Household, Kin And Family

Is a “family” something we have, or something we are part of? The Latin familia was a noun formed from famulus, a servant – whence also the witch’s “familiar”. It meant, not a relationship of kinship but one of ownership. A Roman’s familia was thus his household staff of slaves – it was something that he owned, possessed and held, with powers of life and death. By extension, his wife and children also; in the Republican period, he had the power to execute his children as well. For kin and lineage he used quite different words, for example stirps and gens. The Germanic tribes who remade the Empire were even more conscious of blood and descent, but conceived the kin-group laterally; in the early Middle Ages, therefore, a woman was first and foremost a member of her birth kin, and a wife only second.

Our culture takes it strangely for granted that it can speak of “family” and refer at one and the same time to a lineage and to a pair-bond. For these are by no means the same thing, and other cultures have taken it equally granted that they are at least potentially opposed. The bride or groom from outside the clan represents a security threat. With an eye to the Islamic rules of inheritance, many Muslim subcultures invariably marry their children to their own cousins, so as to keep the family property in the same lineage; while the Pashtun create peace between feuding lineages precisely by forced exchange of women as a kind of fine. This, too, was the whole point of medieval Christianity’s ban on marriage within six degrees of affinity; to prevent or break up endogamous and thereby isolated and hostile tribes. Whenever this is done, however, new sources of conflict are created, even in modern suburban society; whence our mother-in-law jokes. A man who loves his wife more than he loves his blood kin is proposing to deny the latter control of the future of the lineage; and if he does the opposite, he is depriving the his wife’s kin of their just share of control. It is a lose-lose situation. This was one of the reasons why medieval churchmen preached a steady, altruistic affection, dilectio, between married couples, but reprobated passionate attachments; both prostitution and the elaborate game of Courtly Love served to siphon romantic ardour and sexual desire safely away from marriage. The more a society is based on kinship, the more destabilising is excessive love (or lust) for one’s spouse; as the children of the bimbo-marrying millionaire by his first marriage will readily attest.

At the same time, however, the eleventh and twelfth centuries saw the return of Roman patriarchy; that is, a greater emphasis on patrilineal descent and primogeniture, so that the significant group became the vertical lineage of oneself, one’s own ancestors, and one’s own descendants, as opposed to the wider, living clan. It has been suggested that one of the factors driving the shift from a kindred-based concept of family to a lineage-based concept was the end of the great migrations. For when you are on the move, you are perforce known by your kinship relations with your fellow nomads or migrants; there is no other basis for naming you. Once you have a fixed abode, however, and take a surname from the castle you have built, then the important thing about you is whether you are the boss of the castle or not. And that means whether your father was boss of the castle or not; all your other relationships are suddenly a lot less important. Having now a stake in pure agnatic descent, you will begin to imitate royalty and invent yourself an eponymous forefather, who may even have staked his claim to your castle several hundred years before your real ancestors arrived. The whole modern idea of the family is now narrowed and tightened around this alleged straight line, this male conveyor-belt of castellan power that runs from this fictitious forefather to yourself. Female relatives become a lot less interesting, and unless the male line fails and the sole heir is a woman, they now have little share in what was once the common property of a clan. Such was the origin, in a brutal age of accumulation and rapine, of what we now assume is the primary meaning of the word “family”, the descent of a male surname. The rest of society, aping their betters, then began to conceive of family in the same way, even if they had no castles to their names.

By the nineteenth century, the “family” once again meant a household; except that the servants were now not considered an integral part of it. Where a Roman’s familia had been his immediate household, therefore, the nineteenth-century patriarch’s “family” was his wife and children, whom he was very close to considering his property. For the whole purpose and effect of the sentimentalisation of the “family” in this period was to prevent the woman’s kin or other outsiders from enjoying the rights of insight and interference that had been normal in previous ages. The family was to become a monadic fetish, entirely given into the hands of the husband in the strange belief that this thing called “love” would prevent maltreatment at his hands.

Who was it who enacted that Christmas should be solely about “family”? It used to be about community, for example the goodwill-suffused interactions of the entire village. Now the man, woman and children (or just the woman and her children) are under orders to further cultivate and refine their already profound isolation from the rest of the world.

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