Family and Kinship

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Family and Kinship

The concept of family, or kin, had great importance during the Renaissance, especially among the upper classes. However, the definition of kinship was not always straightforward. The Roman Catholic Church defined kin as people who shared at least one common ancestor in the past four generations. In practice, most people saw only the relatives they knew by name and saw occasionally as kin.


Kinship and Power. Renaissance families traced their ancestry through the male line, so mothers played no official part in defining kinship. However, most people also paid attention to maternal bloodlines. Even relatives with no blood connection could be important, as the Catholic definition of kin included in-laws. Many marriages were arranged to create an alliance between two families.

Kinship had much more importance for the wealthy and powerful than for common people. The average person did not know many distant relatives, while members of wealthy families could often name even distant ancestors. The use of surnames, which identify people as members of a certain family, was a fairly new practice in the early 1400s. Prominent or noble families based their last names on the names of famous ancestors or the territory from which the family drew its power. Many of the most important names of the Renaissance belonged not to individuals, but to influential families—the Medici, the Fuggers, the Habsburgs.

Property passed from one generation of a family to the next through inheritance. Those who inherited property had a duty to preserve and improve it for later generations. Primogeniture, a practice by which the eldest son inherited all of the family property when his father died, spread to many sectors of society during the Renaissance. It provided a way to keep family property intact over several generations.


Family Obligations. Great families were very aware of their image and the duty to live up to it. The genealogies (family trees) of noble houses often listed legendary heroes as distant ancestors as a way to add polish to the family name. All members of a noble family shared in its reputation, good or bad, and all relatives suffered if the family lost its honor. For example, the family of a noble who was convicted of a crime might lose the legal privileges enjoyed by other aristocrats. Noblewomen had to protect themselves against charges of sexual misconduct, which would damage the reputation of their husbands' families as well as their own.

Kinship carried certain obligations. Individuals commonly chose careers and marriage partners based on what was best for their family, not on what they personally preferred. Wealthy and powerful kinsmen had a responsibility to help less fortunate relatives. Members of wealthy families assumed they could approach even distant relatives for help. Kin were the first source of help among the lower classes also, but only very close relatives had a legal obligation to help each other.

In Renaissance society, nepotism (favoritism based on family ties) was normal and even admirable. For example, popes often assisted relatives by giving them titles and property, arranging favorable marriages, and naming nephews as cardinals. Anyone who was able to do so would put a relative in a position that could benefit the family in the future. Ideally, the position would have hereditary benefits that would stay in the family for future generations.

(See alsoChildhood; Honor; Love and Marriage; Social Status. )

see color plate 14, vol. 2

see color plate 15, vol. 2

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