Ancestry and Kinship: Lineage and Inheritance

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Ancestry and Kinship: Lineage and Inheritance


Bilateral Kinship. Among the Germanic peoples, kinship networks were bilateral in nature—an individual traced his relationships with aunts, uncles, cousins, and other kin through both his father and mother. Relationships of support and obligation, including vengeance, were thus extended through both sides of the family, and a person had many people on whom to rely for support or advice. How distantly one cultivated these relationships varied according to local custom and changed over time. One of the significant features of bilateral kinship is that it is unique to each person. Thus, a parent’s kin group will not be identical with his or her child’s, and each generation redefined its kinship network. Bilateral kinship tends to focus on the individual, with lines of relationship running from the individual in both directions, through male and female lines alike. How far these lines stretched depended on the system employed. For example, the Romans determined four degrees of kinship (parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and first cousins) while the Germanic peoples traced seven degrees in a different way (parents and their siblings, grandparents and first cousins, second cousins, third cousins, fourth cousins, fifth cousins, and sixth cousins).

Naming Practices. One means of tracing the prevalence of bilateral kinship networks is through the conventions that governed the naming of children. In the Saint Germain des Prés survey (circa 809-839), the names of sons and daughters frequently combined elements of the names of both parents. For example, Rainordus and Age-nildis named their daughter Ragenildis. Part of a parent’s name might also be included in the names of all the siblings: Godelharius, Godelhildis, and Godelberga were all children of Godelhardus. These naming conventions suggest a sense of family cohesiveness stretched across the kinship group.

Direct Lineage. By the ninth century, charters ceding land to monasteries provided evidence that bilateral kinship was increasingly being overshadowed by relationships with kin in the direct line—for example, grandfathers, fathers, brothers, sons, and grandsons. Cousins were beginning to be perceived as more distant relatives. This situation reflects the changing circumstances of the period. Rather than needing to rely on large kinship networks for protection and revenge, people now needed support in maintaining unchallenged possession of land and offices, as well as a secure social position. For this necessity, lineal descent was more important than bilateral kinship. Nevertheless, bilateral kinship did not disappear completely. For example, it continued to be dominant in Flanders throughout the Middle Ages.

Joint Ownership. Evidence suggests that by the tenth century a crisis had developed among the European aristocracy. As a result of partible inheritance, the size of aristocratic holdings was diminishing. The wealth and power of families was decreasing while the number of families was increasing. One attempt to halt this ever-increasing fragmentation was the frérèche, a form of joint ownership of property by all the brothers who had a claim to a portion of it. The brothers agreed to keep the patrimony intact, even after one or more of them had married. This practice resulted in a joint-family household structure. A frérèche is inherently unstable. At some point, the brothers or their sons would want to divide the property. Gradually, the fréréche system was modified into something resembling a stem family, thus keeping the patrimony intact.

Transfers of Land. The problem of ever-diminishing holdings was also exacerbated by individualistic attitudes to property and inheritance. Because no restrictions were placed on inheritances of land, sons could dispose of the property they inherited as they wished. Similarly, husbands and wives had control of their own estates, which each could sell without consulting the other. The wife also had free control of her dower lands from the outset of the marriage. Consequently, individuals could dispose of portions of their patrimony whenever and however they wished. Some scholars have suggested that during the Middle Ages huge tracts of land were transferred to the Church through outright gifts by the living and bequests in wills. These land transfers were seen as acts of piety and done for the good of the souls of the donors and their families. Land was also transferred to the Church as part of endowing men and women who were entering religious life.

Patrilineage. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, as aristocratic lineage became increasingly important across Europe, more and more people began to reckon kinship according to a system of patrilineage. This form of determining family connections focuses on male descent groups, stretching forward and backward in time. Women were marginalized within this system: as daughters grew up and were married, they left to become auxiliary members of another man’s lineage. A daughter’s children would have no part in their maternal grandfather’s lineage. Their allegiance was to their father’s lineage, not their mother’s. A woman could expect little beyond her dowry, as required by the terms of her marriage contract. After marriage a woman would maintain few ties with her natal family.

Stable Lineage. The system of ascertaining patrilineage is, in a sense, backward looking. It traces back through the male line to the ancestor who founded the family. This practice was a significant departure from bilateral kinship. Because membership in the patrilineal system was fixed, kinship relationships were clear, stable, and not subject to change from one generation to the next. This stability allowed the members of the lineage to cultivate a sense of membership and identity based on their common ancestor and their blood relationship.

