Alliance and Feud in Bilateral Kinship Systems

While kindred and kinship degrees are commonly important for defining marriage prohibitions and preferences and regulating the transfer of property and status, bilateral structures seldom influence the broader economic and political integration of society. However, there are some dramatic examples of their strategic importance organizing and settling conflicts between families in the context of weak or absent mechanisms for social control, as in the rough-and-ready world of early medieval Europe.

We have already documented the importance of the kindred for incest prohibitions and inheritance laws of various Germanic groups before the social transformations of the High Middle Ages. However, this grouping assumed its greatest relevance within the context of the endemic feuding that proliferated under Medieval conditions of weak central authority.

Medieval feuds erupted for same reasons that they do in many other societies, conflicts over women, land, and livestock which cannot be resolved through a formal legal process (see discussion of the Turkish Village, Yanomamo, and Dani for comparative examples of feuding.) In these situations, opponents seldom settle their differences on a one to one basis but call on the support of kin, who consider an assault on one of their number a challenge to all. Accordingly, many individuals who do not have a direct interest in the conflict are set against each other in protracted feuds, which often continue long after the original causes are forgotten. In the Germanic tradition, the warring parties were drawn from the kindred of the instigators, according to a formal expectation that all relatives within a third cousin range were obligated to participate. It is probable, however, that only the nearest circle of kin was heavily involved (Murray 1983:135-155).

The incidence of feuds was tempered by the interconnections between overlapping kindreds, which often included potential intermediaries within the circles of both warring factions. More formal mechanisms of conflict resolution were available through the institution of monetary compensation, whereby one party could buy peace by paying the wergeld of one of their victims to his or her kindred.

Wergeld, literally "man money", was a sum attached to each individual in medieval society according to his or her age, sex, and social status. In cases of murder, injury, and for women, sexual assault, all or part of the total was assessed in accordance with the severity of the crime. Upon payment, any dispute between the aggressor's and the victim's kindred was forestalled. The funds paid were collected and distributed according to the bilateral kinship structure. Members of the guilty person's kindred, within a third cousin range, had to contribute an amount in proportion to the nearness of their relationship. Correspondingly, the award was shared among the victim's kin with decreasing shares going to more distant relatives.

Wergeld Distribution According to Frankish Law
Children and Siblings 50% wergeld distribution
Wife 25%
2nd Degree Relatives 16%
3rd Degree Relatives 6%
4th Degree Relatives 3%

Source: Murray 1983:137-144

In addition to compensation payment, the transfer of individual responsibility to the kindred was apparent in other quasilegal matters including oaths, guarantees, and ordeals. The weak public authority could do little more in these areas than draw up codes to enshrine these customary practices.

The political importance of kindreds is also apparent in another bilateral example, the Iban of Borneo. In a society which has few formal institutions, the mobilization of overlapping ego focused kindreds enables the organization of numerous activities including long distance trading expeditions, headhunting, and intertribal warfare. In this last instance the Iban were able to launch fighting forces of up to 40,000 combatants on the basis of kinship networking which connected small circles of relatives into a vast interlocking complex (Freeman 1968).

Overlapping Kindreds

overlapping kindreds

© Brian Schwimmer
University of Manitoba
Created: Sept. 1997
Last updated: Sept. 2003