In part one we looked at the differences between Roman family practices and Germanic family practices. Over the course of the early middle ages, some Roman practices would come to dominate over the Germanic practices while some Germanic practices would displace those of the Romans. When trying to determine whether it was going to be a Germanic practice or a Roman practice that would be absorbed into Medieval Europe, the force which was most responsible was the Christian Church, which became the single most powerful influence shaping the family.
A good example of this is marital theory. By the year 1000, the Germanic theory of marriage, which had stated that you don’t need the free consent of both people, had been rejected. In its place, the Roman principle that you must have the free consent of both parties was accepted. The reason for this was that the Christian theologians of late antiquity such as Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine had decided that the Roman principle was morally superior and included it in their Theology. To a surprising degree, Church leaders and theologians took on and challenged practices which had been perfectly acceptable to both Romans and Barbarians, condemning these and trying to have them expelled from Europe. Their reasons for doing so are still controversial.
Endogamy and Exogamy were two major issues. Endogamy refers to marriage within the kingroup. Exogamy refers to marriage outside the kingroup. For Romans and Barbarians endogamy was preferable to exogamy. In general you wanted to marry your relatives and you only married outside the kin group if you really had to. This is not to say that Romans and Barbarians didn’t have incest taboos. Certain relatives were off limits; brothers, sisters and direct relatives. Anyone beyond those immediate relatives were fair game, in particular first cousins if you could arrange it. As early as the 4th century, Christian Emperors began to condemn endogamy and instead required people to marry those who were not close relatives (for an (ill-advised) modern day condemnation of endogamy see here). During the course of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, the prohibited degrees of kinship - the list of relatives you could not marry- grew wider and wider. By the year 1000, this list included not just first cousins but second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth cousins. They included not just blood relatives, but spiritual relatives (godparents) and those you are related to by marriage. This would be enforced by the Church through ecclesiastical discipline, excommunication and penance.
In addition to opposing marriage within the kin group, Christian leaders also opposed other practices that were acceptable and common among Romans and Barbarians. Beforehand, divorce was not overly difficult for men and women to obtain. Church leaders opposed the practice in all but a few prescribed cases. Christians also condemned infanticide and the right of the head of household to reject a newborn child. Christianity was also hostile to adoption, which in Antiquity was a legal tool that strengthened political ties between wealthy families and created male heirs to manage estates (infant adoption was rare). Roman law was pro remarriage and encouraged people to remarry within a certain amount of time. Christian theologians took the opposite viewpoint. Concubinage was condemned and it was seen as only slightly better than prostitution.
It was one thing to condemn all these practices and declare them to be sins for which one had to do penance. It was another thing entirely to get people to accept that they should abandon them. In some cases the Church's attempts failed. By the year 1000, concubinage was still widespread in Europe. However most of the practices condemned by the Church were waning and beginning to gain a social stigma. Adoption became much rarer than it had been in the Roman Empire. Polygamy had vanished but it had taken a while to stamp this out.
Merovingian kings were quite open in their polygamous practices. One king called Chlothar I was asked by his wife to find a good husband for her sister. Chlothar said that he would be willing to do so, but added that it would be helpful if he could meet the sister and get to know her so that he would be able to find a suitable mate. After meeting her and speaking with her, he informed his wife that yes, he had someone in mind…..himself!. History does not record what his wife thought of all this. Another Merovingian ruler called Dagobert I hedged his bets by marrying three women simultaneously. By contrast, Carolingian rulers never married more than one woman at one time. Charlemagne divorced a lot of women and had quite a few girlfriends on the side, but he didn’t go as far as to resort to polygamy. Carolingian rulers who lacked the personality of Charlemagne sometimes found themselves brought to heel by the popes. For example Lothair II, tried to divorce his wife in order to ditch her and marry his mistress Waldrada, but found that the papacy thwarted his efforts, something they never would have dared to do 100 years earlier.
As regards naming practices, it was the Germanic principle of only having one name which would become the norm in Europe by the year 1000. In the case of marital property transfers, the Germanic practices won out and the dowry disappeared from Europe. Instead, the ‘bride price’ and ‘morning gift’ became standard. Both the multiple names and dowry system of the Romans would return with a vengeance in the High Middle Ages as these were revived.
Why were the Christian Churches opposed to the practices I mentioned and what motivated their drive to reshape European society?. There are a number of theories as to why they were doing this and two in particular have gained notoriety. The first has been advanced by an English anthropologist by the name of Jack Goody. Goody argues that one must not take the explanations given by contemporaries at face value, mainly because these explanations often made no sense. When marriage to your sixth cousin was forbidden (seven degrees of kinship), for example, the explanation given was that ‘we have to extend the probation to seven degrees because the world was created in seven days’. According to Goody, this is such a ridiculous explanation that you cannot buy it. Even when there is a biblical precedent (e.g Leviticus) the Christian prohibition goes way beyond it.
For Goody, there is a fairly obvious pattern. Many of the practices stamped out were ‘strategies of heirship’, a means by which families could guarantee there was a male heir around and keep the family property intact. Cousin marriage would ensure that the property would stay with relatives. Another example was the Roman practice of adoption which was often used to establish male heirship. Polygamy would increase the odds of increasing male heirs. Divorce would get rid of wives that could not produce heirs. Goody maintains that the Church were involved in an unconscious strategy to weaken family structures and increase the odds of property being left to the church.
The leading critic of Jack Goody was a medieval historian called David Herlihy. Herlihy rejected Goody’s rejection of contemporary explanations and pointed to some which were not at all nonsensical. For example, the prohibition against divorce comes straight out of the New Testament. St Augustine condemned Endogamy, because marriage served the purpose of bringing people together who would not otherwise be united in bonds of love. When you married a relative you were thwarting that purpose because you were not bringing two different families together, you were all related. Therefore as an instrument of social utility, endogamy would have to be rejected allowing the tendrils of love to spread as far though society as possible.
Herlihy extended the argument to say that social engineering and morality were central to the church's prohibitions. Infanticide was rejected along with other Roman bloodshed such as animal sacrifice and gladiator shows. Polygamy was rejected because when a few men hogged all the women it would create a large body of restless men who would be prone to violence. There is a remarkable letter from Pope Gregory the Great which explains the churches opposition to marriage within the kin group as follows:
We have learned from experience that the offspring of such unions cannot thrive.
This suggests that there was at least some awareness among contemporaries that the children of closely related individuals would suffer problems.
Neither Goody nor Herlihy gained enough evidence to support their conclusions so the redevelopment of the family in the middle ages remains an open question. Personally I like the idea of a giant church conspiracy to grab everyone's money, but if pushed I would have to plump for Herlihy.
Family Life in the Early Middle Ages - Part Two
James Hannam's 'God's Philosophers' is now available from Amazon
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