03.12.19, Drell, Kinship and Conquest

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Leah Shopkow

The Medieval Review baj9928.0312.019


Drell, Joanna H.. Kinship and Conquest: Family Strategies in the Principality of Salerno during the Norman Period, 1077-1194. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002. Pp. xiv, 245. ISBN: 0-8014-3878-0.

Reviewed by:
Leah Shopkow
Indiana University

Joanna Drell's book sits at the intersection of a number of currently "hot" and contentious issues: the structure of the noble family at the beginning of the high Middle Ages, power and gender, the medieval construction of ethnicity, memory, and the Normans abroad. While her focus is, as her title suggests, family and kinship in the relatively restricted region of Salerno, and her main contribution to scholarship is probably a nuanced and intelligent study of how the nobility (primarily) there changed (or did not change) under the impact of the arrival of the Normans, she touches on these other topics at various points in her study. Her work will be, therefore, of interest for comparative purposes for scholars engaging these other problems or similar questions in other regions.

Drell's main argument is that although ethnic memory was preserved in Salerno, with individuals identifying as Norman or Lombard long after intermarriage effectively meant that nearly everyone at the top level of society was both, the changes the Normans brought came about through political pressures rather than cultural ones; as the initial instability and insecurity brought by the Norman conquest of southern Italy gave way to more centralized political authority, noble families, of both Lombard and Norman origins, had to think strategically about how to manage family property. In common with scholars like Duby, then, she argues that in the late eleventh century the structure of southern Italian noble families was deeply affected by new political exigencies. However, Drell's work, like other recent scholarship on the medieval noble family, challenges the notion implicit in Duby's scholarship that changes in the family came about simply by force from without and that political changes were everywhere in the same direction and everywhere had the same effect. Drell emphasizes the agency of families in adopting certain practices (hence her title) and the way their strategies shaped and were shaped by political realities. In common with others challenging Duby's ideas, she has found, among other things, that women were far from excluded from power and autonomy, and indeed, that their families did not wish to exclude them.

The book is divided into five chapters in three parts. The first chapter, "The Noble Families of the Principality of Salerno," discusses both how nobility was constructed in this region of southern Italy and what changes it underwent in the first half of the twelfth century, and whether this change was the result of the advent of the Normans. One sort of evidence comes from the southern Italian chroniclers, who like their counterparts elsewhere used a rather conventional picture of nobility as ideally composed of noble descent coupled with noble deeds. This is hardly surprising given the tendency of medieval historians (like modern ones) to think in ideological categories and also to participate in an historical culture that ran geographically and temporally far and wide. Documentary evidence gives a more precise, if ambiguous local picture; a variety of terms, some descriptive, some actual titles, were used to describe members of the nobility (who in southern Italy, as in so many places, were still distinct from the knightly class). Some terms (dominus, for example) indicated men of the highest status, while others, such as barones, included lesser members of the nobility. While there seems to have been overall continuity in who was considered noble, the title "count" went during the Norman period from being a general title connoting high status to being a title attached to the rule of a territory. Here the Normans seem to have made themselves felt, in making the political system in the south shift toward the organization they would have been more familiar with in Normandy. But the personnel of the nobility remained more or less the same (apart from die-offs, confiscations for revolt, and Norman in-laws).

In the second chapter, "Marriage Customs and Strategies," Drell deals with family management of property in relation to marriage. Marriage was complicated by the existence of two sets of customs in Salerno, Roman and Lombard, which were joined by Norman customs during the conquest, but the differences between them were less important than the areas in which they more or less agreed. Marriage was a public matter in all the traditions, and to be fully legitimate marriages had to be consented to by the parties (from the mid-twelfth century), the families, the Church and sometimes even the king, who in the second half of the twelfth century required the nobility to get permission to marry off their daughters ( 61). The concern families, whatever customs they followed, took to provide dowries for their daughters suggests that women were not excluded from owning property (women marrying under any system of customs also received an endowment from their husbands, whether it was a Lombard morgengabe, or a Norman or Roman dower). However, they needed the consent of their husbands, guardians (in Roman law), or mundoalds (a woman's required representative in Lombard custom) to alienate any of their property. Although some families gave cash dowries to daughters marrying, dowries could be and sometimes were land; dowers and morgengaben were invariably land, so married women inevitably held property, if often indirectly. Women frequently appear in the charters consenting to their husband's alienations; their consent would have been required, if, for instance, the land alienated came in part or in whole from their morgengaben or dowries. Drell argues, however, that the requirement that any woman living under Lombard law act only with the consent of her mundoald could be finessed by the woman or her family by permitting her in widowhood to choose her own mundoald (who could be presumed to be compliant with her wishes) or by choosing a compliant mundoald for her. That in some cases, the woman's mundoald was not even a relative is also suggestive that this role was becoming more of a formality than a real control over women's actions. Finally, there is some evidence in the twelfth century that the king acted to weaken the power of guardians over women. In this chapter Drell draws primarily on the more than 5,000 unpublished charters of SS. Trinit at Cava to illuminate these issues. Her discussion is marred only by a use of terminology which tends to confuse the reader as to whether she is talking about dowries or dowers and the odd implication that Normans did not know the custom of dowries (67).

