The Western Catholic Church’s influence on marriage and family structures during the Middle Ages shaped the cultural evolution of the beliefs and behaviors now common among Western Europeans and their cultural descendants, researchers report.
According to an article published earlier this month in the journal Science, Western Europe developed greater individualism, lower conformity and increased trust of strangers which can be traced in part to the Medieval Western Church’s policies.
These policies relate to marriage, and who could be allowed to marry whom in medieval Europe. The authors write that:
by the Early Middle Ages, the Church had become obsessed with incest and began to expand the circle of forbidden relatives, eventually including not only distant cousins but also step-relatives, in-laws, and spiritual kin. Early in the second millennium, the ban was stretched to encompass sixth cousins, including all affines. At the same time, the Church promoted marriage “by choice” (no arranged marriages) and often required newly married couples to set up independent households (neolocal residence). The Church also forced an end to many lineages by eliminating legal adoption, remarriage, and all forms of polygamous marriage, as well as concubinage, which meant that many lineages began literally dying out due to a lack of legitimate heirs. As a result of the Marriage and Family Program, by 1500 CE (and centuries earlier in some regions), much of Europe was characterized by a virtually unique configuration of weak (nonintensive) kinship marked by monogamous nuclear households, bilateral descent, late marriage, and neolocal residence.
The study finds that the Church’s religious decrees on marriage systematically replacing extended kin-based family networks with smaller, more independent nuclear households with weak family ties. To rule out alternative hypotheses that could explain their results, they controlled for variables including geographic factors, income, wealth, and education.
Ultimately this would lead to significant and long-lasting psychological variations, compared to other regions for the world. In particular, the proclivities of individuals in western, industrialized countries are unique. Previous research has shown that these societies, more recently characterized as Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic – or “WEIRD” – tend to be more individualistic, analytically oriented and trustful of others whilst demonstrating less conformity, obedience and solidarity.
The article, “The Church, intensive kinship, and global psychological variation,” by Jonathan F. Schulz, Duman Bahrami-Rad, Jonathan P. Beauchamp and Joseph Henrich, appears in Science. Click here to read it.