In some respects, Roman and Barbarian families will seem odd to us today, in other respects, however, they will seem very familiar. Because institutions which many consider timeless do, in fact, change quite a bit, it is worthwhile for us to explore those changes and how they came to be.
At the time of the Barbarian migrations in the fourth and fifth centuries, Roman and Barbarian families resembled on another in some crucial respects: each family, for instance, was thought of as ‘the household’, a term of much broader connotations then we think of it today. A Roman or Barbarian household did consist of a husband and a wife along with their children if they had them, but it also consisted of many more people; servants, slaves, distant relatives, also of property, were all considered part of the household. Legally speaking, the law dealt with the household in its entirety instead of just purely in terms of its people.
Indeed, the only households in Roman and Barbarian society which looked like contemporary households of the nuclear family were the very poorest families (those who could not afford any servants or slaves). Another similarity between Roman and Barbarian families is that the head of the household has considerable power over the other members. One way in which this power was often demonstrated was the head of house being able to reject newborns and either kill them or leave them with somebody else. Heads of houses also have extensive powers regarding the marriages of children; children who married against their parents’ wills faced severe penalties while in Barbarian society, such as the Lombard Code, they faced death.
Both Barbarian and Roman households had various types of long-term relationships between men and women. They have marriage, which is defined as a life-long commitment between a man and a woman, who intend to have children. But they also accept relationships which haven’t made it to the modern world; one such is concubinage: defined as a socially acceptable relationship between a man and a woman, in both Barbarian and Roman circles, concubinage was a long-term, though not permanent, relationship. In this relationship, both partners usually wanted children. Why these relationships happened rather than marriage were numerous—for instance, the Roman law forbids certain marriages between certain members of social classes. In this case, one’s only option was a relationship of concubinage. Sometimes heirs to households did not want to marry until the presently living head of house died, in which case, they would then become the new head of house with their marriage; if you are thirty or forty and your head of house is still alive, then, you likely do not want to spend that time alone, so you enter into a concubinage to bide your time until the head dies and you are able to ‘upgrade’ to full marriage.
For all these similarities, though, there are also important differences.
One such difference relates to naming patterns. Romans had three names—think of the three names of today (your first, middle, and last name)— with each name representing something different: your first name represented you as an individual, your middle was your clan name or tribe name, while the last was that name of the head of the household in which you were born. Barbarians, meanwhile, had only one name. Barbarian names often consisted of two elements, each one with a specific meaning; it was possible to denote familial affiliation, however, as Barbarian names usually had a collection of prefixes and suffixes which were used fairly exclusively by individual families.
Another important difference lies in property transfers (such as when one marries). When Romans married, property transfers took the form of a dowry (or, something in the bride’s family, usually property, which moves from the bride’s family to the groom). But in Germanic-barbarian marriages, moved in the opposite direction—it was the obligation of the groom’s family to provide property for the bride. This transfer may take two forms: one form was ‘bride price’, or property given to the bride’s family before marriage; or, ‘morning gift’, which went to the bride herself the day after the marriage.
Another such difference in Roman and Barbarian marriage customs is that Romans are monogamous. This is to say, that Romans can only marry one person at a time, you can only have one concubine at a time. Barbarians, meanwhile, are polygamous, which is to say, that one can be married to several women simultaneously.
But perhaps the most important difference between Roman and Barbarians relates to martial theory, or, more accurately, what it is that constitutes marriage itself.
Although Roman heads of the house had substantial power over their children when it came to marriage, the law stipulated that the marriage could not go forward unless both parties—the husband and wife— agreed to the marriage. If either the bride or groom did not consent to the marriage that their parents had outlined for them, then there is nothing that the parents could do to force the marriage. Barbarian tribes, meanwhile, did not consider free consent as an essential component of marriage. One, here, could have a marriage against the will of one or both parties. The only thing that one needs in Germanic-barbarian law for a valid marriage is the will to go forward on someone’s part, usually the head of house or that of a distant relative. Afterwards, one would need to consummate the marriage, otherwise, the marriage is not valid.
Both Roman and Barbarian marriage theory had practical consequences. In Roman law, for example, one cannot kidnap a woman and marry her against her will; in Barbarian law, though it is reprehensible—you will be fined for doing so—but it is a legal form as marriage as you do not need the full consent of both parties. As a result, these legal niceties have quite the consequences.
Between late antiquity and the early middle ages, we see a working out of Roman and Barbarian marriage practices.
In some cases, the Germanic practice will triumph, while in other cases it will be the Roman. In regards to naming practices, it is the Germanic practice which triumphs—each person has one name used on a daily basis as their primary identifier; when a teacher calls my name in class, they simply say my first name, not my full name. In terms of property transfers, again, it is Germanic custom which wins out with the property being transferred to the bride. In the year 1000, the dowry vanishes from Europe and won’t reappear until the High Middle Ages along with the full name. Instead, it is ‘bride price’ and ‘morning gift’ which are the standard marriage practice.
