Johann Jakob Bachofen

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Bachofen, Johann Jakob



Johann Jakob Bachofen (1815–1887) was a Swiss jurist, student of Greco-Roman antiquity, and anthropologist.

Bachofen came from a prominent Basel family that, from the early eighteenth century, had amassed great wealth in the silk industry. This wealth rendered Bachofen financially independent. After graduating from the Gymnasium, in 1834, he studied at the universities of Basel, Berlin, and Göttingen; his interests lay in the classics and in jurisprudence. While Bachofen was at Berlin, Friedrich von Savigny focused his interest on Roman law, and the doctoral dissertation he submitted to the University of Basel was in this field (1840). He concluded his studies with a two years’ stay in Paris and in England. When he was only 27, he was appointed full professor of the history of Roman law at Basel, from which position he resigned two years later, in 1844, to have more time for his own research. From 1842 to 1866 he also held an appointment as a judge.

Bachofen wrote two monographs on legal history, which were published in 1843, and these were followed by his major works on Roman civil law, (1847 and 1848). In spite of the recognition these works received from his professional colleagues, Bachofen abandoned the field of jurisprudence. His decision to do so was not a sudden one. While examining some ancient tombs in Italy during a trip in 1842–1843, he was struck by a new approach to the understanding of the innermost nature of ancient culture: interpretation of the symbolism of tombs. From then on he was fascinated by tombs, which for him conveyed a “truly universal doctrine.” His studies of mythology and symbolism led him far beyond a concern with the ancient world to important insights into the ways of primitive man, primitive law, and primitive religion.

This new vision found no written expression until his books on law had been completed. A second trip to Italy in 1848–1849 and another to Italy and Greece in 1851–1852 deepened Bachofen’s insights, which he presented in a series of books published between 1850 and 1870. In 1851 there appeared the monograph Die Geschichte der Rüomer (“History of the Romans”), which Bachofen wrote with F. D. Gerlach. Versuch über Gräbersymbolik der Alten (“Essay on the Tomb Symbolism of the Ancients”; see 1841–1890, vol. 4) followed in 1859, Das Mutterrecht (“Mother-right”; see 1841–1890, vols. 2–3) in 1861, Die Unsterblichkeitslehre der orphischen Theologie (“The Doctrine of Immortality in Orphic Theology”; see 1841–1890, vol. 7) in 1867, Die Sage von Tanaquil (“The Legend of Tanaquil”; see 1841–1890, vol. 6) in 1870, and there were several shorter monographs.

Bachofen’s fame is based on his Mutterrecht, one of the books on which modern social anthropology is based. It is the first scientific history of the family as a social institution. Bachofen was the first to challenge seriously the long-established conviction that the monogamous patriarchal family was a datum of nature; instead, he asserted that mother-right had preceded father-right in the evolution of human institutions.

While the Mutterrecht is ostensibly universal in scope, Bachofen’s evidence is derived largely from his reading of the Greek and Roman classics; he had not yet incorporated the epoch-making scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century into his work. Indeed, it was not known that Bachofen actually did extensive ethnological research until recently, when his unpublished manuscripts were examined in connection with the publication of his Gesammelte Werke, a large project undertaken in the 1940s. It appears that Bachofen’s work on the Mutterrecht was only the beginning of his ethnological explorations. In 1869 he decided to revise the Mutterrecht to encompass the entire earth, and in the next fifteen years proceeded to familiarize himself with nearly all known cultures. He also studied the works of such theorists as McLennan, Tylor, Lubbock, Bastian, and Lewis H. Morgan and exchanged views with them. He had sufficient flexibility to incorporate McLennan’s and Morgan’s research findings on the institution of kinship into his own system. Indeed, after 1872, Morgan’s influence on Bachofen increased constantly; contrary to common opinion, however, Morgan neither adopted nor developed Bachofen’s ideas and only referred to them in his Ancient Society (1877) and in later works.

In 1873 Bachofen turned his attention to the avunculate in particular. His monographs written between 1873 and 1877 on the avunculate in the classical, Germanic, and Indian worlds, as well as a work on Schwestersohnsrecht nach den Überlieferungen Indiens (“The Avunculate According to Indian Records”), written between 1878 and 1880, have been partly reconstructed from unpublished manuscripts; a small portion of this material was published in the Antiquarische Briefe… (see 1841–1890, vol. 8).

Bachofen’s relationship with A. Giraud-Teulon of Geneva is very important for the understanding of this later period of his work. Their friendship developed into a sort of scientific symbiosis, so that in Giraud-Teulon’s Les origines de la famille (1874) one may find a systematic outline of Bachofen’s sociological conceptions. Again, when Bachofen in 1881 abandoned his work on a comprehensive account of a modified version of his system (because the first volume of Antiquarische Briefe had been received with uncomprehending silence), Giraud-Teulon wrote Les origines du mariage et de la famille (1884) and conveyed the essentials of Bachofen’s sociological ideas. Only the encouragement of J. Kohler, one of the founders of the discipline of comparative law, induced Bachofen to publish the second volume of the Antiquarische Briefe.

