Heirs

Maurice Bloch

  • The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe by Jack Goody
    Cambridge, 308 pp, £22.50, July 1983, ISBN 0 521 24739 X

The appearance of a book entitled The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe, and written by an anthropologist, will not surprise either historians or anthropologists. In the last ten years the two subjects have been paying increasing attention to each other. They have tried to learn each other’s methods, jargon and mannerisms. They have even begun to meddle with each other’s subject-matter. Nonetheless, this publication is a new development, for Goody is dealing with one of the most familiar places and periods of traditional history: Europe from the decline of the Roman Empire to the Reformation.

The very scale of the enterprise is revealing. Covering such a long period and such a diverse but well-studied area in just over two hundred pages means that there can be no question of original research here. Goody has to rely on secondary or tertiary sources and cannot hope to consider all the relevant literature systematically. His aim is to show a fundamental pattern which explains some of the basic features of European society, a pattern which emerged over a long period, probably originating at the time of the conversion of Rome to Christianity, but whose implications were only fully felt in Northern Scotland in the 16th and 17th centuries, where the book ends.

Such long-term and wide-ranging studies are not characteristic of either history or anthropology, but have recently come to the fore in both subjects as a result of the influence of such French historians as Braudel and his followers. Braudel’s phrase the longue durée has become part of the fashionable vocabulary of anthropology. The value of the approach can be seen in its results and this example is undoubtedly a success. Perhaps it was not necessary to lead the reader so fast and so far, forwards and backwards, through centuries and localities, but a clear, even dramatic thesis emerges which could only have been formulated over such a broad canvas. Goody proposes that the characteristics of European family organisation are principally due to rules forbidding marriage between close kin, and that these rules were introduced in order to make it possible for the Church to acquire immense wealth.

The starting-point of the book is an examination of the differences in family and marriage systems between the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean. Goody criticises historians such as Guichard who have seen these differences as fundamental. Their error comes from a lack of wide comparative knowledge, which would have put those differences that do exist in perspective, and from an insufficient theoretical understanding of the nature of kinship, an area of study which has long been the special preserve of anthropologists. The basic differences which characterise European family and marriage, Goody argues, are all the result of rules forbidding a number of practices designed to ensure the continued transfer of property within restricted groups from generation to generation. These practices Goody calls ‘strategies of heirship’. They include the tolerance of concubinage in order to obtain an heir to a man whose wife is barren, the inheritance of widows between brothers, and, above all, marriage amongst cousins, in order to avoid dispersing the patrimony among outsiders. But where did these rules, which were to give the European family its unique character, come from?

For a long time it had been loosely assumed that they must have originated in Biblical practice and law, since the justification given for them was always that they were sanctioned by the word of God, as given in the book of Leviticus, which contains many regulations concerning sex and marriage. An alternative possibility was that these were in fact Roman practices, since we know that, as a result of imperial conversion, many Roman ideas eventually became indistinguishable from Christian ones. Goody shows quite convincingly that neither of these alternatives is satisfactory. The laws set out in Leviticus do not offer any basis for the banning of marriage between the relatives who were – and are – forbidden to marry by most Christian Churches. In fact, the Romans and the ancient Jews for the most part favoured such unions. Goody therefore suggests that these rules must have been introduced, with false Biblical justification, by the Church in order to cause problems for the transmission of property – to make the strategies of heirship ineffectual. These problems were turned to advantage by the Church, which was able to ensure that the property which would have been inherited by heirs, had there been any, was willed to the Church instead.

Not surprisingly, according to Goody, the Church not only interfered more and more in family and marriage, but at the same time encouraged the practice of making individual wills and discouraged the quasi-automatic transmission of property common in other societies and in earlier times. By these means the Church acquired fabulous riches. This fact in turn moulded the economy and the politics of Europe right up to the Renaissance, and ultimately became a major cause of the Reformation. This led to yet further changes and developments. In this way, Goody argues, many of the most characteristic features of European society are the direct or indirect result of the Church’s rapacity. As if this were not enough for one book, Goody also deals with such related matters as the claim that Christianity is and was a mainstay of the family, a myth which he debunks in no uncertain terms.

