Reframing the History of Family and Kinship: From the Alps towards Europe

by Dionigi Albera (Volume editor) Luigi Lorenzetti (Volume editor) Jon Mathieu (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 268 Pages


Over the past few years, the cross-disciplinary field of research devoted to family and kinship history in Europe has seen the emergence of an important stream of studies developing wide-ranging comparative perspectives on great spaces and long periods. Their hypotheses and interpretative models differ somewhat with regard of the factors taken into account, and of the underlying logic identified for these processes. The first part of this volume presents a broad discussion of these recent developments. The chapters in the second part have an alpine focus and are dealing more or less directly with the theoretical framework proposed by Dionigi Albera’s book, Au fil des generations. The contributions to the third part of the book are further opening up the field. They leave the alpine terrain and are dedicated to some European contexts, with approaches that are generally influenced by the experience of Albera’s analysis of Alpine Europe.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part 1: Alpine Europe? Reconsidering Recent Research
  • Transitions in the Domestic Organisation of the Alpine Area, from the Late Middle Ages to Modernity
  • Problems of Scale and Mediation in Studies of Kinship in the Past
  • From the Alps to Europe: Combining Long-Term Approaches to Family and Kinship History
  • Part 2: From the Alps
  • Regional Spaces and Domestic Organisation. Homogeneity, Transversality and Trans-Cultural Diffusion in the Agnatic Alpine World (Sixteenth-Nineteenth Centuries)
  • Patterns of Domestic Organisation: The Transfer of Goods and of Relatives
  • The Uses of Kin. Kinship, Social Networks and Identities in the Swiss Alps (Eighteenth-Nineteenth Centuries)
  • Part 3: Towards Europe
  • Times and Spaces of Noble Kinship (France, Sixteenth-Eighteenth Centuries)
  • Changes in the Norman Inheritance System: a Legal Revolution or an Anthropological Evolution of Kinship in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries?
  • Children leaving Home in Europe in the Modern Age: Towards a Typology taking into account Western European Forms of Authority
  • Reconsidering Matrimonial Practices and Endogamy in the Early Modern Period. The Case of Central Italy (San Marino, Romagna and Marche)
  • Godparenthood in Western Europe from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century. Plurality of Models and Dynamics of Convergence
  • Abstracts
  • Authors

← 6 | 7 →



In recent years the interdisciplinary field of family and kinship history in Europe has seen the emergence of a number of studies aimed at developing comparative viewpoints that encompass a wide range of geographical and temporal contexts. Some of these general studies have covered the whole of Western Europe and focused on common evolutionary traits in different historical processes across the region since the Middle Ages. After a period in which localised studies and monographic approaches were dominant in the academic field, these works now appear, in some respects, to echo certain comparative elements that were already present in the field of family history during the 1960s and 70s. From this point of view it could be said that this field of studies is characterised by alternate recurring cycles of underlying trends which could leave one with the impression that we are witnessing the “corsi e ricorsi” (“occurrences and recurrences”) of which Giambattista Vico wrote. Yet, as Vico himself pointed out in his philosophy of history, a cyclical sequence should not be understood as a series of identical replicas of preceding phases. Recent studies accordingly display substantial differences compared to their precursors, with families and households no longer being seen as separate from kinship, and with a widespread focus on historical changes in kinship conception and practice. It should also be noted that it is not possible to speak of a unified field with regard to these more recent trends. Hypotheses and interpretative models differ somewhat concerning which factors scholars choose to take into account, and the underlying logic that they apply to these processes. These differences can be seen clearly among some of the most prominent recently proposed theories on kinship evolution in European history.

In a number of his writings the French historian Gérard Delille has presented a model which owes a great deal to the alliance theory developed ← 7 | 8 → by anthropologists like Claude Lévi-Strauss and Françoise Héritier1. According to Delille it is possible to identify what he defines as a “European” (or “Christian” or “Western Christian”) system of marriage in large parts of the continent during the medieval and early modern periods. At the heart of this system were the regulations imposed by the Church after the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, which prohibited marriages within the fourth degree of consanguinity and affinity. European populations absorbed these guidelines and even complemented them with other tacit prohibitions, like that against marriage between two people sharing the same surname (or with a partner whose surname could be found among the women of the other partner’s parental line). Delille, then, believes that Europe was characterized by an alliance system in which marriages systematically linked distant relatives at degrees outside the canonical prohibitions. The exchange of women between alternate lines (mostly patrilineal, sometimes in combination with matrilineal ones) would constitute a core element of this system at the Western European scale.

