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WHO'S A RELATIVE? KINSHIP TERMINOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES
ABSTRACT: Medieval Western European sources provide valuable insights into a common regional culture and that culture's assumptions concerning family and reciprocal relationships. Medieval European kinship identification often disregarded consanguineal connections between individuals. Many unrelated people were included in a broader descriptive category. This group represented people who were expected to act in a specific way. Several of the most common pattern of descriptive kinship terminology use employed in the Middle Ages throughout Western Europe are discussed in this article.
The world of the Middle Ages, in many ways, appears familiar. Yet, for all the apparent familiarity of the Medieval period, if we were to talk about life, living, and society to people from the time, we would quickly discover a gaping chasm of social perceptions separate us. We would speak of neighborhoods,they would speak of communities in common. We would speak of co-workers, they would speak of kinsmen; we of peers, they of brothers; we would refer to associations, they would say fraternities. We might talk about political power, they would talk about kindred. While we use terms of distance and individual rights, they used terms of intimacy and reciprocal responsibility. In the end it would be very clear that we, as twentieth century people, perceive the world and the connections in the world very differently from the people of the Middle Ages. A critical difference was the Medieval perception of reciprocity and kinship. Critical since position, power, and place within that society were based not upon individual freedoms and impersonal relationships, but instead upon very personal relationships of reciprocal behavior entered into contractually, and described by kinship terminology. So all pervasive is the use of kinship terms for unrelated people that it is easy to become bogged down in trying to determine who is actually related to whom.
The first step to unravelling the tangle of kinship nomenclature and its use is the realization that Medieval kinship identification term use often disregarded consanguineal connections between individuals. Twentieth century people assume that kinship terminology is limited to genetic connections or a fictional duplication of those genetic ties. Such an assumption invariably leads one into a morass of conflicting kinship that often appears impenetrable. Medieval kinship, contrary to contemporary biases, did not and was not used solely to describe the genetic connections between family members. Whether or not people happened to be related was not the point since the terminology was used descriptively. The descriptive use bridged widely differing kinship systems and continued for over a thousand years.
Medieval kinship terms were dependent upon a variety of situations: 1. an acknowledgement of common experiences between individuals; 2. a description of the current status of relationships for individuals or political entities; 3. a description of relative rank between people. All common experiences were classified and often discussed in intimate familial terminology. Kinship terminology may best be viewed as common legal language of the period which described relationships of safety, reciprocity, personal support, and familiarity.(Taranger 210)
We can find the language of reciprocity in many documents. Correspondence, public, legal sources all have the language. So too do literary sources. Kinship terms were retained in the language as archaic holdovers, particularly among the powerful. Some of the literary sources, while written long after the events portrayed continued the old use of familial terms.
HOW KINSHIP TERMS WERE USED
Kinship terms were used in a variety of ways in the diplomatic, legal, and literary sources of the Medieval period. In the interests of brevity the usual uses of kinship terms as they applied to relatives during the period is not the purpose of this presentation. It is enough for us to note that there is ample evidence in the laws of the time that people understood the genetic connections between parents, offspring, and generations. Individuals of the time also understood affinal connections and who was related to whom in the connectives of marriage. Fictive kin played an important part in the legal and social realities of the Middle Ages. For our purposes, then, we acknowledge that Medieval people, as shown in the secular law codes throughout the period,were fully cognizant of their genetic connections. Indeed, they were, if anything, far more knowledgeable than we are today.
If kinship terminology was not used merely to identify consanguineal connections in the Middle Ages, then how was it used? The answer to that question must be answered several ways. First, kinship terms were used descriptively to create legal fictions between individuals and describe how those relationships ought to behave. Second, kinship terms were used as honorifics and as indicators of similar experiences, background, or position.Third, kinship terms were used as indicators of potential heritability.
