Seminar LXXXIII: arguing about kinship with anthropologists and families

Sorry, fell off the ‘net to a certain extent again there. Let me return to the fray with a seminar report, from where the amiable and erudite Dr Conrad Leyser (a man whose Oxford web presence is even more exiguous than mine, but who is at Worcester College, not Jesus College or Manchester University any more, whatever their webpages may tell you) presented at the Oxford Medieval History Seminar (though there again he is not listed, he’s like the Internet’s invisible man) under the title, “History, Anthropology, and Early Medieval Kinship”, on 31 January 2011. This was a lively paper, which is not something you can ordinarily say about presentations on the history of scholarship (unless they’re by Dr Beachcombing of course). It also served to teach several of us, I suspect, including me, just where some of our teachers, mentors and in Conrad’s case parents had been getting their ideas from…

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Edward Evans-Pritchard

Edward Evans-Pritchard

The reason Conrad was doing this was that he is editing the proceedings from the sort of interdisciplinary conference we don’t have enough of, and has therefore got to write an introduction.1 This was one possible shape of it, explaining how we got to the points of needing the conversation that that conference had provided. Conrad started the paper by setting up a great opposition in old (social) anthropology, between the structuralist approach of Claude Lévi-Strauss (who only died in 2009), interested in working out what the system of kinship does for society and especially in the incest taboo, and the much more empirical, descriptive approach of Edward Evans-Pritchard, more interested in just documenting different societies than reflecting that back on the entirety of humanity, and seeing genealogy not as a structure, since it was so readily edited in the social memory, but as a narrative, with a point to make.2

From here Conrad diverted into history, but for summary I think that works better at the end so I’ll stick with the anthropology for a minute. By the 1970s, he told us, anthropology was getting quite suspicious about kinship as a term an a field of study, the suspicion being that it was occidentally-centred and a political concept unsuitable for application to many of the subjects of study. The logical outcome of this was that the field began to look at such ideas much more in the west itself, and that some genuinely challenging work has come out of the debates around in vitro fertilisation, because sometimes donors of eggs or sperm can be close kin to the people who will raise the child.3 Asking who then is the real parent is tricky enough in any surrogate situation—an ex-girlfriend of mine has six parents by some reckonings, thanks to adoption and divorces—but it gets a lot trickier to describe relationships when the incest taboo is broken like that, and so forth. Conrad pointed out here that medieval and indeed modern Christianity wrestled or wrestles with this all the time: Jesus was after all a surrogate baby, right? But He was also of the house of David! via, er, Joseph… Exegetical kinship in the minds of our subjects is therefore something that this kind of work may help us find words for and thus be able to explain better.

But, you would be entitled to ask, what has all this to do with medieval history? Well, fair enough, and as I say Conrad had kept that ball in the court all along, I have just chosen to do it differently here. The point is, of course, that the anthropological state of the field has informed an awful lot of the work we now take as gospel in early medieval kinship. Furthermore, it has often been only one side of the field that people pick up, citing “anthropology” much as we cite archæology or even history itself, as a more or less positivist bank of knowledge on whose existence we are all more or less agreed, without realising or if realising, without making it clear that the interpretation of such knowledge is crucial to its presentation, expression and safety of use by outsiders, and that even what look like raw datasets are being shaped by these debates before they reach the reader. Thus, the shift that Georges Duby and Karl Schmid saw from an agnatic to cognatic kinship system around the year 1000, from a broad kindred drawn from both father’s and mother’s families to a patrilineage and ultimately primogeniture, for example, this is derived ultimately from Lévi-Strauss and does not use the rival English work. Conrad’s father, Karl Leyser, based in England (indeed, in Oxford) however took a much more Evans-Pritchard-like line, there was an argument about it that didn’t establish either point and as a result Jack Goody was able to borrow the point back and use Karl Schmid’s work as a fair and accurate guide to the development of medieval families, and then of course (I editorialise here) the historians all cite Goody, even if we disagree, because he’s an anthropologist and therefore we think he has special knowledge, not realising where it came from and via whom, and round and round it goes.4

Back in the field of history, however, others were noticing that our categories for this sort of thing had been assumed ever since Duby and were adjusting to the idea that kinship might be more strategic than structural, altering reproductive practice and inheritance rights to fit social circumstances.5 Now even those ideas have been called into question—who sets a family strategy anyway and how do you get anyone to keep it?—and, for example, Kate Cooper (who is Conrad’s wife; his mother, Henrietta Leyser, was also evident in questions, which must be especially awkward to argue with but at least proved, along with the other factors, as Chris Wickham said, the abiding relevance of kinship in academia!) is now arguing for an agnatic-cognatic shift under the late Roman Empire, a change which Karl Ubl is reading in basically functionalist terms…6 so it may well be that after a while in which anthropology and history have had little to say to each other on such matters, it is actually time we got them talking again. But to do that, it’s necessary for each side to have some idea of what the other has already said. So I guess Conrad’s conference was a timely affair!


