Family life in the late Roman Empire and Early Middle Ages is in some aspects familiar to the modern eye, but in other aspects very strange. By the end of the early middle ages the family would look a great deal more like the families of today than the families of the ancient world, and this is in large part due to a working out of the differences between Roman marital practices and Barbarian marital practices. The force that was most often responsible for deciding which practices would be adopted and which rejected was the Christian church. Under the influence of Christianity, Roman and Barbarian customs would merge to forge new concepts, customs and laws.
Roman and barbarian families at the time of the great migrations of the 4th and 5th centuries (or Bloodthirsty Barbarian Invasions if you prefer) resembled one another in certain crucial respects. Both the Roman and the Barbarian families were often thought of in terms of the ‘household’. This was a much broader unit than the family of today, which is usually thought of in terms of the nuclear family; two spouses and their children. Roman and Barbarian households certainly consisted of a husband and a wife, and children if they had them, but it also consisted of many more people than that. It consisted of servants, slaves, distant relatives and household property. The only people in Roman and Barbarian society that had households which look like today were the very poorest individuals, those who could not afford servants and slaves.
Another similarity between Roman and Barbarian families was that the head of the household had extensive powers over the members of the household. According to Roman law, the father was the paterfamilias who had complete control over his children as long as he lived. The life or death authority once held by the Roman father was no longer in effect by the 4th century AD but the father still retained significant control. One of most famous examples of this was the right of the head of the household to reject newborns. If a child was born and the head of the household decided that ‘we have too many children as it is’, or that ‘the child seems rather sickly’, or that ‘we have too many girls already’, the head of the household could refuse to pick up the child and at that point the child would either have to be killed, or abandoned to either die or be picked up by someone else. Tacitus was astonished to hear that the Germans ‘hold it shameful to kill any unwanted child’ but it is now thought that unwanted children were exposed by the tribes, usually by being left in the forest.
The Romans and Barbarians accepted various types of long term relationships between men and women. They had marriage, which was intended to be a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman, who intend to have children. But they also accepted relationships which have not made it to the modern world, one example being concubinage. This doesn’t have a great reputation these days. If I was to go to a drinks party at the weekend and introduce my partner as ‘my concubine’ I would doubtless get some very odd looks and a few embarrassed mutterings like ‘oh....how interesting’. In late antiquity and the early Middle Ages concubinage was a socially acceptable relationship in both Barbarian and Roman circle. It referred to a long term, but not necessarily permanent, relationship between a man and a women who cohabited and were willing to have children. As for why someone would want to enter into a concubniage, sometimes there was no choice involved. Roman law forbade members of certain social classes from marrying those of other social classes, in which case your only option was for a relationship of concubinage. Sometimes individuals would not want to marry until the heads of their households had died. Another similarity was that the head of the household would have extensive powers regarding the arrangement of marriages of children. Children sometimes married against the wishes of their parents at great risk. The Lombard Code for example, imposes the death penalty for children who did so.
Another difference was in the naming of people. The Romans had three names signifying something different. So for example, in the name Gaius Julius Caesar, the first name Gaius is the individual name like John or Phillip is today. The second name, Julius refers to your clan or tribe; a group of people claiming descent from a common ancestor. The third name Caesar is the name of the head of the household into which you were born; this would usually be your biological father. The barbarians who came into the Roman Empire had a very different system. Barbarians only had one name, for example Einhart, the biographer of Charlemagne (see illustration on the right). A barbarian name often consisted of two elements, each of which had a specific meaning. It was possible to denote familiar relationships in barbarian society because each family had a collection of familiar suffixes and prefixes that it used almost exclusively. So you could tell who someone’s relatives were by knowing their name. That’s why, for example the historian Nithard's brother was called Harnid using the same combination of items.
You also find important differences in marital property transfers between Barbarians and Romans. When Romans got married, the property transfer took the form of a dowry, a property transfer that moves from the bride and the bride’s family to the groom. In a Germanic barbarian marriage, the property moved in the opposite direction. It was the obligation of the groom and the groom’s family to provide property to the bride and the bride’s family upon marriage. This transfer could take two forms. One was the bride price (property you give to the bride’s family before the marriage), the other was known as morning gift (this one to the bride herself the day after the marriage).
Another striking difference between Roman and barbarian relations was that Romans were monogamists who could only marry one person at a time or have one concubine. Barbarians were polygamists who could be married to several women at the same time and have multiple concubines (which sounds pretty high maintenance to me!).
Perhaps the most important distinction between Roman marriage and barbarian marriage related to marital theory. Romans and Barbarians both gave heads of households important powers over their children but Roman law stipulated that you could not have a marriage between two people who did not both freely consent to the marriage. If one or another party said ‘I do not want to get married’ there is nothing the other could do to force the issue. Barbarians did not regard free consent of the two people as an essential component of marriage. You could have a marriage against the will of one or both parties to the marriage if necessary. The only thing that you must really have under barbarian law was intention on the part of somebody that the two people get married, followed by consummation. No consummation, no marriage. This theoretical distinction had important consequences. For example, in Roman law, marriage by abduction is not permissible. You could not kidnap a woman and force her to marry you against her will. In barbarian law it would be reprehensible to kidnap someone and marry them – you would probably get fined for doing so – but it would still be legal.
As the dominant cultural force of the time, it was the Church which would ultimately sift through these conflicting practices and determine which were permissible. Roman culture would spread to the barbarians, but filtered through a Christian lens. We will look at what would eventually emerge in part two.
Family Life in the Middle Ages - Linda Elizabeth Mitchell
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