Bachofen’s contemporaries could judge him only on the basis of his published work. While philologists rejected his work because from their point of view it lacked both theoretical rigor and accuracy, ethnologists immediately appreciated the importance of his discovery of matriarchy. To the end of the nineteenth century most sociologists accepted the pioneer formulations of the Mutterrecht, a countermovement setting in only with E. A. Westermarck’s sweeping critique. In other than social scientific circles, Bachofen and L. H. Morgan became known, oddly enough, as two of the principal witnesses in support of the communist theory of society—largely because communist theorists so interpreted them. A comprehensive assessment of his contributions is only now becoming possible, with the preparation of a critical edition of his Gesammelte Werke by Karl Meuli.

Johannes Dörmann

[For the historical context of Bachofen’s work, see the biographies ofBastian; Lubbock; McLennan; Morgan, L. H.; Tylor. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeKinship.]


1840 De romanorum judiciis civilibus, de legis actionibus, de formulis et de condictione dissertatio historicodogmatica. Göttingen (Germany): Dieterich.

(1841–1890) 1943— Gesammelte Werke. Edited by Karl Meuli. Vols. 1—. Basel (Switzerland): Schwabe. → Volume 1: Antrittsrede; Politische Betrachtungen über das Staatsleben des römischen Volkes; Beiträge zur Geschichte der Römer; Politische Aufsätze zur Zeitgeschichte, (1841–1863) 1943. Volumes 2–3: Das Mutterrecht, (1861) 1948. Volume 4: Versuch über die Gräbersymbolik der Alten, (1859) 1954. Volume 6: Die Sage von Tanaquil, (1870) 1951. Volume 7: Die Unsterblichkeitslehre der orphischen Theologie, (1867) 1958; Römische Grablampen, (1890) 1958. Volume 8: Antiquarische Briefe, (1880–1886) 1966. The published volumes of a projected ten-volume publication. The volumes contain new and important evaluations of Bachofen’s writings by various authors.

1843a Die Lex Voconia und die mit ihr zusammenhängenden Rechtsinstitute: Eine rechtshistorische Abhandlung. Basel (Switzerland): Schweighauser.

1843b Das Nexum, die Nexi und die Lex Petillia. Basel (Switzerland): Neukirch.

1843c Zur Lehre von der civilen Berechnung der Zeit. Zeitschrift för Civilrecht und Prozess 18:38–80.

1847 Das römische Pfandrecht. Volume 1. Basel (Switzerland): Schweighauser.

1848 Ausgewählte Lehren des römischen Civilrechts; Das vellejanische Senatusconsult; Die Veräusserungsverbote und Beschränkungen; Die testamentarische Adoption; Das Manitipationstestament; Die Erbschaftssteuer. Bonn: Marcus.

1851 Gerlach, Franz D.; and Bachofen, Johann J. Die Geschichte der Römer. Basel (Switzerland): Bahnmaier.


Baeumler, Alfred 1965 Das mythische Weltalter: Bachofens romantische Deutung des Altertums. Munich (Germany): Beck.

Bernoulli, C. A. 1924 Johann Jakob Bachofen und das Natursymbol: Ein Würdigungsversuch. Basel (Switzerland): Schwabe.

Dörmann, Johannes 1965 War Johann Jakob Bachofen Evolutionist? Anthropos 60:1–48.

Giraud-teulon, Alexis 1874 Lés origines de la famille: Questions sur les antécédents des sociétés patriarcales. Geneva: Cherbuliéz.

Giraud-teulon, Alexis 1884 Les origines du mariage et de la famille. Geneva: Cherbuliéz.

Kohler, Joseph 1889 Johann Jakob Bachofen. Zeitschrift für vergleichende Rechtswissenschaft 8:148–155.

Schmidt, Georg 1929 Johann Jakob Bachofens Geschichtsphilosophie. Munich (Germany): Beck.

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Johann Jakob Bachofen (bäkō´fən), 1815–87, Swiss legal historian and antiquarian. Bachofen studied in Berlin, Göttingen, Paris, and Cambridge, and accepted only honorary offices in order to safeguard his independence. He analyzed myths and archaeological artifacts in an attempt to reconstruct the spiritual and social worlds of ancient societies. He postulated an evolutionary sequence of symbolical, mythical, and logical modes of thought. He also demonstrated that marriage, family, and kinship take on different forms in different societies, and assumed an evolutionary sequence of primitive promiscuity, leading to matriarchal, and finally patriarchal forms of social organization. See matriarchy. Bachofen's selected writings are included in Myth, Religion and Mother Right (1967).