Designating a legal heir sounds as though it would be a traditional use of kinship terminology, and in some respects it is. Placement of an individual within either the inheritance or wergeld patterns was dependent upon an assigned place within the kindred.(Bloch 123)125) Location in the inheritance tables indicated genetic connections to specific groups in society, rank, freedom, or other aspects of personal status in the society. However, in most Medieval law codes offspring were divided into three distinct categories in the inheritance tables. A child was designated as fully heritable, partially heritable,or non-heritable. These legal designations indicated the legal relationship between the parents. Fully heritable children were the offspring of a legal marriage between freeborn parents. A legal marriage was one where a series of specific rites were performed and payments were exchanged between kindreds. The usual legal series was: a betrothal agreement between families; betrothal feast; marriage within a specified time;marriage before witnesses; and an exchange of dower, dowry, and morningafter gift. (Frank 474-484) Offspring of a full legal marriage alliance were fully heritable. The legal intention was that those children had first claim to a parent's estate. The next legal category was partially heritable, or natural offspring. Partially heritable children were the products of an acknowledged alliance between the parents but not one which included the kindred. Such an alliance is often referred to in the sources as concubinage although the term mantle marriage would be more correct. Offspring of such an association were partially heritable which meant that they could inherit but at a lesser percentage of the estate, than fully heritable offspring. Inheritance for partially heritable children was usually one sixth to one eighth of an estate. If there were both fully and partially heritable offspring, the latter could share equally in the estate, with the agreement of all the legal offspring.(CIS)G vol. 13, 778) If there were no fully heritable offspring, then a partially heritable child would be the de facto and de jure heir. Perhaps the most notable case was that of William the Conqueror who was the acknowledged natural son of Duke Robert of Normandy. William's "illegitimacy" was no impediment to his inheritance of Normandy since he was the only acknowledged child of his father. The third legal category, non)heritable, was either an indication of a casual liaison between freeborn adults or indicated a mixed status relationship between freeborn and unfree. Non)heritable children were often of uncertain or unknown patrilineage indicating more than one sexual liaison by the mother. Offspring of the third category were designated as non-heritable and indicated in the Norwegian law as a corner born offspring.(CIS)G vol. 13, 280)
One's heritability status was reflected in the sources as acknowledgement by the father of the child. If a child was fully or partially heritable, then there was the designation of father's son or daughter. However, if a child was non-heritable,then the child was designated as the mother's son or daughter.The implication for the first two cases was that either the mother was married within the full formal contract or designated as a legal concubine or mantle mate, which was comparable to a common law wife and could co)exist with a legal marriage. The implication in the third case was an uncertainty as to parentage. One's status under the law particularly in Northern Europe was not dependent upon a marriage sanctioned by the Church until quite later in the period. Acknowledgement of natural children continued throughout the Middle Ages with little or no impediment to inheritance until well into the late 14th century. Instances of acknowledged offspring who could inherit, while less and less common in practice toward the end of the Medieval period, remained as an option in the laws. Henry Tudor was one such case, since he had both acknowledged and legitimization among his forbears. One line used to claim the English throne was based upon the legitimization of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford's offspring. The other rested upon the fact that Henry's father was one of two acknowledged half siblings of Henry VI. Among monarchs and nobility, acknowledgement of natural offspring continued and became formalized in the designation of possessive affixes, such as fitz or fi.
KINSHIP AS A LEGAL DESCRIPTION
From kinship terms, which were used as a legal designation of possible inheritance, it is a small step to kinship terminology used as a legal description. It was not unusual in the Middle Ages to find individuals, whom we in the twentieth century consider co-workers or acquaintances, described as kinsmen. In Anglo-Saxon England if one had no known kinsmen,then one's guild brethren were responsible.(Stubbs 71) According to the 1014 Law of Ethelred, if an individual was a foreigner and had no kin, the king would stand in the place of his kin to support that person if injured or killed.(Whitelock 413) Throughout the non-Romanized North there were a variety of small groups described as kinsmen to whom one was not related, but to whom one was tied by contractual agreements. Usually these groups were noted in the laws as groups of non-related individuals who had joined together contractually for reciprocal rights and responsibilities. Common terms in the sources include: frankpledge, hrepp, herardr, hundreds, communitas,universitas, societas, and collegium. In each case it was understood that they were confeoderatio or as worn community or alliance with rights, duties, authorities, property, and rules in common for the brethren of the community.(Tierney 239-240) In fact,the legal fiction was so well defined that in the late fifteenth century the Hanseatic League was excluded, since it did not fit the definition of a confeoderatio. It was deemed merely an association of separate groups, since it lacked a common seal,laws in common, or a well defined hierarchy of masters or councils to whom members were subject.(Tierney 119)12) When one first examines any of these communities, it is easy to leap to the conclusion that they were associations of fictive kin. The initial leap,however, is incorrect. More properly,each of the confraternities was a legal fiction, which described its members' relationships to each other in the idealized language of kinship. In a typical and often repeated opening the Guild Regulations of the Shearers of Arras set down the rules governing the guild in the following manner: "Whoever would engage in the trade of a shearer shall be in the Confraternity of St. Julien, and shall pay all the dues, and observe the decrees made by the brethren."(Tierney 11)
It can be said that Medieval people agreed with Fortes' rule of amity: One maintains an ideal code of behavior toward one's relatives.(Fortes 110) When a group described itself in kinship terms, such as a guild, then two clear behaviors were in operation: 1. The ideal relationship between members was described in familiar terminology the terminology of the family. A Medieval guild member would phrase obligations as familial instructions: "The Brethren of this fraternity...shall not forbid any brother to give law and do right..."(Tierney 121)2. The community defined a specific series of ideal reciprocal behaviors for the members of the community ideal behaviors which reflected an idealized family. Again a Medieval member would phrase the idea thus: "Seniors shall call the juniors brother and the juniors shall call the seniors Father..."(The Rule of St.Benedict 99) or "Love the members...as your brothers".(Barber 342) Medieval guilds were no more fictive kin than are corporations today. However,they were legal fictions which spelled out rights and obligations in the specific legal language of the time. It can be said that both Medieval guilds and contemporary corporations were operating under the legal framework and descriptive language of their respective times;Medieval guilds as a family and modern corporations as individuals.
