The Medieval Review 10.10.10

Livingstone, Amy. Out of Love for my Kin: Aristocratic Family Life in the Lands of the Loire, 1000-1200. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010. Pp. xiii, 280. $45 ISBN 978-0-8014-4841-6. .

Reviewed by:

Erin Jordan
University of Northern Colorado
erin.jordan@unco.edu

Amy Livingstone's Out of Love for My Kin makes an important contribution to our understanding of how feudal society functioned following the year 1000, and the extent to which life for the nobility was transformed in these pivotal centuries. Her voice joins those of other scholars who have recently questioned the chronology associated with primogeniture and patrilineal descent, as well as the uniformity of such practices once they were adopted. She argues that, in the region under investigation, the shift to such practices did not happen as early as previously assumed. Once they did appear, their effect was not nearly as extreme as scholars tend to believe, to a large degree because they remained one choice among several within a family's arsenal of property dispositions until at least 1200. Challenging the impact of these practices leads to a reassessment of other facets of noble family life, including relationships between and among families, the role of marriage, husbands' relations to wives, and the position of women generally within the aristocracy. Contrary to the portrait painted by so many medieval historians (most notably Georges Duby, Philippe Aries and David Herlihy) the aristocratic families that people Livingstone's Loire region in the eleventh and twelfth century emerge as broad, inclusive, and supportive. They cooperated in protecting assets and were connected by affective bonds. Rather than viewing members of their immediate families as extraneous if not threatening, they valued them, maintaining relationships across time, space and kin groups.

In chapters 1 and 2, Livingstone sketches a brief, though detailed, history of the region, tracing important political developments that shaped its dominant families. These families emerged as major players between 1100 and 1200, as the region was transformed into a political entity. This transformation paralleled that of the French monarchy, and nobles often found themselves caught between an increasingly centralized and consolidated France and the powerful Angevin empire.

After providing an overview of the historiographical debates that she intends to engage and identifying the various relationships that could form among family members in the first two chapters of the book, Livingstone begins to make her argument in a more pointed fashion in chapters 3 and 4. She aims to debunk a number of claims about the impact of new inheritance practices on family, property and power, focusing in particular on the disposition of property. Drawing from a meticulous investigation of the charters produced by a handful of aristocratic families in this region, she suggests that inheritance practices remained much more varied and fluid than previously assumed. Some families in this region adopted primogeniture and privileged the senior male line. Others, however, did not. And even when families did adopt new ways of transmitting land to the next generation, the impact of these practices on all members of the family was not nearly as negative as previously assumed.

Chapters 5, 6, 7 are devoted to the topic of marriage. Livingstone begins by examining the disposition of property as a measure of the importance assigned to women. These transactions also provide evidence suggesting that ties to one's natal family were not automatically severed after marriage. She attempts to challenge a range of assumptions about demographics, most notably age at first marriage, arguing that the majority of women she is able to identify in the documents were considerably older when married than many studies have suggested. Further, Livingstone argues that, contrary to the accepted wisdom about family strategies post 1000, marriage was seldom restricted to eldest siblings, at least through 1150. She explores naming patterns to demonstrate the collateral structure of families and the continued importance of matrilineage. Her examination of nearly a dozen seigneurial families in the regions lead her to conclude that families remained cognatic longer and marriages became companionate earlier than previously believed. Relationships between husbands and wives were far more amicable than portrayed in many narrative sources, which tend to focus on the most sensational unions, rather than presenting the norm. The wives who appear in her charters are often invested with authority, and not just in times of crisis or during their husband's absence. Livingstone also discusses the role of women in religious patronage, directing donations to various foundations and interceding with monks and nuns on behalf of their family--both actions a reflection of their continued high status. While Church reform is often presented as transforming aristocratic marriage during this period, Livingstone argues that it was actually slow to take, as families continued to enter into unions that members of the clergy would have considered incestuous up until 1200.

In Chapter 8, Livingstone explores contested transactions and what they reveal about family dynamics. Such documents are often viewed by scholars as rather limited, providing insight into family dysfunction or disputes. On the contrary, Livingstone argues that they also reinforce the notion that families were comprised of an intricate web of individuals who, even if in anger, communicated across kin groups and generations. The ability to contest a donation or transaction implied a potential claim to the property involved, allowing Livingstone to demonstrate the range of relationships that existed among these noble families.

In the end, Livingstone seeks to present the noble family as comprised of a web of relationships, rather than as a single, patrilineal stalk, pruned in each successive generation to the detriment of younger siblings and females. Contrary to the portrait of dysfunction and alienation that historians have presented in the past, Livingstone argues that personal relationships among noble families remained largely positive. Rather than viewing younger siblings and women as collateral damage, pushed to the margins by primogeniture and patrilineal descent, Livingstone repositions them firmly within the family fold as valued and valuable assets. The web of relationships that she identifies in the documents is illustrated visually in the 9- page appendix comprised of genealogical charts, clearly the product of painstaking research and meticulous attention to detail.

To a large degree, Livingstone discovers a much different reality for noble families than the one presented by past scholars because she is looking in different places. Instead of relying exclusively on narrative accounts of noble life during this period, Livingstone draws from a range of sources intended to complement, rather than contradict, each other. Of particular note is her use of charters. Often dismissed as too rhetorical or cryptic to reveal much in the way of personal relationships or family dynamics, charters seldom appear in studies of medieval family life. However, Livingstone mines these sources for glimpses into the private lives of a handful of well- represented medieval families, cogently arguing that one must "read beyond the first line of the charter" to appreciate the interpersonal relationships that they can reveal.

However, while narrative accounts are widely acknowledged as difficult for historians to navigate due to the agenda of their author and their narrow focus, charters are equally problematic, though in different ways. Livingstone's approach to this genre of documents is certain to spark a lively discussion among historians about the merits of charters, and raises a number of issues about how we interpret the evidence at our disposal. While most medievalists would agree that charters can yield a considerable amount of information about family, marriage and women, some might question the interpretive approach taken by Livingstone. While we cannot dismiss terms of endearment or respect as empty rhetoric, an equal danger lies in reading too much into them. They seldom provide knowledge of any discussion or negotiations that may have occurred prior to the transaction among the individuals involved, or any way to gauge their personal feelings about the transaction. In instances when an attempt is made to gage personal sentiment, Livingstone is most convincing when the body of the charter proves additional information, or when a combination of documents across time allows her to reconstruct personal relationships. The inclusion of the original French or Latin text would have provided additional support for her interpretive approach, allowing the reader to see exactly how certain terms were translated. Also, written consent does not automatically imply consultation or willingness. While one cannot automatically assume that consent was secured through coercion, appearance in a charter perhaps indicates nothing more than compliance. As historians, we might be forced to accept the fact that we will never be able to recover some elements of the past.

Finally, Livingstone's work, and its historiographical arguments in particular, encourage us to question exactly how long historians are going to allow the specter of Georges Duby to loom over our understanding of the medieval past. In spite of a considerable number of studies that have challenged or provided correctives to Duby, Livingstone's among them, his paradigm of the noble family and depiction of the dynamics that animated them remain extremely influential, invoked by historians as truth nearly as often as they are questioned. Perhaps it is time to move beyond Duby, recognizing in his work on families, marriage and women a valuable opening salvo in what has become a lively debate, but no longer accepting it as the final word.