Matriliny is not matriarchy, repeat after me: interdisciplinary conversation III

This is, I promise, the last post reacting to Barbero and Vigil’s La Formación del Feudalismo en la Península Ibérica. What the last few posts about it may have shown you about this book is that it made me think a lot about my material, but also in many cases decide that thirty years had really sunk quite a lot of it without trace, or should have. The last chapter is indubitably the best for my purposes. Unfortunately just before it comes a bit that made me sigh with recognition, where they bring some anthropology into the mix and even I know enough to know it goes all wrong. It also ties very well into the Judith Bennett round-table we’ve been having recently in as much as it attempts to engage with the question of women’s status but takes a stance where politics has perhaps mattered more than evidence somewhere in the chain. I translate:

Thomson says: «In general, wherever a matrilineal régime has survived, it takes the form of the succession running from the brother of the mother to the son of the sister, which has come to be seen as the norm. In reality we are dealing with a situation of transition. The original form has been conserved in the Jasi clan where the succession passes from mother to daughter, men being excluded. This form sees itself modified by a vesting of the woman’s functions to the man, either in the brother, as in the Jasi and the Iroquois, or in the husband, as in the Roman monarchy. The succession now passes from man to man but in the female line: from the brother of the mother to the son of the sister or from the father-in-law to the son-in-law. And thus we come to the patriarchal régime, in which the succession passes from man to man in the masculine line with the exclusion of women.»

We encounter the different situations to which Thomson alludes in the portion of his work that we have cited among the Cantabrian-Asturian peoples of the Roman and medieval era. The original form, in which the mother was the central figure, is encountered in the group of inscriptions proceeding from Peña Amaya and Monte Cildá, where paternal filiation is almost non-existent and where instead in a dedication the son expresses his maternal filiation. The most western Cantabrians, from the Valle de Sella and the Esla, whose most important group was the vadinienses, show themselves in a phase of transition towards the patriarchate, and indirect matrilineal succession occurs by way of the mother’s brother, that is to say, by means of the system known as avuncular, and already with ample references to paternal filiation. We can observe the third stage in the form of succession to the throne realised among the primitive Asturian kings, whose political centre arose in the Valle de Sella, precisely in the region of Cangas where the vadinienses had dwelled centuries before. In this case the form of succession operated by way of the mother, but not yet through the representation of the mother’s brother, but of the husband of the heiress with respect to his father-in-law. This represents the last relics of the indirect matrilineal line in a form —from father-in-law to son-in-law— which as Thomson observes indicates a growing preponderance of marriage that comes out into a patrilineal succession, existing previously at the same time as the matrilineal one.1

This all follows an analysis, reign by reign, of succession in early Asturias, which sometimes did run from father to son-in-law, though not always, about as often as father-to-son succession and unexplained successions or coups. The Thomson in question was working on social structure among the pre-Hellenic Greeks, but as you can tell he’d had to cast his comparative net wide, and Barbero and Vigil, having cited him as if he were anthropological authority rather than someone using old anthropology second-hand, then went on to expound from Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (in its abridged edition) for some pages and then to use any evidence of importance of women, even equality of women as at my pet hearing in Ripoll, as evidence of ancient matriarchy. I showed this to my anthropologist of resort, along with a clarification that Thomson had written in 1961 and Barbero and Vigil in 1978 (Frazer originally wrote in 1890, the abridgement, lacking most of the original comparative mentions of Christianity, emerging in 1922) and she expressed a wish to be quoted as saying, “Oh, it makes the Baby Jesus cry!” In fact, she asked to be quoted as saying something far more vituperative but I bargained her down. Suffice to say that anthropology has come up with one or two new ideas on this score since 1890.