CALLED BY ANOTHER NAME
One of the most common and least noted forms of Medieval kinship terminology was the mixing of kinship terms within the family. In the literary,diplomatic, and chronological sources of the Middle Ages the mixed used of kinship terms often presents a bewildering array of people in a tangle of relationships. It was not unusual for family members to use a variety of kinship terms intrafamilially to specify or acknowledge situations of common experience or to indicate pleasure or displeasure with a kinsman. In Iceland in the 12th century family sagas, there are many examples of mixed kinship references which are dependent upon the current relationship between individuals. The kinship term used indicated pleasure or displeasure with a relative or an associate not a genetic connection. Thus, it was not unusual if an uncle was unhappy with a nephew to call the nephew, cousin,or even more distantly kinsman. The more displeased one was with another relative the more distant the kin term. Conversely, the closer one was to an individual the closer the kinship term. Cleasby, Craigie, and Vigfusson note in their Icelandic English Dictionary that it was not unusual in Iceland in family conversations for nephews and nieces to refer to aunts or uncles by the more familiar and intimate terms brother or sister.
So all pervasive was the mixed kin terminology in Medieval society that it continued well into the Renaissance. In Henry IV Part I,there is a scene where two brothers,Northumberland and Worcester, and Northumberland's son, Hot Spur, are discussing treason. Northumberland is well aware that Hotspur is his nephew, yet the more annoyed he becomes with Hotspur's intemperate behavior, the more distant the kin referencing used. As Hotspur calms down the more intimate the kinship terminology used. Similarly, mixed kin term referencing was also used in conjunction with honorific kinship usage.
KINSHIP TERMS AS TITLES
During the Middle Ages, individuals at the same level of society acknowledged their similarity of experience with others by using inclusive kinship terminology usually brother or sister,cousin, or kinsman. Descriptively, the analogous kin referencing often placed a number of either unrelated or marginally related persons into a specific series of acknowledged relationships by virtue of their similar training, experience, commitment,or position. As with mixed kin referencing among relatives, it was also common for kin terms to be more intimate if relationships between individuals were good and less intimate if they were cool. Letters between monarchs commonly refer to each other as cousin or brother. In Einhard's Life of Charlemagne it is noted that: "in his (Charlemagne's) dispatches he called them (other monarchs) brothers." Letters between monarchs are replete with such examples: "our cousin the King of Denmark...our cousins of France, Spain, and Portugal...our cousin the king of the Romans...our very dear kinsman...to our dearest brother..."(Moriarty 240,246, 250, 252) All such phrases are standard Medieval formula for starting a letter and used much as we would use Dear Sir or Gentlemen. A term often used in such letters was brother not frater , brother in Latin, but consanguineous or the Latin for brother by blood. Such a specific term was used regardless of actual genetic or affinal relationship. If there were diplomatic differences, then the terminology standardly became disconnected from the familial and the usual pattern was to refer to the person by title or occupation. For example,William the Conqueror was called Normandy, Hugh Capet was called France, and Frederick the Great was called Germany.
The use of kinship terminology was not limited to equals but also employed between individuals of disparate rank. In a call to parliament Edward I refers to each of the barons as brother."Rex dilecto consanguineo et fideli suo Edmundo comiti Cornubiae, salutem." (Stubbs 481) Again there was no actual genetic connection between the monarch and all the barons. The use of the kinship term consanguineo indicated that everyone in the parliament would be engaged upon a similar activity,adjudication. This phrase was sent out by Edward I to seven earls, and forty-one barons.