According to Delille, this system of marriage circulation underwent a radical transformation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and was replaced by a different system under which an increase in marriages between close blood relatives or affines was accompanied by a parallel growth in the number of marriages between unrelated people. In this way there were both a contraction and a divergence with respect to the earlier comprehensive endogamy organised through long term cycles, spanning over several generations. In the twentieth century this new phase gave way, in turn, to the effective disappearance of consanguineous marriages.

Delille’s theories have raised a number of questions. Some authors have noted that it is difficult to prove that historical actors had a very extended memory of kinship, going back five or six generations. They observed that few families in the past, aside from the elite, possessed written documents, and most of the people were unlikely to have been able ← 8 | 9 → to produce the genealogical records that would be necessary to adequately identify exchanges between alternate lines2. Some critics emphasise the fact that Delille’s study is weighted in favour of families who remained in one place for several generations and is almost always based on incomplete genealogies with data for some marriages completely missing, especially those on the matrilineal side3. This patrilineal bias would have a general weakening effect on the general model, causing the cognatic character of kinship in medieval and modern Western Europe to be underestimated4.

The theory proposed by Delille raises questions about how short-term dynamics might relate to mechanisms of exchange between alternate lines that can play out over centuries. Another issue is that of the connection between the underlying principles of kinship and more concrete factors like the influence of economics and politics. Delille puts forward a fascinating analysis of the latter, but (following the structuralist tradition developed in the field of anthropology) he remains, nonetheless, convinced that the symbolic (cultural) aspect is in a position of primacy. For instance, he proposes a reversal of the thesis whereby the acceleration of economic exchange was responsible for the disarticulation of kinship and alliance. He believes that it was, on the contrary, the system of matrimonial exchanges which by encouraging exogamy, was at the origin of an increase of economic exchanges in early modern European history5. This culturalist approach recalls ideas that were proposed several decades ago by Peter Laslett, John Hajnal and Alan Macfarlane, who suggested that the European economic take-off had its origins in a kind of cultural matrix that materialised itself in the predominance of the nuclear family and of late marriage. On the other hand, Delille’s vision of a contraction in kinship from the eighteenth century has some points in common with that of a ← 9 | 10 → number of historians, including Lawrence Stone, who in the 1970s wrote extensively on the decline of kinship in the English upper classes, situating this decline earlier, between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries6. On a more general scale, Delille’s ideas are akin to the master narrative of the decline of kinship in connection with modernisation.

This central narrative has been criticised by the historian D. W. Sabean, another author who has undoubtedly had a crucial influence on the development of new approaches to kinship history. In proposing a rather different vision from Delille’s, Sabean has formulated several important hypotheses concerning changes in the practice and representation of kinship in Europe7 and has encouraged collaborative studies which led to a book co-edited by Sabean himself 8. This volume (covering the development of kinship over an extended period, from 1300 to 1900) presents a coherent research programme, the aims of which are clearly outlined in the introduction9 and in the introductory notes to each section. The definition of kinship is broad, and includes inheritance and succession models, alliance systems, the circulation of goods amongst relatives, terminology and cultural representations. According to Sabean and Teuscher we should move on from the idea that kinship is always different for each specific context, and is associated with other types of relationships in an unsystematic way. They also believe that we should reject the theory embedded in the subconscious of social sciences according to which kinship has witnessed a decline in Europe due to the growing importance of other institutions such as the market or the State10. In order to stimulate comparative research and encourage debate among different research traditions, the book suggests two major historical transitions in kinship dynamics that took place across the whole continent. ← 10 | 11 →

