixed point of reference; the stocks of a kindred are defined relative to an ego….

“The kindred can be broadly defined as ‘ego’s relatives up to a certain fixed degree’. What matters is how this ‘degree’ is defined. It need not be defined cognatically (or ‘bilaterally’ as it is usually called in the literature)….

“[T]he real distinction is between the two foci — ego and ancestor: between *descent groups* and *personal groups*.”

so, the family members that might be considered as kindred by wasps in today’s anglo world probably include something like: nuclear family members, both paternal and maternal grandparents, both paternal and maternal uncles and aunts, and all paternal and maternal cousins — and, perhaps, their kids, too (your first cousins once-removed). ymmv. (for those of us from more “clannish” groups, we also keep track of our second cousins and even our second cousins once-removed. (~_^) ) this is not the same as primarily keeping track of, say, just all your paternal relatives out to sixth cousins.

many groups of people keep track of both their kindreds and their clan or tribe members. the two things are not mutually exclusive. but, based on the historical evidence (mainly wills) lancaster and others (including phillpotts) concluded that anglo-saxon society was based upon the kindred and not patrilineal — or even matrilineal — clans or tribes.
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furthermore (yes, there’s more!), anglo-saxon kinship and their kindreds were reckoned bilaterally. if you were an anglo-saxon, you would’ve traced your ancestors back along both your father’s and your mother’s line. (if wikipedia is to be believed, bilateral kinship groups arise in harsh environments and are beneficial since individuals have two sets of family upon which they can rely. that does seem as though it would fit northern europe.) the members of your kindred, too, came from both the paternal and maternal sides of your family (like in the anglo world today).

for example, from lancaster [II – pg. 370]:

“Kinsmen also had a duty to stand surety for Ego, or to support him with an oath. In II Athelstan I.3, we read that the kinsmen of a thief redeemed from prison by a fine were to stand surety that he would desist from thieving for ever. When an alleged thief had been slain, according to the same laws, the man who was demanding his wergild could come forward with three others, two from the paternal and one from the maternal kin and swear that their kinsman was innocent….”

so an anglo-saxon’s kinsmen — his kindred — came from both his paternal side of the family and his maternal side. but there was a bias towards the paternal side. we saw this, too, in the last post that there was a special term for a father’s brother but not a mother’s brother [I – pg. 237]:

“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.”

giorgio ausenda has also found this to have been the case in other pre-christian germanic groups (like the visigoths) — a bias in favor of the paternal side. based upon this, and the fact that the germanics were herders (lactase persistence!), ausenda concludes that the pre-christian germanics probably favored father’s brother’s daughter (fbd) marriage like other herders (such as the arabs).

i doubt it and think, rather, that, if they favored any particular form of cousin marriage at all, and it’s not certain that they did, the germanics probably favored maternal cousin marriage. the fact that their kinship naming system was the sudanese system is not a good indicator of fbd marriage since the chinese also use the sudanese system, and they do not approve of fbd marriage at all. quite the reverse, in fact. also, it makes no sense to have a bilateral kinship system to reckon the paternal and maternal sides of the family in an fbd marriage society since, in such a society, one’s maternal side of the family IS (often) one’s paternal side of the family! they are one and the same.

so, no, i don’t think that the anglo-saxons and other germanics favored fbd marriage. if anything, it was probably mbd or mzd marriage.
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so anglo-saxon society was based upon kindreds and not clans. i would still call them “clannish” though — but, perhaps, not quite as clannish as, say, their neighbors the medieval irish — or even today’s albanians. i would still call the anglo-saxons “clannish” — perhaps “mildly clannish” — since their society and its functioning was primarly based around one version of the extended family — the kindred. you as an individual would’ve had next to no identity in anglo-saxon society. your identity — including your legal identity (as seen above wrt sureties) — was based upon your kindred.

additionally, the whole wergeld system was alive and well throughout most of the anglo-saxon period — as were blood feuds (and if that’s not “clannish,” I don’t know what is!) [II – pgs. 367, 368, 370, 371]:

“A person’s position in a network of kinship relationship entails the performance of certain rights and duties as well as the carrying-out of less formal but likewise important expectations of behaviour. The rights and duties of Anglo-Saxon kinship represent that part of the system that has been most studied in the past, particularly the rights and duties connected with feud and wergild, because these are the most clearly described in the laws….

“What duties did a kin group owe to Ego? First and foremost, they owed him the duty of avenging his death, either by prosecuting a feud, or by exacting wergild payments. On the other hand, if Ego had killed or injured a man, he could expect some support from his kinsmen in helping him bear a feud or pay a wergild….

“[T]he kinsmen of a man injured or killed were entitled to compensation or wergild from the slayer and his kin or representatives….

“If compensation for deliberate harm done was not settled, a feud could be prosecuted. In feuding the legal solidarity of the kin group is demonstrated by the fact that one member of the slayer’s kin group is as good a victim for vengeance as the slayer himself. One could imagine a feud spreading among overlapping kin groups in a bilateral system. Edmund wished that a slayer should alone bear the feud (and thus stop it spreading from kin group to kin group [here you can see one reason why kings would want to get rid of clans – h.chick]) or, with the help of others, pay the wergild….”

anglo-saxons, then? still rather clannish even though they didn’t count themselves as members of (patrilineal) clans.

if i were to work up my own “hbd chick’s scale of clannishness” from one to ten, with today’s individualistic, nuclear-family-living (are they still?) english at “1” and the very fbd-marrying, paternal tribal arabs (and afghanis and pakistanis) at “10” — and let’s say the (historically) mbd-marrying, filial piety-focused chinese hovering somewhere around “5” or “6” — and the albanians at, maybe, “7” or “8” — i would put the anglo-saxons at maybe a “3” or a “4” — since only the kindreds seem to have been important and they had no clan lineages. that’s just a guesstimate on my part, though. i might decide to change the rankings depending upon what i learn about these different groups going forward. (^_^)
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interestingly, lancaster notes that, although they hadn’t disappeared completely, the importance of kindreds did wane towards the end of the period she looked at (up to 1066). she also notes that phillpotts noted that kindreds were less significant in england than on the continent (ah ha!) [II – pgs. 373, 375]:

“Phillpotts has effectively demonstrated the weakness of Anglo-Saxon kin groups compared with certain related systems on the continent….

“During the period they [“friends”] gained continued importance as oath-helpers. After the end of the tenth century, it was even permissible for a feud to be prosecuted or wergild claimed by a man’s associates or guild-brothers. If murder was done *within* the guild, kinsmen again played a part….”

THAT is definitely a change!

so, as i asked at the beginning of the previous post: “were they [the anglo-saxons] 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?”

my answers are: no, i don’t know, no, no, no, and no. and, possibly.

i say “possibly” since, because the anglo-saxons most likely did not (i think) practice fbd marriage, they probably were not extremely inbred. that, and the facts that their society was based on bilateral kinship and kindreds, in other words not sooo strongly clannish, might’ve meant that a relatively slight amount of outbreeding would’ve pushed them out of the levels of clannishness that they did display.

Source: HBDChick