KINSHIP AS A JOB TITLE
Another aspect of Medieval kinship terminology was as an emphasis of occupation, in essence a job title. Thus Brother John was most likely a monk; Father Nicholas a priest, an abbot,a bishop, or the Pope; Sister Ann was most likely a nun; and Mother Joan was the head of a cloister. Moreover, it was not unusual for people outside religious orders to use the same terminology as an indication of their acceptance of a person's occupation. A standard phrase found throughout the Medieval period in royal documents is "on the advice of our venerable fathers..."( Stubbs 292) Just as guilds referred to members by intimate familial terminology, so too did knights, monarchs,university students or teachers, nuns or monks. Clergy addressed all males as brothers and all females as sisters, the inference being that they were all equal in the community of Christ. Reference to those outside orders placed people in a subordinate status, son or daughter. Such terminology indicated similarity of experiences. However, a mixing of terminological use often occurred in occupational terminology. Again, pleasure or displeasure with an individual was often indicated in the type and number of familial references in a document.
Using the terms of cousin and kinsman continued into the Renaissance where cousin or coz was a term of endearment. Calling those with similar experiences brother, sister, cousin,or kinsman has continued into the contemporary period. Even today we have holdovers of this usage, although it is slowly leaving the language. This particular use of kinship terminology persists where people involved in specific activities wishing to emphasize the similarity of outlook provided by the activity still use familial designations when referring to others in the organization. There are modern examples such as brother officers for police, the fraternity of scholars, or the brotherhood of man. Many union members still address other members as brother or sister. Additional contemporary holdovers include: service organizations; fraternities and sororities; some religious enclaves; and political associations.
UNTANGLING THE KINSHIP WEB
How then does one differentiate the varied potential uses of kinship terminology in the Middle Ages? Sometimes simply and sometimes with great difficulty. Often the kinship term may be used tandemly. In such an instance more than one aspect is in force. The very confusion caused by the multiple use of kinship terminology can be found in Shakespeare in the kin referencing used by characters in the historical plays or the tragedies. In Hamlet both the main characters and the audience are given the connection between Hamlet and Claudius, the king. Claudius is Hamlet's uncle. Although Hamlet routinely refers to the king as his uncle, Claudius calls Hamlet son and cousin. He is son because Claudius has married Hamlet's mother Gertrude, and cousin because they are both princes and have a common experience as princes.
Throughout the Middle Ages the diplomatic documents are replete with similar references which to contemporary readers often presents the appearance of confusion or conflict. At no time were the individuals writing the laws,letters, or literature of the period in any confusion about the use they were making of the terminology. As members of the society they were aware of the different forms of usage and like titles today used them appropriately. The confusion as to usage rests in the eye of the observer, the person outside the society.
Kinship terminology, while indicating clear genetic connections or those relationships within a society which mimic genetic connections, can also be used by a group descriptively. We need go no further than our own culture's past to find many examples of such use. It is imperative to uncover the cultural definitions and uses of a term, whether that term is for cattle or kinsmen. In the Middle Ages kinship terminology indicated specific relationships of trust, reciprocity, and safety. At no time were those people in any doubt as to the actual genetic, affinal, or fictive connections between themselves and others. However, the importance of kin to Medieval folk was indicated by the wealth of different descriptive uses they made of kinship terminology. Those uses in and of themselves are a clear indication of what the average person a thousand years ago thought was important. So important were those reciprocal contractual connections that the sources of the period are full of consistent formulae and references to those relationships.
In many ways the power of the Medieval reality still influences our images and perceptions of ideal relationships,since we still use those same images. Medieval people were obsessed with safety and stability in an extremely unsafe and unstable world. Safety during the Middle Ages was most likely in the context and intricate connections of the family and kindred. In the family one expected support, nurturing, and a haven from the world. Thus,people described many different relationships in a universally understood cultural image, the image of the family. The thread through each of the situations, which used kinship terminology was this: in each case the relationship was ideally safe and it was ideally reciprocal, just as the family was ideally safe and ideally reciprocal. So each situation where kinship terms were used were to be based on that ideal. Even though the reality was different the legal fictions, legal language, and cultural expectations remained. Safety equals kin,kin equals reciprocity, reciprocity is mutual,mutuality is safety, and safety equals kin.
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Copyright (C) 1996, Tamsin Hekala. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.
Comments to: Tamsin Hekala
Updated: 8 March 1996
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