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Beowulf and the Wills: Traces of Totemism?

After Hygelac falls in his Frisian raid, Beowulf receives a surprising offer from Hygd, his widowed queen (2367-70a):
   Oferswam ??a siole??a bigong sunu Ecg??eowes,
   earm anhaga eft to leodum;
   paer him Hygd gebead hord ond rice,
   beagas ond bregostol.

   Then he overswam the surrounding seas, son of Ecgtheow,
   troubled exile, returning to his people;
   there was he offered by Hygd hoard and kingdom,
   rings and prince-seat.

Hygd's offer sounds strange for a number of reasons.(1) I wonder, for instance, whether the early Germanic queen really had the power to select her husband's heir from the array of likely claimants, thus overriding folkright, the unwritten but implicit rules of descent. Further, I wonder exactly how those rules operated in preliterary Germanic Europe, whose folkways were at least as obscure to the insular Anglo-Saxon as they are to us today. Given the tenacity of oral tradition, I assume the legend inherited by the Beowulf-poet included a Geatish queen who offered the throne to the hero, whom Hrothgar also singles out as Hygelac's most viable heir (1845b-53a). That is, the poet receives, in his palimpsest-like folklore, an already ancient and overscored tradition of non-patrilineal descent among his ancestors. To him this is not altogether outlandish, since lateral succession prevails in Alfredian Wessex as in Scylding Denmark, Hrethling Geatland, and Scylfing Sweden, where brother follows brother to the throne.(2) In Anglo-Saxon England right up to the time of the Conquest there was not only regional and temporal variation, but in general no fixed rule of succession anyway, with various kinsmen of kings being potentially throneworthy (and therefore inherently predatory).(3) There is, however, no question that primogeniture was gradually asserting itself, favored by the same interrelated forces that gradually eroded the solidarity of the kindred: Church, monarchy, remnants of Roman law, and the infiltration of feudalism, finalized by the Anglo-Norman regime.(4) Ultimately, prone to such influences and therefore inclined toward primogeniture as the "right" line of inheritance, the Beowulf-poet has his hero reject the Geatish crown on behalf of Hygelac's son Heardred (2373-79a), whom he then serves as sagacious regent until his cousin's death again makes him confront his throneworthiness.(5) I think the poet thus accommodates a murky, idealized, misapprehended past to his own turbulent times.(6) Despite nice theorizing about probable periods and possible motives, the questions persist: could prehistoric queens select royal successors? What inheritance pattern prevailed in the lost culture of North Central Europe that shaped the legends received in Anglo-Saxon England?

Ultimately, in a reality that denies us Wellesean time travel, such issues cannot be completely resolved. But at least we can narrow down the range of probability, working from literary and documentary evidence. Such is my goal here: to reexamine an old solution to some of the inheritance problems posed by Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon wills. Since the argument for a matrilineal past in prehistoric Germania fell from grace decades ago, my case takes some time to present. I will, however, return to the primary texts toward the end of this paper. Meanwhile, my argument profits from advances in literary study and cultural anthropology--recent discoveries that make certain discarded solutions worthy of a second look. The methodological advance reinforcing this paper--an outgrowth of structuralism, perhaps--can be seen in books by Craig Davis and John M. Hill, both of whom explore more recent tribal societies to discover culture traits comparable to the hypothetical situation of the Anglo-Saxons.(7) Although a final resolution may continue to elude us, certain likelihoods nonetheless need to be reviewed if we are to acquire some inkling of the dynastic traditions suggested by Hygd's strange offer of the crown to Beowulf.(8)

Perhaps an offer like Hygd's is not really strange at all. Rather, it may only seem so, since our "own kinship system is so taken for granted that other systems will at first seem bizarre, irrational, and difficult to appreciate."(9) This is the lens we look through, unavoidably--the familiar arrangement in our surrounding society, which seems "natural" to us because we rarely need to fathom any of the multifarious alternatives that have developed in "alien" systems. "Everywhere children begin learning their kinship system at birth. Many of their first words are kinship terms; the people who care for them are all relatives. The kin words become essential guides to action because they place persons in categories and assign statuses."

Accordingly, our own kinship perspective is as limited as that of the Beowulf-poet, although along different lines. Like ours, his kin structure was bilateral, i.e., the individual reckoned descent through both parents, mother and father. Recurrently, the laws and wills specify obligations and bequests for both sides of ego's kindred, maternal and paternal.(10) We may assume that folkright was equally bilateral, albeit now unrecoverable. The bilateral family, somewhat like the obsolescent wachselnde Sippe "shifting kin group,"(11) has traditionally been considered antithetical to long-lasting "kinship solidarity."(12) where enduring clans develop to produce fixed rules of exogamy, ancestor veneration, and, ultimately--given natural, usually zoological eponyms--the quasi-religious culture complex called totemism. But "we are not compelled to regard highly corporate kin functions simply in terms of the unilineal principle, for we now know that groups recruited on the basis of cognation, or a combination of principles, can carry them out as well."(13) Most likely, the long prehistory of Anglo-Saxon kinship structure involved various shifts in reckoning patterns (and nothing like a universal standard), although there is no reason to impose any pat evolutionary schema upon the Germanic or any other tribal past. In comparison with our own form of cognation, nowhere in Anglo-Saxon England had the system crystallized into the rigidly patronymic arrangement that has governed Western culture in the modern period. Children did not receive their father's surname regularly and automatically at birth, an institution we have come to consider "normal." The early English kinship system thus appears to have been in flux when compared to ours:(14) the inclination toward a more fixed patrilineal arrangement had established itself without fully eclipsing significant reflexes of an archaic matrilineal element. The outstanding reflex,(15) often noticed but rarely explained, manifests itself in the provocative distinction given to the mother's brother, a distinction apparent in the wills as well as in Beowulf.

