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21.09.16 Leidholm, Elite Byzantine Kinship, ca. 950–1204

21.09.16 Leidholm, Elite Byzantine Kinship, ca. 950–1204

Kinship is beguiling. It has long beckoned researchers with its patterns, tantalizing them with chimerical objects of analysis, and leaving them trapped in an epistemological and conceptual maze. Maurice Godelier's Metamorphoses of Kinship, published in 2004 and translated into English in 2011, demonstrated just how intertwined kinship is with other spheres of human thought and activity, prompting Jack Goody to title his review ofGodelier's book the "Labyrinth of Kinship." [1] Metamorphoses, which Goody declared the most ambitious book on kinship in a half century, took stock of the mostly Anglo-American reconceptualization of kinship since the publication of David Schneider's 1984 Critique of the Study of Kinship. [2] Schneider had argued that kinship was a western category of analysis that fit uneasily at best, and not at all at worst, many of the societies that anthropologists had been trying to understand. A quintessential sign of this ethnocentrism was the biogenetic biases in kinship studies revealed in the labeling of non-biological forms of kinship as "fictive," which effectively granted primacy to biological kinship. Schneider himself was pessimistic that kinship could ever be used for cross-cultural analysis, but his critique unintentionally ushered in decades of creative scholarship on kinship that Godelier brought together in his book.

The main lesson of the anthropological work on kinship over the last forty years has been that kinship is not, and never has been, the "primary," "base," "fundamental," "elemental," or "root" form upon which any society has ever been "built." Kinship is always embedded in, and in perpetual interaction with, the political, cultural, and economic spheres, so much so that understanding kinship is inseparable from understanding a society's distinctive ontology. Only then can one apprehend that what appears to be fictive to an observer can be quite real to others.

Nathan Leidholm's study, a revised version of his PhD dissertation, examines Elite Byzantine Kinship between the tenth and the early thirteenth centuries. In particular, his book explores thegenos, or aristocratic family, "both as a social group and, importantly, a concept" (1) "foundational to the social and political structure of the Byzantine aristocracy." This genos--a "strictly consanguineous kin group," "immune to change beyond the reproductive act" (2)--emerged beginning in the tenth century and from the eleventh century became "foundational to the social and political structure of the Byzantine aristocracy" (1).

The study comprises six chapters, the first four of which deal more exclusively with kinship, and the last two with the wider politics of kinship. The first chapter, "Defining 'The Family' in Byzantine Sources and Modern Historiography," observes that genos had a range of uses. It could refer to families, a species, ethnicities, Christians or Jews as peoples, and even to social classes. The chapter reviews scholarly attempts to define the genos, and concludes mainly from philosophical and legal sources that the genos was a "natural" grouping, i.e. "a consanguineous kin group"--the "primary form of the family concerned in both marriage and inheritance law"--whose "cohesion rested more squarely in ties of blood and the family's collective reputation, enshrined in the family's name," which was "heritable" (14, 34).

Chapter two examines "The Language of Kinship." The major takeaway in this chapter is the linguistic change visible in the increased usage of genos in narrative sources beginning in the early eleventh century. This change is especially conspicuous in the histories of Michael Psellos, who in the late eleventh century used the word to "indicate aristocratic lineages" and "political factions" (47), and of Nikolas Choniates in the early thirteenth century, by which time figures were routinely designated with their family surnames. As "the genos moved to the center of the Byzantine vocabulary of kinship," so too did a "a coded vocabulary of belonging, nobility, and praise" (51).

Chapter three turns to marriage impediments as a way to explore the "outer limits of the singular, 'natural' family, and thus of the genos" (63). The debate over the prohibited degrees of kinship in marriage was "no less than an interrogation of the nature of kinship and the family" (64). The genoswas "the form of the family" in questions about marriage, which exploded after 1025 (72). The canonical writings of various bishops are summoned to testify that the genos was a "distinctly and solely natal kin group"; it was the "primary form of the family"; and "the expansion of prohibitions in the eleventh and twelfth centuries...was quite literally the expansion of the genos as a legally recognized kin group" (84, 85).