1. It’s thankfully fairly easy to cite stuff for this because half of Conrad’s handout was a seriously thorough bibliography, which I even showed to my anthropologist of resort and they agreed that it was as fair a summary as you might fit onto a side of A4, so if the above seems inadequate or just wrong, it’s going to be my fault not Conrad’s. From it, anyway, I can tell you that the volume in question is C. Leyser & K. Cooper (edd.), Making Early Medieval Societies: conflict and belonging in the Latin West, 400-1200 (forthcoming). Conrad’s handout doesn’t give place of publication for anything, and I’m afraid I’m going to skimp on time and not provide it either, just because there is so much backlog to clear here.

2. Cited on the handout: C. Lévi-Strauss, Les structures élémentaires de la parenté (1949); E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Kinship and Marriage among the Nuer (1951).

3. Here citing especially J. Carsten, After Kinship (2004), though the handout also has M. Strathern, Reproducing the Future: essays on anthropology, kinship and the new reproductive technologies (1992) and C. Thompson, Making Parents: the ontological choreography of reproductive technologies (2005), which I include because it strikes me that this is the kind of edge-of-the-human territory where some of my readers have their camps currently set up and they may be interested…

4. Duby himself learnt a lot from Schmid, whose “Zur Problematik von Familie, Sippe und Geschlecht, Haus und Dynastie beim mittelalterlichen Adel” in Zeitschrift für Geschichte des Oberrheins Vol. 105 (1957), pp. 1-62, remains seminal (edit: thanks to Levi below, details corrected here) but remains untranslated; there is however his “Über die Struktur des Adels im früheren Mittelalter” in Jahrbuch für fränkische Landesforschung Vol. 19 (1959), pp. 1-23, transl. Timothy Reuter as “The structure of the nobility in the earlier Middle Ages” in Reuter (ed.), The Medieval Nobility: studies on the ruling classes of France and Germany from the 6th to the 12th century (Amsterdam 1979), pp. 37-59, for an Englished introduction to Schmid’s arguments. For Duby Conrad cites the foundation stone, G. Duby, La Société aux XIe et XIIe siècle dans la région mâconnaise (Paris 1953, 2nd edn. 1971, repr. 2000), which is largely untranslated (a few parts as “The Nobility in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Mâconnais”, transl. Frederick L. Cheyette in Cheyette (ed.), Lordship and Community in Medieval Europe: selected readings (1968), pp. 137-55) but, as Conrad’s handout mentions, quite a lot of the supporting work and especially that about family structure is available in English in Duby, The Chivalrous Society, transl. Cynthia Postan (1977). The argument that failed to convince is Karl Leyser, “The German Aristocracy from the Ninth to the Twelfth Centuries: a historical and cultural sketch” in Past and Present no. 41 (Oxford 1968), pp. 25-53, Donald A. Bullough, “Early Medieval Social Groupings: the terminology of kinship”, ibid. 45 (1969), pp. 3-18 and K. Leyser, “Maternal kin in Early Medieval Germany: a reply”, ibid. 49 (1970), pp. 126-134. Goody’s contribution is of course J. Goody, The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe (Cambridge 1983).

5. So, see for example Pauline Stafford, “« La mutation familiale »: a suitable case for caution” in Joyce Hill & Mary Swan (edd.), The Community, the Family and the Saint: patterns of power in early medieval Europe (Turnhout 1998), pp. 103-125 or Ian Wood, “Deconstructing the Merovingian Family” in Richard Corradini, Maximilian Diesenberger & Helmut Reimitz (edd.), The construction of communities in the early Middle Ages: texts, resources and artefacts (Leiden 2003), pp. 149-171.

6. Kate Cooper, The Fall of the Roman Household (2007); Karl Ubl, Inzestverbot und Gesetzgebung: Die Konstruktion eines Verbrechens (2008).

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5 responses to “Seminar LXXXIII: arguing about kinship with anthropologists and families

  1. Thanks for the summary of what sounds like a very interesting talk! Since you mention uncertainty about the matter, you may wish to note that Reuter’s tranlation is in fact of Schmid’s, ‘Über die Struktur des Adels im früheren Mittelalter’, Jahrbuch für fränkische Landesforschung 19 (1959), 1-23, rather than his ‘Problematik’, of which I believe there is still (unfortunately) no English translation.

    • I thought the title would have had to jump a bit! Thankyou for that.

      • Yes, indeed, though I must admit that I had to check my notes too before I could be certain that there was a different source. As you say, the article Reuter translates still presents much of the basic gist of Schmid’s argument and remains very useful for that reason.

  2. Historian on the Edge

    “Conrad’s father, Karl Leyser, based in England (indeed, in Oxford)… Kate Cooper (who is Conrad’s wife; his mother, Henrietta Leyser was also evident in questions, which must be especially awkward to argue with but at least proved, along with the other factors, as Chris Wickham said, the abiding relevance of kinship in academia!)…” Yup. That’s one way of putting it.

  3. Pingback: Weekly Round-up 3 « Contagions

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