Following Lancaster, scholars have tended to deny that an outmoded unilineal system existed in the Germanic past and exerted subtle influence upon kinship structure in Anglo-Saxon England. While the emphasis on the mother's brother has never been satisfactorily explained, recent writers tend to agree with Lancaster:(16)

Bilateral or cognatic kinship systems may in simplest terms be described as those in which descent from ancestors and affiliation to a set of kinsmen may be traced through both females and males. All societies have some cognatic elements, but those which are thought of as having unilineal descent minimize, in some or all contexts, associations with kin linked to either parent. Consequently, such societies form demarcated kin groups, which persist from generation to generation. In societies that trace relationships bilaterally, on the other hand, each sibling group has affiliations with a different set of cognatic kin.... Every person may have his own range of relationships, which coincides exactly with no other in the society. Evidently, bilateral sets of consanguineal kin centered on Ego, the focal relative, have no structural persistence over generations.... Anglo-Saxon kinship systems, like those of modern England, belong to the class of non-unilineal kinship.

Granted the evidence marshalled by, e.g., Hill, Lancaster, Loyn, and Phillpotts, the cognatic arrangement in historical Anglo-Saxon society is indisputable. But, as noted above (and despite Lancaster's assumption), bilateralism does not necessarily exclude corporateness of kin groups. And, more to the point, the Anglo-Saxon record preserves several controversial features that suggest cultural change long before the Migrations from a totemic arrangement involving matrilineal clans to the more amorphous, less durative, agnatically biased kindred of the historical period.(17)

Chief among these features is the mystifying emphasis on the mother's brother,(18) by the time of the Beowulf-poet already a sentimental, vaguely discerned anachronism, employed by the narrator partly as an aspect of his heritage and partly to enhance the antiquarian dignity of his patriotic song. Yet several other elements also suggest the kin-solidarity of an obsolete clan system. One of these is the tenacious corporateness of the maeg?? "family,"(19) the undeniably bilateral kindred that nonetheless seems to have kept its shape over generations while maintaining the gradually diminishing power reflected in the legal codes.(20) One of my underlying assumptions is that the Anglo-Saxon meaning of family--and even more so the putative early Germanic meaning--was not the same as ours. Though not fully recoverable, its limits and emphases fell in different places, distinguishing some kinfolk (e.g., eam "mother's brother" versus faedera "father's brother") and blurring others together (e.g., nephew and grandson, both called nefa). In his classic work Social Structure George P. Murdock clarifies the situation:(21)

The term "family" is ambiguous.... the nuclear family will be familiar to the reader as the type of family recognized to the exclusion of all others by our own society. Among the majority of peoples of the earth, however, nuclear families are combined, like atoms in a molecule, into larger aggregates.

In full-scale totemic systems, which are inherently corporate, lineages (similar to "families" in our narrow sense) are grouped in clans (cf. "extended families") that may in turn be assembled in phratries (cf. "kith" or vicinage),(22) which in turn are grouped in moieties (roughly "halves"). Various sorts of sections and subsections may also figure in Murdock's "larger aggregates," with fixed rules of exogamy established to prevent incest. While I cannot prove that a totemic system once prevailed in Germania, vestiges of corporateness are one of several indications that such a system did indeed exist prehistorically.

The koine in Beowulf seems to have petrified impulses of corporateness beyond the time when kin-solidarity remained fully in place. Terms for the comitatus seem like holdovers from an earlier age, when the united warriors, members of a factitious kin group--precursor of the maeg??, considered themselves consanguineal relatives: mago-driht, sibbe-gedryht, "the band of noble kinsmen-warriors" (cf. mago-rinc "kinsman-warrior" and mago??egn "kinsman-retainer"). The maeg?? itself remains obscure, though; none of the extant evidence allows us to define its limits or its full array of social applications. As Loyn observes, "much was taken for granted.... The laws are practical documents. They do not pause to reflect on the substance of kinship. They describe rather kinship in action. Function predominates."(23) Phillpotts is more emphatic: "in England no passage, in the laws or out of them, gives the slightest indication of the limits of the maeg??."(24)