Chapter four, "Interrogating Consanguinity," explores the idea of shared blood and heritable traits in Galenic medical treatises, which were widely studied during the period in question, as well as letters, histories, and literature. The evidence here is used to underscore the book's general insistence that the genos was "unambiguously imagined as a natal kin group" and that "knowledge of reproduction was foundational in medieval Byzantine thought on the nature of kinship" (94, 109). There is "no question" about this, and the "interest [in consanguineous kinship] only increased over time" (109).

The certainty--insisted upon over the first four chapters--that Byzantines had decided that kinship was fundamentally consanguineous clashes with chapter five on "Family Names and the Politics of Reputation." The chapter opens with a vignette about the Emperor Michael VI, who designated his nephew, also named Michael, as the Doux of Antioch, and granted him the surname Ouranos, after Nikephoros Ouranos, the deceased duke, to whom the new duke was unrelated: "The reality of biological ties, however, was less important than the perception of a link between the man and thegenos of Ouranos" (111). The chapter explores the importance of reputation attached to "heritable" surnames, upon which the "solidarity" and "identity" of the genos was "centered" (118). Evidence of this solidarity is the fact that marriage did not disrupt it, so that women continued to bear the name of their natal genos, and objects such as lead seals, which advertised a person's "membership" in agenos and associated "their individual actions with their genos as a collective whole" (132).

Chapter six turns to "Kinship and Political Developments of the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries." It explicates the politics of the period in terms of the maneuvering of families, especially the Doukai and the Komnenoi, the latter of which dominated the emperorship during the twelfth century and transformed imperial politics into "family rule." Ultimately this turned out to be a disaggregating development in Byzantium due to the "emphasis on loyalty to the genos as a kin group rather than the genos of the Romans" (161).

The last two chapters complicate the argument carefully laid out in the first four chapters. When these gene are actually observed within the wider political context, instead of as sociological abstractions, they do not come off as terribly coherent or as "primary forms," "elementary building blocks," "singular," or "stable" (13-14). I think the book has overdetermined genos as a discrete, bounded family, strictly limited by consanguinity, possessing a "unique identity" (151, 159), and often modified throughout with a definite article as "the genos," which is construed as a "term" (22) rather than a word. The rhetoric of the analysis--which does not appear to be derived from the sources themselves--subtly molds individuals into "members" (e.g., 110, 128) of a genos, who act out of "loyalty" to the "collective whole" (132, 161), and whose names are "heritable" (e.g., 118-124, 134). But was there ever such a creature as "the genos"?

Leidholm is an honest, thorough scholar, whose own findings suggest other possibilities. We learn that these families actually possessed shallow genealogical depth, rarely exceeding the generation of grandparents (17, 21, 126); that the genos group is not necessarily coterminous with those sharing a name (28); that the genos never received legal recognition (27, 29, 167); that the genos is an ego-centric descent system (34) (which by definition cannot be fixed or stable); that individuals would have had trouble listing members of their genos (168); that Michael Psellos blurs the line between genos as a kin group and genos as a kind of elite or national group or social order with no genealogical links (47); that it can be difficult to distinguish praise of ancestry from commentaries on biological inheritance (103); that various figures claim or are bestowed surnames to which they had no consanguineous connection (111); that geographical surnames are used almost as often as family surnames as designations of a person's genos (115); that figures vied for public recognition of their ancestral reputations (119, 135) (thus suggesting that the facts of consanguinity were not decisive); a person could choose the genos name of the mother or father, or could even hold different surnames at different times (120, 122) (thus undercutting the idea that gene were "singular," "stable," or "heritable"); that people claimed kinship to other families to which they were not strictly related by blood (111, 127, 130, 151); that Emperor Isaac passed over consanguineous kin when he named his successor (147) (thus gainsaying loyalty to the kin group); and that the Komnenoi were actually a conglomerate of families and riven by infighting (much of chapter 6).