The third chapter, "Inheritance and the Transfer of Property," also draws primarily upon the charters. Some wills existed, but as much property was bespoke by custom, there are relatively few extant wills and, as Drell notes, these wills probably did not convey all of the property inherited--property allocated automatically according to custom would not have been mentioned. These wills, then, contained extraordinary bequests, often to people who were not automatic heirs or who were receiving property that would not necessarily have come to them. Some properties mentioned in charters of donation can be identified as inherited, because the charter specified that they were. This evidence points to two dominant patterns of inheritance within the most noble families, one in which one son was favored over the other children and one which preserved the earlier pattern of partible inheritance. Drell suggests, however, that what was happening was not the importation of male primogeniture from Normandy, but a noble response to the increasing power and centralization of government particularly in the first half of the twelfth century; preservation of the patrimony helped the family maintain its standing in the face of royal power. Royal legislation, however, tended to reinforce the trend toward consolidation of the patrimony, as it permitted these families to serve the king better. The process, then, arose from the interplay of royal and family interests, hence it was not universal as some families sought to preserve their interests through consorterie, groups that shared ownership. The lower nobility did not as a group espouse the winner-take-all system of inheritance.

The two chapters of the third part address the question of kin- -who belonged to the kin group and what kin felt about each other. Chapter four, " Lineage and the Memory of Kinship," is, like the previous two, rooted in the charter evidence. Drell addresses three ways in which people thought about their kin relationships, "social memory" (familiar from Fentress and Wickham's book of that name), how people were identified as parts of families and lineages; "generational memory," the sometimes lengthy lines of descent that were remembered by families claiming their origins in a pre-Norman count; and "ethnic memory," how people identified themselves as Norman or Lombard in the increasingly intermarried noble class. Drell sees generational memory and ethnic memory as counterparts. The great families descended from the Lombard aristocracy trotted out extensive genealogies in their charters, while those of Norman descent instead were identified as Norman. Drell explains this as representing two different strategies for laying claim to legitimate authority, one appropriate for those whose ties to southern Italy predated the Norman advent, the other for those whose claim to power lay in membership in the dominant group. It seems probable that the charter evidence is not sufficient (or at least, Drell does not attempt) to answer a particularly interesting question: how those who were the products of intermarriage chose (or had chosen for them) a Norman or Lombard identity. Nevertheless, such choices would have had to be made, given the degree of intermarriage and the durability of the distinction between Normans and Lombards (130).

The last chapter, "The Meanings of Family," addresses two issues. The first, supported by charter evidence, examines who was called upon in charters to appear as guarantors and witnesses and who was prayed for. This part of the chapter contains Drell's best discussion of class differences in Salerno and how they prompted different views of family. More prominent families were fairly restrictive in the kin they called upon to support them. Less prominent families retained the extended kinship networks that some of the upper levels of the nobility had begun to forego, a pattern that Drell quite reasonable explains as deriving from the issue of power--for these less important families, the combined force of an extended family was needed to equal the clout of a prominent noble, who could rely on officials (157, and, although Drell does not point this out although it is implicit, much greater financial resources). The second issue is affective relationships and this is the weakest part of the book. The difficulty is, as Drell points out, that we don't have a lot of evidence for the emotional ties between family members. This section is particularly forced back upon the chronicle record, in which descriptions of the relationship between individuals often had political purposes (see, for example 164-5). It isn't that Drell says anything misguided, but that the evidence itself is thin enough to make the section rather unsatisfactory.

The book ends with a number of appendices, most indices to the Cava charters. However, it would be a mistake for readers to skip the first appendix, which discusses the genealogies of the seven most important families in the region. The appendices also include genealogical tables. I'm assuming that the editors at Cornell decided to put these at the back, but it would have been nice to have them at the front; I discovered that they existed only after reading the book.

Drell's book has many strengths and few weaknesses. What is particularly pleasing, in a work which relies to a great extent on charters, where much of the language is formulaic, and on chronicles, whose narratives are so often shaped by authorial concerns, is how well Drell shows the area of play for individual and family choices and how often these choices eluded the kinds of hard and fast generalizations that have been made about them; the choices individuals and families made had far-reaching implications for what their families were like. For instance, when faced with the problem of the fragmentation of family holdings, many families of the high nobility in the principality of Salerno chose to limit the number of heirs and move toward a winner-take-all inheritance scheme (112-114). When members of these families chose guarantors and witnesses for their charters, these individuals tended to belong to the immediate family--wives, sons, mothers and fathers, and the occasional nephews (or perhaps grandsons) (149-50). However, the families of San Severino (of Norman descent) and Capaccio (Lombard) made different inheritance choices: in these families, inheritances were shared out, sometimes under the overlordship of one son (114-115). When these families issued a charter, a much wider kin group appears in the records. (This point is beautifully illustrated in Table 8, the genealogy of the lords of Capaccio (218-9), with its large number of first and second cousins.) Different choices about inheritance had implications down the road for who comprised the kin group and whether, in the end, one would engage in property transactions with one's cousins or not. While Drell doesn't always pull all of these points together, they are there to be found in her text.

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Author Biography

Leah Shopkow

Indiana University