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Kinship Structures

Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages

Anita Guerreau-Jalabert

Kinship Structures 

While they share a common biological factor, human societies have defined kinship very differently; the conceptions and rules that regulate it are thus largely social in nature. They are organised into sets whose elements are structurally linked; which obliges us to examine, for each society, the facts of kinship in their diversity and their coherence, remembering that our own categories correspond only to one system among others and that their projection onto what we observe in medieval times would only be an anachronism.

According to the definition given by anthropology, “the study of kinship is that of the relations that unite men to each other by links based on consanguinity and alliance” (F. Héritier). By consanguinity, we mean the relationship between two individuals one of whom descends from the other or who have (or acknowledge) a common ancestor; this relationship is defined in a very variable way according to society. Alliance is the whole of the links forged between kinship groups by means of and around the matrimonial union of two of their members. But careful examination of the field of kinship in medieval Europe obliges us to take into account a third type of relationship that cannot be reduced to one of the former two, spiritual kinship, fraternity or paternity based on union of Souls alone. The generalization and importance of these relationships in Christian society, to which we will return, seems an essential and original aspect of the kinship structures put in place in the West from the 5th century.

The rules that define consanguinity determine membership of a group of relatives and a sort of automatic access to the property, privileges, status and name that characterise this group. In the medieval system, as in our own, these elements were transmitted equally by men and by women (whereas some societies only recognise – or strongly favour – one of the ways of circulation of kinship and what accompanies it). Thus, a child born of a legitimate marriage was equally the grandson of its father's parents and of its mother's parents and was equally able to inherit from either of them. The evolution of vocabulary at the time when the Romance languages were formed shows the elimination of the distinction between paternal and maternal relatives that existed in a part of the Roman terminology. The limits of each person's parentela (set of socially recognised kin) were fixed, in the medieval case, by the countability of a certain number of degrees on the line of consanguinity, a number that went on increasing up to the seventh canonical degree, before being fixed at the fourth degree by the Lateran council of 1215.

But this character, called cognatic or undifferentiated, of filiation in the Middle Ages seems to have been hidden from view by the preferential transmission to the sons of the most important elements of material or symbolic goods – and this probably at all levels of society. This phenomenon flowed from social domination by men and not from any sort of principle regulating filiation and favouring transmission by men. Daughters took up a portion of the inheritance with their dowries, and inherited and transmitted fully in the absence of sons. Moreover, at certain periods, patrimonial strategies likewise reduced, sometimes drastically, the inheritance of younger sons. From the 11th c. at least, the settlement of the aristocracy on lands whose name they ended up taking led to the formation of what we may call “lineages of heirs” or “topolineages” made up of those who successively (but not necessarily from father to son) occupied a land and the duties attaching to it. The line thus defined became a part, for each generation, of the vast networks woven by consanguinity and alliance – what Old French called lignages. Phenomena linked to transmission are easier to observe in the dominant groups, where there was also more to transmit. But the whole of medieval society was caught up in this system in which an undifferentiated filiation coexisted with a domination by men.

Part of the questions to do with alliance having been treated under “Marriage”, it will not be repeated here. Alliance was hemmed in more and more tightly in the course of the Middle Ages by the regulations and prohibitions voiced by the Church. Though little studied as yet, its practical functioning, which here as elsewhere organised the circulation of women between kinship groups, was an essential element of the social fabric; the more so since in the medieval system there was an added equivalence, which was probably not just one of principle, between blood-relatives and allies in the definition of a parentela. Forming the context of biological reproduction, alliance was also an instrument of social reproduction, for which reason it served to support patrimonial strategies and was a means of social ascent.

Conveyed by sexuality or associated with it, consanguinity and alliance were united in the Middle Ages in the category of “carnal kinship”. But the language of kinship was widely used to represent and bring into play a vast set of social relationships that belonged to a different level, since they were based on the circulation of spiritual love and the union of Souls. These representations and practices were not marginal phenomena. On the contrary, they were generalized and occupied a central place and a founding role in a Christian society. On them rested the notions of Christendom and Church, as well as the functioning of baptismal kinship: all Christians, spiritually engendered in baptism by God and the Church, were mutual brothers; likewise clerics, excluded from sexual reproduction, had the capacity to engender spiritually, in the rites of baptism and the Eucharist, the whole community and each of its members. In the last centuries of the Middle Ages, we see several manifestations of the weight of the spiritual principle, the importance of this specific form of kinship in the organisation and functioning of social relationships: the constitution of village communities fulfilling themselves in the parochial context, around the church and its parish priest; the remarkable success of confraternities and links of godparenthood and sponsorship.

Spiritual kinship rested on the conception of caritas as paradigm of every social relationship. That bond of spiritual love that united the divine persons to each other, but also God to men, men to God and men to each other through the intermediary of God, was by definition independent of kinship by the flesh, i.e. of consanguinity and alliance. So here we see a system that no longer used these two as the principal matrix of creation and reproduction of social bonds, which was still the case at Rome. Admittedly, kinship in the flesh was one of the possible conveyors of caritas, but insofar as it included a union of Souls. But the latter, which had its origin in God and the Holy Spirit, could be realized outside any carnal form of kinship, and it was there that it was at its purest; thus, the spiritual engendering of the Christian in baptism produced a spiritual union between godparents and godchildren, between godparents and carnal parents of godchildren, a union so strong that it entailed, like carnal kinship, prohibitions on marriage. It must be remembered that baptism was also the rite that confirmed the child's entry into society; the creation by the Church of baptismal kinship, in the 6th c., was one of the marks of the inauguration of the domination of spiritual principles in the representations and practices of social reproduction.

These conceptions, which went hand in hand with a marked devaluation of the flesh and carnal kinship, very probably played an essential role in an evolution of the social structures of Europe that progressively limited the structuring role of relationships based exclusively on consanguinity and alliance.


H. R. Loyn, “Kinship in Anglo-Saxon England”, Anglo-Saxon England, 3, 1974, 197-209.Find this resource:

    F. Héritier, L᾽Exercice de la parenté, Paris, 1981.Find this resource:

      J. Goody, The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe, Cambridge, 1983.Find this resource:

        A. C. Murray, Germanic Kinship Structure, Toronto, 1983.Find this resource:

          J. M. Lynch, Godparents and Kinship in Early Medieval Europe, Princeton, 1986.Find this resource:

            F. Héritier, Le Mouvement confraternel au Moyen Âge: France, Italie, Suisse, Rome, 1987.Find this resource:

              S. D. White, Custom, Kinship and Gifts to Saints, Chapel Hill (NC), 1988.Find this resource:

                A. Guerreau-Jalabert, “La Parenté dans l᾽Europe médiévale et moderne: à propos d'une synthèse récente”, L᾽Homme, 2, 1989, 69-92.Find this resource:

                  Cofradias, gremios, solidaridades en la Europa Medieval (XIX Semana de Estudios Medievales. Estella 1992), Pamplona, 1993.Find this resource:

                    A. Guerreau-Jalabert, “Spiritus et caritas. Le baptême dans la société médiévale”, La parenté spirituelle, F. Héritier-Augé (ed.), E. Copet (ed.), Paris, 1995, 133-203.Find this resource:

                      L᾽Arbre de Jessé et l᾽ordre chrétien de la parenté”, Marie. Le culte de la Vierge dans la société médiévale, D. Iogna-Prat (ed.), É. Palazzo (ed.), D. Russo (ed.), Paris, 1996.Find this resource:

                        Anita Guerreau-Jalabert