Monday, June 19, 2006

Church efforts to reshape Roman and Barbarian family structures


I continue to be enthralled by Dr. Daileader's course "The Early Middle Ages" offered through The Teaching Company".

Another fascinating area that Dr. Daileader expounds upon is the
evolution of the family structure during Late Antiquity and the Early
Middle Ages. Dr. Daileader pointed out that Roman and Germanic
families shared several important traits. These include the fact that
a family was based on a concept of household rather than core family
unit. The household would include servants, clients, and property.
Heads of households wielded extensive power over its members including
the acceptance or rejection of newborns. Both Roman and Germanic
peoples practiced marriage but accepted other relational forms such as
concubinage and divorce was an acceptable practice to terminate a
relationship. Both Romans and Barbarians favored indogamy (marriage
within the kin group) to preserve concentrations of wealth within the
extended family. Adoption was also viewed as a totally acceptable way
to augment a family if appropriate heirs had not been produced.

But, significant differences existed as well. Romans practiced
monogamy while polygamy was widely practiced among Germanic tribes.
In a Roman marriage, property was transferred from the bride's family
(dowry) to the groom while in Germanic marriage, the property transfer
went from the groom to the bride in form of bride price and morning
gifts. A Roman marriage required the freely given consent of the two
individuals but a Germanic marriage did not. (He pointed out that
under Roman law a pater familias could involk the death penalty if an
offspring refused to go through with a prearranged marriage but the
marriage itself could not be performed unless both parties agreed to it).

As the two cultures began to fuse and Christianity spread, however,
the church sought to openly reshape family patterns. The church began
to impose sanctions against marriage within the kin group going as far
as the sixth cousin and even forbid marriage to members of godparents
families and even in-laws family members. The church condemmed
infanticide but also opposed adoption. The church opposed divorce but
also opposed remarriage of widows and widowers. Lastly the church
condemned concubinage.

Historian Jack Goody theorized that the church attacked these
practicies because they were strategies of heirship designed to
maximize the possibility of producing an heir so family property could
be transmitted to the next generation. He speculates that this was
done to increase the chances that the church would ultimately receive
bequests of property and increase its concentration of wealth.

Historian David Herlihy argued that the church condemed these
practices for reasons of morality, theology, and social utility. As I
do not see what the moral purpose was for opposing adoption,
remarriage of widows and widowers, and marrying extremely distant
relatives, I find it hard to accept Herlily's argument. It was also at
this time that the Carolingians introduced the 10 percent tithe
extracted with the force of secular law from all practitioners in an
effort to increase church finances so a network of churches could be
built throughout the Carolingian empire. So I personally would be
more receptive to Goody's theory than Herlihy's.
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