Whether these arguments are borne out by the historical evidence I am quite unable to say, and I suspect that many historians may share my difficulty, as the questions have not been raised in this way before. Jack Goody’s book also raises interesting questions as to the value of considering traditional historical data in anthropological terms. What seems to be demonstrated clearly enough is how fruitful it can be to apply to history what is probably the most fundamental tenet of social anthropological theory: namely, that every aspect of society is related to every other. This may seem to be little more than a platitude, but what matters is that anthropologists have worked these interrelationships out in some detail and in quite unexpected ways. That the concept of love is linked to the distribution of landed property is exactly the kind of point that anthropologists are continually making, but it is less common in the historical tradition. It is the demonstration of these interconnections both synchronically and diachronically which makes Goody’s study so exciting. Even if he is wrong, this way of looking at the data will be a stimulus to historians to make these kinds of connection.

Then there is the more technical matter of the significance of expertise in kinship theory. It is becoming clearer and clearer to both historians and anthropologists that the idea that kinship is only of importance for primitive society is wrong. The size and organisation of our domestic groups, the degree of co-operation between relatives, the way classes reproduce themselves from generation to generation through kinship, have always been central to our own society, even though we are taught to ignore these things. It is important that historians should improve their knowledge in this difficult and fascinating area, and for this they will have to continue to turn to anthropologists. Goody does show how sloppily terms and concepts borrowed from anthropology have been used by historians and he will no doubt help to clarify the discussion. He has, however, also been a little naughty. In telling historians what to do, Goody appears to speak with the united voice of all anthropologists. Sometimes this is the case, but often he sneaks in his own views, which are far from accepted within his own subject, but which he presents as though they were the received orthodoxy. For example, he speaks as if all anthropologists were agreed that plough agriculture always implies a certain type of kinship. Again, he criticises the historian Diane Hughes for a way of looking at dowry and other marriage payments which would find much favour with many of Goody’s colleagues.

A more serious criticism can be made of Goody’s treatment of the family and marriage, which shows that he has allowed himself to be too easily led by the traditional concerns of history that dominate the sources he relies on. What distinguishes anthropologists from other social scientists is that they know well the people they study, know them even on an intimate personal basis. When they are doing their field work, often in remote parts of the world, these people are their only companions: they share their lives with them and, inevitably, they come to share their ideas. The process of assimilation is often frighteningly easy and thorough, and anthropological writing, above all else, reflects this shared comprehension. Anthropologists know that rules about whom one should marry and not marry are never just a matter of quasi-legal regulations, but are linked to ideas about what constitutes a human being, to internalised emotions, to learnt ways of seeing the environment, to beliefs concerning the ‘natural’, the ‘supernatural’, the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘bodily’. Now, even if we are to believe with Goody that the system of marriage regulations introduced by the Church was designed to bring about the transfer of land to the clergy, this would only have been possible if the new marriage regulations struck a chord in the beliefs, the emotions, the social knowledge of the people for whom the laws were designed. In other words, legislators and legislated had to share each other’s assumptions, and the nature of these shared assumptions should have been examined. The exploration of this interface between the instrumental and the implicit, between the intentional and the symbolic, seems to me to be potentially the most fruitful area of co-operation between historians and anthropologists. Yet this is what is largely missing from the present book.

We are given a view of history where change is a matter of innovation rather than a transformation of established patterns of belief and knowledge. To put it simply, it is quite impossible to understand why it was that those people who were told by the Church that they could not marry their cousins were convinced that this was right, natural, the law of God, etc. That they were convinced is clear; and even if we had not known that it must have been so, Goody makes it plain when he tells us how, even after the power of the Church had been rejected by people such as Calvin, it was still felt that the pseudo-Biblical rules of incest had to be obeyed. Of course there can be no question of personal interaction with people in eighth-century Italy, but such interaction is always a matter of imagination and empathy informed by knowledge. An anthropologist who has learnt this process of attunement on the ground can, I believe, attempt it, though it will always be a riskier business, across the centuries. I therefore regret that Goody has not been more of an anthropologist, or perhaps a different kind of anthropologist. Had he been able to match the greed of the Church and the culture of the laity, his book would have been even more challenging for historians, while also showing the full contribution which anthropologists can make to the study of history. It is nonetheless a most stimulating and exciting work: in a period of retreat and timorousness in the humanities, we badly need the sort of challenge it offers.