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19.10.02 Hummer, Visions of Kinship in Medieval Europe

19.10.02 Hummer, Visions of Kinship in Medieval Europe

Hans Hummer notes that, in his life as an historian, "Few things are more thrilling than the struggle to understand and inhabit outlooks of people living in different times, an experience equaled only by the effort to grasp how the past has shaped the present" (97). In this work, Hummer focuses on the definitions of kinship in Europe from Late Antiquity to the twelfth century. What the modern age takes as a given regarding the nature and definitions of human relationships was quite different in the past: yes, biological relationships are clear-cut, but kinship is a concept that greatly exceeds parent-child relationships. It is a system of social connections much more nuanced, political, and relative, so to speak. In Antiquity and the Middle Ages, social connections began with the household, including many more individuals than merely those with close biological ties, and extended through ever-widening circles to encompass economic, political, and spiritual relationships.

Hummer explains the current existing difficulties of defining kinship even today: in some societies, kinship is defined by those with whom one shares food, while in other societies, organ transplant recipients see themselves as connected to the donor individual. Kinship may extend to adopted individuals, or not, as exemplified by the insistence on finding one's birth parents. Is kinship constructed or performed, much as gender is? Or is it determined by nature? Summing up Marshall Sahlins' work, Hummer explains that "kinship is participation in other people's existence" (107). And more specifically for readers of this work, medieval kinship is defined as a reflection of divine relationships, as described, for instance, in the New Testament, and by Augustine in his description of the divine urbs.

Hummer begins his study with a summary of Barthold Georg Niebuhr's early nineteenth-century conclusions about the Roman state's organization, beginning with patriarchal families who made up gentes, who belonged to clans, who in their turn formed curiae. Later nineteenth-century scholars who studied kinship include Johan Bachofen, who traced the passage from hetaerism (defined as primitive promiscuity) to matriarchy, eventually giving way to patriarchy, as evidenced in mythologies; Henry Sumner Maine, who used customary law to explicate kinship; Fustel de Coulanges, who determined that ancient Greeks and Romans defined kinship as all those under the authority of a particular male; John Ferguson McLennan, who did ethnographic studies of so-called "primitive" tribes exemplifying ancient societies' definitions of kinship; and Lewis Henry Morgan, who qualified societies as civilized or barbaric depending on their kinship systems.

Chapter Three, "Disambiguation in the Twentieth Century," begins with the interdisciplinary Annales historians in France, and the German prosopographical approach. Much of twentieth-century scholarship on kinship and feudalism has been a chicken-and-egg argument. Which came first: propertied families who formed an aristocracy, or royal favor and endowment? The state or extended clans? The early twentieth-century Alfons Dopsch insisted that the concept of private ownership and the existence of an elite class had been continuous presences. Otto Brunner later used the occurrence of medieval feuds between lords and princes, as contrasted with the Sippe, or clan relationships that created and enforced the peace, to explain his vision of kinship in the Middle Ages. While Marc Bloch's seminal work, Feudal Society, made the sweeping postulation that the arrival of feudalism was an admission of the weakness of the kinship system as social organization, Georges Duby studied the push-pull relationship between kinship and state, insisting on their co-existence rather than the elimination of one by the other.

Fundamentally, much of this kinship scholarship leaves us with the following as defining components of "relatedness": individuals may be connected by blood, by political association, and by a spiritual link. However, in contrast to our modern sense of non-ending relatedness-by-biology, medieval relatedness can be terminated, often by conflict, for instance, as Gerhard Lubich suggested in his study of a passage in the Deeds of the Saxons.

Another aspect of kinship studies includes organization by the paternal side versus the maternal side. The historian Karl Schmid's significant contribution to kinship studies consisted of his study of monastic libri memoriales for the ascendants of Count Rudolf of Pfullendorf. His work demonstrated that early medieval aristocratic families were organized cognatically and not agnatically, and that patrineal descent only came to be emphasized in the eleventh century, though Régine Le Jan more recently demonstrated this change to have taken place in the ninth century.