In deciding what would be the determining force behind which practices were going to be integrated into European law, it was often the Catholic Church. A good example of this is martial theory. By the year 1000, the Germanic theory of marriage, which you do not need to full consent of both partners, had been rejected; the Roman practice of needing consent, meanwhile, has been accepted. Why this happens is that Christian theologians in late antiquity—people such as Ambrose, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine—had decided that the Roman principal was the morally superior of the two. So they take it over and include it within Orthodox theology. Indeed, it is Christianity which drives the development of the family during the late antiquity and early middle ages period.
In a number of instances, Christian theologians and leaders, instead of arbitrating between Germanic and Roman practices, instead took on and challenged aspects of practices which had been perfectly acceptable to each civilization involved. They wanted to condemn and expel these practices wholesale from Europe. These reasons, even today, are controversial.
For example, Endogamy and exogamy.
Endogamy refers to marriage within the kin group while exogamy refers to marriage outside of the kin group. For Romans and Barbarians, Endogamy was preferable to exogamy; you wanted to marry a relative. You only married outside your family group if you had to. This is not to say that Romans and Barbarians had no incest taboos; one cannot marry any relative, brothers, sisters, direct relatives are all off limits and considered shameful. But beyond those relatives, one can pick anyone. So, ideally, the most sought-after marriage is cousin marriage (preferably, to your first cousin). It is curious that as early as the fourth century, Christian emperors begin to condemn the practice of endogamy. They forbid their subjects to marry within their kind group and encourage, instead, to marry outside from those people related to you. So, during the late antiquity-early middle Ages period, the ‘prohibited degrees of kinship’, as it is known, is expanded to a remarkable degree. By the year 1000, the prohibited degrees of kinship include not simply one’s first cousins but all the way up to one’s sixth cousin; to make these prohibitions even tougher, these prohibitions include not merely one’s blood relative, but also include your spiritual kin, or, people related to your godparents, and to those whom you are related to through marriage; so if your wife dies, you may not marry her sixth cousin since you are too closely related.
The way in which the church enforces these prohibitions is through ecclesiastical disciple. If one is discovered in such a prohibited relationship, one could be excommunicated, do penance to atone and, when they could, church leaders would also get secular leaders to pass laws which would punish those who married within the kin group.
In addition to opposing marriage within the kin group, Christian theologians and leaders also opposed other practices which were acceptable and common to Roman and Barbarians. Practices such as divorce, infanticide, adoption (since the Church believed it to be the duty of Christian communities to take care of the children who had lost both of their parents). Other condemned practices include re-marriage after the death of a spouse and, of course, concubinage is also condemned.
It was one thing to condemn these practices, and another to declare them to sin and require people to do penance. Additionally, it was quite another thing to get people to accept that these practices should be abandoned. In some cases, the Church’s attempt to remove these practices failed; by the year 1000, concubinage is still widespread. Still, by the year 1000, it is remarkable just how many of these practices had waned. Adoption, for instance, is rarer in the year 1000 than it had been in the Roman period. Polygamy is gone. Divorce is also much harder to achieve by the year 1000. Infanticide is much rarer and also not socially acceptable. Re-marriage and marriage within the kin group are all associated with a moral taint.
Why the Christian church so opposed these practices is unknown, but there are two prominent theories.
One theory by an English anthropologist named Jack Goodie states that one cannot take at face value the opinions of contemporaries (in the late antiquity-early middle ages period), because these explanations often made no sense: he thought that there must be an unspoken reason for why these prohibitions go into effect, as the idea that the reason one cannot marry their cousin to the seventh degree because God made the world in seven days, was ludicrous, even when there was some semblance of religious rationale for the prohibition. Goodie also rejected the idea that the Church rejected these practices on moral grounds; after all, at the time, there would have been nothing odd or morally reprehensible about these practices, since they were the common social sediment at the time. Rather, Goodie says that these prohibitions were about what he calls “strategies of heirship”. They were, in short, strategies to keep the family property intact. To Goodie, the church was interested in weakening the familial structure, and interested in weakening the ability of people to own property and pass it along because the church itself wanted the property. This, of course, is an unconscious impulse on the part of the church, but he nonetheless sees it as greed.
Not everyone accepts Goodie’s idea, though. One such historian by the name of David Hurlqley, who was a medievalist and very sympathetic to Christianity and Catholicism, rejects Goodie’s rejection of contemporary explanation of why we are doing these things (prohibitions). Hurlqley relies mostly on Biblical explanations for his theories but augments them by addressing issues of social utility and morality; the Church attacked infanticide because it was opposed to all sorts of Roman bloodshed (such as gladiator shows and the like). The Church outlawed polygamy because when a few men are able to hog all the women, this creates a large pool of single, restless males who are prone to violence.
Neither Goodie nor Hulqley, though, as enough evidence to conclusively decide on this matter. So the question of why the Church re-shapes the family in this way at the period between late antiquity and the early middle ages is to, for now, but perhaps always, remain an open question