Strengthening Patrilineage. One of the reasons for the shift from bilateral to patrilineal kinship was the success of the Church in imposing monogamy and suppressing concubinage in the eleventh century. In societies that permit multiple sexual relationships, patrilineal relationships are obscured, making it difficult to establish an organized and closed descent group. A second reason for the change was the decline in resources to support large elite households. In the early Middle Ages the aristocracy lived by pillage, gifts, and rents. From the eleventh century onward, however, the stability that feudal organization brought to Europe strictly limited opportunities for plunder or enrichment. The aristocracy was required to live off its own land, collecting rents and managing its resources. Thus, they had to limit the division of their estates among their many offspring. The introduction of primogeniture, inheritance by the eldest son to the exclusion of daughters and younger sons, was a means of preserving the patrimony intact. A daughter received a portion for her dowry, but neither she nor her children had any claim on the patrimony itself. As a strategy to reunite portions of the original patrimony, the aristocracy also developed a preference for endogamy (marriage between cousins). This practice also strengthened patrilineage.

The Consorteria. Patrilineage took various forms in medieval Europe. In areas of northern Italy the consorteria was a common means of avoiding the partition of ancestral family. In a consorteria the members of a descent group banded together in a corporation to own property in common and make decisions about it collectively. This form of kinship organization suited wealthy and powerful merchant families in the urbanized economy of Italy. Sons basically inherited membership in the corporation.

In addition to the land they owned collectively, members of a consorteria own property individually as well. They frequently lived in the same area of town, attended the family church, and were buried in the family crypt. Membership was regulated by contract, usually defining an inner circle of decision makers, which could change each time the contract was renewed. Even after many generations and the development of several collateral lines, these lineage groups frequently had a strong sense of shared identity. The great Italian banks that developed in the course of the thirteenth century are examples of the consorteria at work and show just how successful these large mercantile family corporations could be.

Dynastic Lineage. Another form of patrilineage, dynastic descent is closely connected with the rise of feudalism across northern Europe. Both Germanic and Roman law assumed that inheritances were partible among the heirs. Over time, as fiefs evolved from temporary land grants to heritable and partible holdings, new inheritance rules were introduced that affected the organization of families. Though they were technically owned by a ruler and held by a vassal in return for his loyalty, fiefs came to be similar to land held in absolute ownership, which carried unconditional, permanent, and hereditary title. At the highest levels of society, feudal estates were only rarely divided because they were essential to the stability and defense of the crown. There is evidence of how primogeniture crept into the system. For example, in 877 Charles II (the Bald) declared that if a count should die while his son was serving with the king, then the son should succeed to his father’s office, which before that time had not been guaranteed to one’s descendants. On the Continent there were a variety of systems. In most areas with impartible inheritance, the eldest son was heir, but in some places different systems developed, such as ultimogeniture, in which the youngest son inherited. In England, where feudal tenure was imposed uniformly in the wake of the Norman invasion (1066), there was a distinct preference for impartible male primogeniture from the beginning, thus enhancing patrilineage.

The Development of Surnames. The success and influence of dynastic patrilineages are reflected in the development of distinct naming patterns. In the course of the eleventh century, surnames began to be used at an increasing rate and tended to be derived from the names of the castle or principal estate of a family. As family names were adopted and regularized, the pool of first names shrank and certain ones were used by different families, frequently appearing in alternating generations. Families began to adopt coats of arms that encorporated symbols of their status and to draw up complex genealogies that stressed the nobility of the family’s lineage and its founder. Another indication of patrilineal loyalty is found in the increase, during the eleventh century, in the proportion of family members who appeared as witnesses to deeds and other documents. In the tenth century, blood relatives—brothers, uncles, nephews, and cousins—had rarely appeared as witnesses. Thus, by the end of the eleventh century, roughly at the same time that feudal forms of land tenure were beginning to dominate, aristocratic patrilineage developed and became the dominant family system among European elites, overshadowing the maternal line and bilateral kinship, but not erasing it. When it was expedient, the aristocracy still turned to this wider kinship group for support. Slowly, but surely, some of the values of patrilineage, in particular impartible inheritance and primogeniture, gradually permeated other levels of society.

Conflicting Views. As the patrilineage increased in power it extended its collective control over the individual. This shift is clearly evident in the adoption of impartible inheritance and changes made to the terms governing dowries, both of which prevented property from being divided by individuals. Another area in which patrilineal interests overrode individual desires was in marriage, which represented the future of the patrilineage and needed to be negotiated to benefit the collective lineage group rather than the individual. Marriage was a fundamental method of extending political or economic ties or cementing a truce. Thus, for the aristocracy, marriage was a social institution. The Church, however, had a different view of marriage, which was grounded in the individual’s quest for salvation. It was thus inevitable that the needs of society, especially the aristocracy, came into conflict with the laws and theology of marriage that the Church was developing and disseminating at about the same time as the rise of patrilineage.


Georges Duby, Medieval Marriage: Two Models from Twelfth-Century France, translated by Elborg Forster (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).

Jack Goody, The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

David Herlihy, Medieval Households (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985).

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Ancestry and Kinship: Lineage and Inheritance

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