Hummer's Chapter Seven, "More Noble by Sanctity," is the most interesting analysis of the ways in which Frankish families demonstrated kinship through monastic relationships, and indeed drew much of their prestige and authority from such spiritual connections. He presents seventh-century Gaul as a case in point when Frankish aristocrats demonstrated a profound interest in and patronage of monasteries, institutions which now grew in wealth and prestige, and kept records of their relationships with wealthy families. One type of records were precariae, charters which documented donations of property to a religious institution, allowing the donor to control it until death, though the donor's heirs often inherited control of the gifted property as well. Such charters become "a record of the precarial properties that bound the monastery, its patrons, and its patrons' descendants to one another" (249), arguably constituting another layer in the definition of kinship. Similarly, other charters demonstrate that oblates were not perceived as cut off from their families; rather, they continued to be identified with their families, and functioned as a corporal link between monastery and family, as was the case with documents related to Hrabanus Maurus.

This is a world in which biological siblings (such as Romanus and Lupicinus; or Caesarius and Caesaria of Arles), or parent and child (such as Sadalberga and Anstrude), could attain a closer and richer relationship when they left the household and joined the extended spiritual family of a monastic order. Individuals such as Germanus of Auxerre, transformed from lawyer to bishop, did not sever relationships with a spouse, but merely transformed the kinship connection: in Germanus' case, he now regarded his wife now as his sister. Life in a convent or monastery, thus, did not obliterate ties with those who had biological connections, as shown by Anstrude's anguish over her brother's death. Christ may have instructed his followers to leave their families behind if they wished to be counted among his followers, but this was certainly not always interpreted by medievals as a total rejection of family bonds.

Hummer also examines texts such as De rerum naturis by Hrabanus Maurus, inspired by Isidore's Etymologies, for documentation of medieval definitions of kinship. Clerical analogies that compare the relationship of husband and wife to that of Christ and the Church speak volumes about perceptions of marriage and family, to say nothing of attitudes toward women who were thus afforded much more respect than moderns tend to expect from the Middle Ages. Dhuoda's advice manual addressed to her son makes a regular distinction between the biological genitor and the pater, or genitrix and mater, with pater and mater reserved to designate a higher order of parenting reserved for spiritual advisors, mentors, guides, Church fathers, and God himself. Such medieval commentators used terms of kinship to understand the divine and even to humanize the mystical relationship with God. Similarly, in his analysis of Nithard's Historia, Hummer stresses that Nithard accentuates the status of sainthood of his father Angilbert, documented by his uncorrupted remains, over his own status as grandson to Charlemagne, concluding: "Kinship was rarely just persona; it was infused with the eschatological and interwoven with the saved, both the living and the living forever" (230). For Hummer, medieval names for human relationships were attempts to define and replicate perceptions of relationships with and among the divine.

With Chapter Ten, Hummer shifts to the study of the development of genealogy modeled after biblical precedents. While this may seem like a seismic shift, once again the medieval meaning of genealogy was different from our meaning: genealogy in the Middle Ages was a way to justify kings and emperors as clearly chosen to rule, through the discovery/narration of an illustrious eponymous genealogy, such as the plethora of genealogies purported to explain a ruler's descent from the Romans, the Franks, or the Trojans. Genealogy justifies one's reign and power: "A genealogia sanctioned the right to rule not by blood per se, but because it revealed the continuous chain that must bind rulers—no matter how preposterous we mind [sic] find the genealogical link—to the Promise of History...To have a genealogia was to have been marked out by God to rule" (297-298), making such links useful for counts, kings, emperors, and popes. Hummer devotes significant space to an analysis of Lambert of St. Omer's Liber Floridus (1121), best described as an eclectic encyclopedia of history, legend, nature, chronicles, and of course, genealogies describing family trees of Jesus, Job, Cain and Abel, the Frankish monarchs, the counts of Flanders (Lambert's homeland), and Lambert's own family genealogy.

Visions of Kinship is a dense but rewarding read, based on excellent scholarship, careful to not confuse modern and medieval sensibilities, and respectful of different perspectives, while remaining mindful of the limitations of certain approaches. Hummer provides useful summaries of historical trends in research, along with the call-and-response from one scholar to another with extensive documentation. It will long be a useful reference for scholars of medieval social organization and mentalities.