In fact, I knew some of them already. I’ve seen stuff like this before because I used to work on the Picts, where matriliny is also a frequent topic of conversation.2 Because of that, long before I started having these `conversations’, I read some actual anthropology that passed through my hands on its way to a new owner that addressed the topic. That was a book of essays by Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, of which one was called “Patrilineal and Matrilineal Succession”.3 I was in the midst of writing what I foolishly thought would be my first paper at the time, which wanted a response to the weirder scholarship on Pictish matriliny,4 and I devoured this book as the most fortunate coincidence. That paper, of course, originally dates from 1935, so I didn’t really get aware of the latest scholarship, which has generally moved beyond not just Radcliffe-Brown but also, well, most of the ideas expounded by Thomson as quoted by Barbero and Vigil…


It does have one very important point in it, however, supported by a range of African evidence, which is this: societies that privilege women in some respects tend not to do so in others. That is, where property passes from mother to son, family control may not; where mothers are respected as the source of a family’s identity, they may well not control the family property; in short, matriliny does not imply matriarchy and evidence of elevated women’s status in one respect doesn’t constitute evidence for an elevated status across the board. I mean, we knew this: look at the Troubadour epic, where the lady is the pinnacle of desirability and idealised to a fault, against the era that created it, where a number of powerful women not withstanding, brides were basically traded like horses; or, look at the slightly earlier situation in Catalonia where the hyper-masculinised warrior culture that generates all the feudal oaths from lord to vassal, which unlike earlier documents don’t involve couples ever, names almost all the participants by their mothers even though succession doesn’t go through them in either property or power.5 Well, okay, some of us knew it. Everyone should know it. Then I might not be able to get away with using sixty-year-old anthropology to refute not just thirty-year-old history but ten-year-old history which, in both cases, wanted to hark back to a women’s golden age that I think we’ve recently reminded everyone who’d listen never happened.

1. Abilio Barbero & Marcelo Vigil, La Formación del Feudalismo en la Península Ibérica, 2nd edn. (Barcelona 1979), pp. 330-331 and on till the end.

2. Alfred P. Smyth, Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland A. D. 80-1000 (London 1984), vs. W. D. H. Sellar, “Warlords, Holy Men and Matrilineal Succession (‘Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland, A. D. 80-1000’ by Alfred P. Smyth)” in Innes Review Vol. 36 (Glasgow 1985), pp. 29-42; Alex Woolf, “Pictish Matriliny Reconsidered”, ibid. 49 (1998), pp. 147-167; Alasdair Ross, “Pictish Matriliny?” in Northern Studies: the journal of the Scottish Society for Northern Studies Vol. 34 (Dundee 2000), pp. 11-22.

3. Alfred R. Radcliffe-Brown, “Patrilineal and Matrilineal Succession” in Iowa Law Review Vol. 20 (Iowa City 1935), repr. in idem, Structure and Function in Primitive
Society: essays and addresses
, edd. E. E. Evans-Pritchard & F. Eggan (New York 1965), pp. 32-48.

4. By which I basically mean Kyle A. Gray, “A New Look at the Pictish King List” in Pictish Arts Society Journal Vol. 10 (Edinburgh 1996), pp. 7-13, and idem, “Matriliny at the Millennium: the question of Pictish matrilineal succession revisited”, ibid. 14 (1999), pp. 13-32.

5. My reading on troubadour culture is woefully outdated, as with most of the reading in this post I suppose, but I will admit to Georges Duby, Women of the Twelfth Century Volume One: Eleanor of Aquitaine and Six Others, transl. Jean Birrell (Cambridge 1997), with which I realise there are problems. For the feudal oaths and their unusual filiations, see Michel Zimmermann, “Aux origines de Catalogne féodale : les serments non datés du règne de Ramon Berenguer Ier” in Jaume Portella i Comas (ed.), La Formació i Expansió del Feudalisme Català: actes del col·loqui organitzat pel Col·legi Universitari de Girona (8-11 de gener de 1985). Homenatge a Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Estudi General: revista del Col·legi Universitari de Girona, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona nos. 5-6 (Girona 1986), pp. 109-151 with English summary p. 557.

10 responses to “Matriliny is not matriarchy, repeat after me: interdisciplinary conversation III

  1. Oh, fine. Next thing, you’ll be telling us that Gimbutas was a kook and that bonobos are not extraordinarily peaceful and kind to all critters.