The first of these transitions dates to between the late Medieval period and the beginning of the early modern period, approximately from 1400 to 170011. This transition was marked by a strengthening of the patrilineal penchant of kin organization, through the development of agnatic or single-heir models of inheritance, the interlocking of client relationships and marriage alliances, and the growth of vertically structured kinship networks. Social structures accentuated the role of descent, agnatic kinship, paternal authority, domestic discipline and exogamy. According to Sabean and Teuscher, spouses in European societies before the second half of the eighteenth century were generally not related to each other (here they are in sharp disagreement with Delille). This transition was interwoven in the process of modern state formation, and connected to a more precise definition of property rights as well as the establishment of less permeable social hierarchies. The differences that can be observed in the rhythm of this transition are thought to be due to local variations in the timing of each States’ consolidation and reconfiguration of property rights.

The second transition began in the eighteenth century, around 1750, and continued into the following century. While the previous period had glorified agnatic kinship, we see here the development of new models based on alliance, bilateral kinship networks and social and familial endogamy. Sabean and Teuscher argue that, from the second half of the eighteenth century, marriages increasingly tended to take place between couples closely related by consanguinity or by affinity, thanks to the gradual disappearance in Europe of laws prohibiting these unions. Moreover, this transition was embedded in those social dynamics which were characterised by the rise of capitalism, the development of a class structure and the modernisation of the political machine.

While Delille’s model was inspired by the alliance theory of French structuralist anthropology, the interpretative framework proposed by Sabean and Teuscher seems to have more in common with the “descent” theory formulated by British social anthropologists. Sabean and Teuscher had emphasised the occurrence of a process of “verticalisation” during the first transition, which enhanced linearity and especially patrilinearity in kinship relations, along with the development of dynastic configurations. It is only with the second transition, during the late eighteenth century and the nineteenth, that alliance and kin marriages took a central position within the context of a process of “horizontalisation”. Thus the situation as ← 11 | 12 → envisioned by Sabean and Teuscher is diametrically opposed to that suggested by Delille who, as we have seen, believes that there was a contraction in kinship from the eighteenth century and that preexisting exchange networks were disrupted. For Sabean and Teuscher, on the other hand, this period saw an intensification of kinship relationships, resulting in what they define as a “kinship hot society”.

Sabean and Teuscher’s model has become an important reference for those working in the field of kinship and family in European history and stimulated comparative discussions. Some authors have suggested that the empirical basis on which Kinship in Europe relies is mainly focused on the elite and have called for a wider analytical scope in order to test the model with other social groups12. In an influential essay, François-Joseph Ruggiu remarked that the behavioural patterns highlighted in Kinship in Europe may not be so much the result of a temporal evolution as they are of social selection. In other words, they might be mainly concerned with the elite, with the addition during the nineteenth century of the middle class. Citing results published in the studies of French authors, Ruggiu suggests that, when considering other social groups it is possible even for the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to identify ‘kinship-hot’ sub-societies, meaning groups of families who routinely practiced close-kin marriage13. On the other hand he states that even in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the percentage of consanguineous marriages remained low, and this casts some doubts on the relevance of a phenomenon which has been described as structuring for European populations14. Putting forward a more radical opinion, another historian has argued that this numerical increase of cousin marriages did not reflect a change in attitudes, and was simply a side effect of demographic transformations that generated a higher probability of kin marriages15.

We can now turn our attention to a different approach toward kinship and family history in Europe, which Dionigi Albera has proposed in several works, principally in a book published in 2011 that aims to combine ← 12 | 13 → history and anthropology with a long-term approach stretching from the fourteenth to the twentieth centuries16. In comparison with the aforementioned works, Albera’s book has a narrower scope since it focuses on just one portion of Europe, namely the Alpine region which hosts a great variety of political and ethno-linguistic configurations. This reduction in scale makes it possible to delve deeper into an empirical study of local evidence in order to corroborate more generalised conclusions. Albera is also interested in an intermediate sphere, between the large vision of kinship promoted by Delille, Sabean and Teuscher and the household and family structures that have been central to the research tradition founded by the Cambridge Group in the 1960s. In order to delineate this intermediate thematic area, Albera formulates the concept of domestic organisation to indicate a series of relationships formed through activities related to common residence, production, distribution, transmission and reproduction. These elements are not isolated from their social framework, since the author also takes into consideration the legal context, access to collective resources, settlement structures, social relationships within villages and rural communities, and the nature of local political institutions.

