The transformation of kinship and the family in late Anglo-Saxon England

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The transformation of kinship and the family in late Anglo-Saxon England

By Andrew Wareham

Early Medieval Europe, Volume 10, Issue 3 (2001)

Abstract: The development of the family into a small unit in which descent was traced almost exclusively through the male line is regarded as a major turning point in medieval European history. The early stages of the formation of agnatic kinship have usually been connected to strategies designed to preserve and retain control of patrimonies and castles, arising from the breakdown of public order. In this article it is suggested that the emergence of new kinship values was connected to the investment of aristocratic energy and resources in monastic programmes, and to subtle changes in lay involvement with the rituals associated with death and the salvation of souls.

Introduction: At the turn of the eleventh century the nobleman Wulfric founded Burton abbey in Staffordshire so the Benedictine monks would pray for the salvation of his own and his ancestors’ souls, but who were these ancestors? Prosopographical studies of confraternity books (lists of names of deceased souls for whom the monks offered special prayers) have been used to suggest that nobles such as Wulfric stood at the centre of extended kindreds, which defined their identity through bilateral descent (descent traced through both male and female kin) and kinship connections with royal and ecclesiastical office holders. At each generation these kin-groupings contracted or expanded depending upon the interplay of politics, royal patronage, marriage alliances and ‘fictive’ kinship strategies such as fosterage, godparenthood and so on.




As it happens, Wulfric’s family or for that matter any other tenth-century English dynasty cannot be mapped in this way because England, in contrast to continental Europe, does not have sufficient number of confraternity books. The corpus of Anglo-Saxon wills provides the best available evidence to analyze kinship, but it also encourages a slightly different perspective from the prosopographical studies of European confraternity books.

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Sharan Newman