  2. David Hillman

    There is a convincing argument that pictish kingship was matrilineal here .
    Don’t know if you’ve seen it.

    • I think I find this less convincing than do you. He hasn’t realised that the extra point of evidence he introduces is actually the premise behind the no. 3 he repeats from the scholarship. I am actually happier with a matrilineal succession in several Pictish cases than Alex is, because I think that the foreign relations it makes likely explain several political historical oddities, but I still wouldn’t go so far as this. We’re all trying to make a picture out of a jigsaw where most of the pieces are missing however, and there’s room to justify many opinions. We all run into problems selecting which of the evidence we believe and can explain and which we have to dismiss. My problem with that article is not so much the slightly jumbled and partial selection he makes, but that he’s only taken in-field definitions of what matriliny would mean. On the other hand he’s definitely not made the category error that originally provoked this post!

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  4. This was really helpful in thinking about writing my own blog post about matriarchy, thanks! One book I’ve found helpful on the topic is Peggy Reeves Sanday’s Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy. She’s a contemporary anthropologist specializing in a (self-described) matriarchal society in Sumatra. She has an excellent overview of the scholarship on this issue, as well as a really nice redefinition of “matriarchy” that makes a lot of sense to me. But your point about matriliny/matriarchy is well-taken (and well-made).

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  6. Interesting article and excellent point made about matrilineal cultures! It’s obvious that just because a society is matrilineal in the strict definition that lineage is traced through the mother does NOT mean property or power lay in the hands of women, thus truly matriliny is not the same as ‘matriarchy’. And I put matriarchy in quotes due to the rather ambiguous and often politically contrived definition of that term. Matriarchy in the sense of the inverse or opposite of patriarchy in which females dominate and had absolute power while men had none or were somehow repressed we know is not only pure fiction but if anything reflects an attitude that is purely a reaction to patriarchy, not to mention being essentially unfeminine in nature with all its focus on overt power through force and dominance. Such a focus on masculine themes or forms of power bespeaks the psychology of SOME feminists and does not address the underlying actual issue. This issue is whether women throughout past human history and all human cultures were suppressed and deprived of civil rights respective of their cultures due to their sex and thus made legal minors of their fathers, brothers, husbands etc. and had no power at all in their private lives let alone the public. The answer is obviously NO. Yet as the scholar Max Dashu points out, a strawman or rather strawdoll argument of ‘matriarchy’ is put up where a society is only ‘matriarchal’ if it is ruled by a woman or women. Even anthropology shows that in the vast majority of so-called ‘matriarchal’ cultures, the political leaders whether chieftains or kings are still male with their succession via the mechanisms of indirect matriliny already described. Still, this does not mean that the power these male leaders had was absolute and without influence or input from women. Also, this tendency to focus on the political not to mention military spheres ends up obfuscating if not ignoring entirely those spheres of society where women truly expressed their forms of power which was usually in the religious and economical. Thus, if anything, ‘matriarchal’ cultures are essentially gender egalitarian cultures where there is true equality and complementation between the sexes. If anything, the passage you cited not only demonstrates that men still had power in mother-right societies but also that the shift to patriarchy or total male dominance happened gradually through steps of expansion of those male roles of power and encroachment and ultimately usurpation of whatever powers women had.

    • Well, I agree with you about the mixture of rights and privileges never being absolute, on the basis of the few societies I know in depth, but I’m not sure I’d want to extrapolate a trend towards or away from patriarchy (no better or worse a term than ‘matriarchy’, surely) from the Picts and some old African anthropology. There’s a strong contrary argument to be made that women have always been second-class somehow, in one way if not in anothr, and that was indeed what Radcliffe-Brown argued in that article, even as Judith Bennett now argues it from different bases. We all struggle to escape the temptation of seeing confirmation of our suspicions in the evidence, I suppose. A poor return for a thoughtful comment, though, thankyou for the interest.

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