Albera’s comparative analysis takes form through successive stages. His theoretical foundation rests, initially, on a micro-analytical approach which makes it possible to define a first typology, with the formalisation of three ideal-types (“Bauer”, “bourgeois” and “Alpine agnatic”). This typology is then supported through an analysis of a large body of monographic studies on the Austrian, Italian and Swiss Alps. This enables the author to define three rather compact regional sets whose main characteristics correspond to the ideal-types, with a regional polarisation of domestic practices that reveals substantial continuity over time, and is sometimes still recognisable in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These long-standing divisions within Alpine Europe do not seem to be connected to environmental or ethno-linguistic factors, but mainly to divergent historical processes rooted above all in the political and juridical domains.

Using the knowledge obtained from his Alpine observatory, Albera discusses the model of historical transformation put forward by Sabean and Teuscher. He argues that the chronology of the first transition, from the Middle Ages to the early modern period, should be more flexible, and observes that the growth of agnatic tendencies does not necessarily imply ← 13 | 14 → an increase in dynastic inclinations and the succession of a single heir. This process seems to apply to the nobility and to leading urban groups, but it is scarcely present in Alpine rural societies, among the peasants upon which Albera’s study is, essentially, focused. On the whole, by situating itself at a meso-level, Au fil des générations builds a set of theoretical instruments that may help renew, at a more general level, the history of the family and kinship in Europe, by putting the issue of the difference between regional blocs and among social groups at the centre of the discussion, along with the issue of scale and of the relationship between micro, meso and macro methodologies. This approach requires cross-fertilisation between microhistory, Albera’s meso-analytical approach, and wider visions that emphasise the existence of common transformations, at a continental level, in kinship conceptions and practices. The articles contained in this volume represent an attempt to move in this direction. They are closely connected to Albera’s work, although the theories of Delille and, above all, those of Sabean and Teuscher, will often be evoked in the following chapters and have inspired the research presented here.

The first section of this volume presents a broad discussion of recent developments in kinship history, with contributions from two of the editors of Kinship in Europe and from the author of Au fil des générations. In his chapter, Jon Mathieu first considers certain features of the genesis of the latter book, going on to examine different processes of historical transformation described or suggested by Albera within the framework of his spatialised typology. He then formulates several arguments suggesting that Albera’s “contextual typology” of Alpine domestic organisation is compatible with the model of historical transformation proposed by the editors of Kinship in Europe.

For his part Simon Teuscher discusses the opinions outlined in Au fil des generations and responds to Albera’s criticism of the chronology of transitions described in Kinship in Europe. In his dialogue with Au fil des generations, he also notes the existence of a number of parallels between certain Alpine patterns and the general interpretative framework that he and David Sabean delineated at a European level. Teuscher’s discussion of Albera’s book leads him to address the issue of scale in historical research and the problem of mediation. This latter problem has to do with the multiple articulations of kinship, which manifest themselves as signs and symbols as well as material entities like property and practices, and Teuscher convincingly argues for a better appreciation of this issues. ← 14 | 15 →


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2019 (April)
history of the family kinship history social history
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 272 pp.

Biographical notes

Dionigi Albera (Volume editor) Luigi Lorenzetti (Volume editor) Jon Mathieu (Volume editor)

Dionigi Albera is Director of Research in the Centre national de recherches scientifique CNRS. He directs also the Institut d’Ethnologie Méditerranéenne, Européenne et Comparative IDEMEC at the Maison méditerranéenne des sciences de l’homme MMSH (Université Aix-Marseille). Luigi Lorenzetti is Professor at the Università della Svizzera italiana where he is also coordinator of the Laboratorio di Storia delle Alpi, Accademia di Architettura, Mendrisio. Jon Mathieu is Professor of History at the Department of History, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, of the University of Lucerne.


Title: Reframing the History of Family and Kinship: From the Alps towards Europe
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
270 pages