Along the way, we also learn of other intriguing phenomena: there was no word for "the family" per se in Byzantine society (14); the Byzantine sources are actually "vague" and "inconsistent" about the genos (16); Byzantium possessed a rich tradition of adoption and spiritual kinship (14, 33-340); and an expansive "language of kinship" that transcended individual families was deployed in the service of rulership (147). These issues might have been explored to soften the strident emphasis on consanguinity, and push the analysis in other productive directions.

I don't doubt Leidholm's contention that genos appears with greater frequency during the period in question, or that "natural kinship" became a topic of interest. I do think that the analysis has confused ends and means, and as a result has biologized Byzantine kinship and the intentions of Byzantine writers in directions that lead to our ontological terrain instead of theirs. Consanguinity seems in many examples that appear in the study to be a way of speaking about relationships, not necessarily as empirical attempts to fix them rigidly to biology. As the anthropologist Vivieros de Castro has warned about the biologizing of kinship, "perhaps biology is what we get when we start believing too much in our own ways of speaking." [3]

Helpful would have been an examination of what blood, as the substance of kinship, meant during the period under examination. The anthropological scholarship on kinship since David Schneider'sCritique has had many illuminating things to offer about that, as has the work of historians who have taken their cues from that work, represented most notably in the volume on Blood and Kinship by Chris Johnson, David Sabean, and Simon Teuscher; and in the wonderful articles there and elsewhere by the medievalist Anita Guerreau-Jalabert. [4] Illuminating too might have been some interaction with Karl Ubl's monumental study of incest legislation in western Europe during the Middle Ages, whose insights could help explicate the relationship between the outburst of marriage legislation and the fraught factional politics that Leidholm notes but does not thoroughly develop. [5]

I suspect that "the genos" did not signify a recognizably bounded kin-group that served as a base or elemental form; rather, the evidence in its totality points to something that meant ancestry, or rather claims to ancestry, invoked by elite operators in the competition for status and influence. That a woman should keep her natal surname, for example, seems to be a manifestation of the jockeying for status, not that that the genos as a coordinated group somehow obligated their women to keep the family name. As Leidholm concedes on several occasions, these kin groups were something more like political factions, vying for leverage in a world marked by status anxiety, and therefore were constantly undergoing...metamorphoses. That the word genos and surnames proliferated during this period is a fascinating phenomenon, but one that may testify not to the existence of coherent family blocs, but to the episodic mobilization of kinship--and by that I mean a kinship that includes but was not restricted to consanguinity--to meet shifting circumstances.

Examining kinship requires letting go, sometimes giving up control, accepting the human capacity for creativity as people familiarize the unfamiliar. In its eagerness to fix the meaning of kinship as "fundamentally," "primarily," or "unambiguously" consanguineous, this meticulous book has found itself in the labyrinth of kinship.



1. Maurice Godelier, Metamorphoses of Kinship, trans. Nora Scott (London, New York: Verso, 2011); Jack Goody, "The Labyrinth of Kinship," New Left Review, 36, Nov/Dec (2005), (

2. David Schneider, A Critique of the Study of Kinship (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1984).

3. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, "The Gift and the Given: Three Nano-Essays on Kinship and Magic," in Sandra Bamford and James Leach, eds., Kinship and Beyond: The Genealogical Model Reconsidered (New York: Berghahn, 2009), 237-268; 242.

4. Christopher H. Johnson, Bernhard Jussen, David Warren Sabean, and Simon Teuscher, eds.,Blood and Kinship: Matter for Metaphor from Ancient Rome to the Present (New York: Berghahn, 2013); Anita Guerreau-Jalabert, "Spiritus et caritas: Le baptême dans la société médiévale," in Françoise Héritier and Elisabeth Copet-Rougier, La parenté spirituelle (Paris: Éditions des archives contemporaines [Ordres sociaux], 1995), 133-203; "La désignation des relations et des groupes de parenté en latin médiéval," Archivum Latinitatis Medii Aevi 46-47 (1988), 65-109; "Flesh and Blood in Medieval Language about Kinship," in Johnson et al., eds., Blood and Kinship (2013), pp. 61-82.

5. Karl Ubl, Inzestverbot und Gesetzgebung: Die Konstruktion eines Verbrechens (300-1100)(Berlin: De Gruyter, 2008).