Yet she also quotes one of Aethelstan's laws (6.8, [sections] 2), attributed to the authorities in London, that allows for raising armies to do battle with any maeg?? powerful enough to harbor a thief and thus contend with an entire city.(25) Like those grim Londoners, we are obviously confronted with an organized corporate group, if not a kith-based clan, big and strong enough to withstand a siege.(26) There could be no other motivation for such a law. Clearly too we can discern that "at this level the kindred was in closest contact with the power of the state, and out of contact, often developing into conflict, came elucidation."(27) Out of this contact, too, came demise--the demise of the kindred and the rise of monarchy.(28)

As Murray argues, though, "corporate functions are in themselves no argument for unilineal kin structure."(29) Nor would I base an argument upon evidence so sketchy and inconclusive as that of the corporate maeg??. Yet I see its surprising inertia as one among several traces of a totemic clan system in prehistoric Germania: no kinship arrangement tends to be as corporate as the totemic. In sum, the maeg?? shows a cohesiveness that resulted partly from kin loyalty,(30) partly from military devotion to the lord, and partly from the lingering influence of primeval clan solidarity. Such at least is my contention here, supported too by another feature, odd from our perspective, but not at all unusual in the record of tribal kinship patterns.

Most writers on this subject echo Lancaster's observation: "there was a remarkable dearth of special O.E. terms for the relationship of cousins."(31) Phillpotts sees this "remarkable dearth" as an Old English shortfall, remedied by rivals across the Channel.(32)

We have to add the extraordinary fact that Anglo-Saxon literature appears to contain no word signifying cousin.... The whole range of Anglo-Saxon literature does not furnish us with one instance of the use of such a word. Nor can I find the Latin `consobrinus' in the Latin charters. It is significant that English found it necessary to borrow the word `cousin' from French.

It is indeed significant, but not because of any ethnic or linguistic inadequacy. It is just that the Saxons did not compute their genealogies on our graph. Spolsky brings us closer to the real significance of this lack of specificity in the nomenclature--particularly on the father's side, where the terminology is less distinctive than on the maternal side:(33)

A further ambiguity in nefa is the lack of distinction between collateral descent and direct descent. My son's child and my brother's child are not necessarily distinguished. Nefa is also used to refer to a stepson, presumably my generation minus one. What do all of these people have in common which is important enough to warrant calling them all by the same name?

The answer is simple enough, but its ramifications are complex, especially when we add that nefa could designate a grandnephew as well as a grandson, and that "the suhterga can be a brother's son ... or an uncle's son that is a cousin."(34) Hill almost answers Spolsky's question when he considers "the significance of such precise but compacted compounds as `suhtergefaederan' applied to Hrothgar and Hrothulf ia their kindred ... the `father's-brother's son' can become a `father' ... and he can become `son' to his `eald faeder,' his father's father (moving functionally both up and across in the family tree)." Interpreting the word for "father's brother," Hill continues, "`faedera' can name Hrothgar's position in relation to Hrothulf, whose sons could be called Hrothgar's brother's grandsons or `nephews' (`nefa')."(35) Adding to this complexity is Beowulf 373a, "where Ecgtheow is referred to as Beowulf's ealdfaeder though the word usually means grandfather."(36) Indeed, "what do all of these people have in common" that, from our perspective, erases the "normal" distinctions between cousin, nephew, grandson, grandnephew, and even father and grandfather?(37)

Simply put, this telescoping of ego's patrilineal and patrilateral kinfolk typifies what anthropologists call "the Crow kinship system," named after the Native American tribe whose classic matrilineal structure has become the template applied elsewhere.(38) In the Crow system, matrilineal relatives are deemed "consanguineal," while patrilineal relatives, though significant in ego's life, are not viewed as members of the clan, which is "the focal point of a person's life where descent is unilineal. Clans may determine an individual's spouse, occupation, religious role, and position in the prestige system."(39) As Murdock puts it, "a rule of descent affiliates an individual at birth with a particular group of relatives with whom he is especially intimate and from whom he can expect certain kinds of services that he cannot demand of non-relatives, or even of other kinsmen."(40) I quote Murdock at some length because he also dispels a lingering misconception about unilineal societies.(41)

An earlier generation of anthropologists completely misunderstood rules of descent, assuming that they meant a recognition of certain genealogical ties to the exclusion of others, e.g., that a matrilineal people is either ignorant of, or chooses to ignore, the biological relationship of a child to its father.... It is now known that the Hopi and most other societies with matrilineal descent do not deny or ignore the relationship of a child to its father and his patrilineal kinsmen.... Descent, in fine, does not necessarily involve any belief that certain genealogical ties are closer than others, much less a recognition of kinship with one parent to the exclusion of the other.... It merely refers to a cultural rule which affiliates an individual with a particular selected group of kinsmen for certain social purposes such as mutual assistance or the regulation of marriage.

Implicitly Murdock corrects erroneous notions that confuse matrilineal kin structure, a fairly common tribal phenomenon, with the political myth of matriarchy. His conclusion is that matriliny denotes a system of reckoning descent that impinges upon various aspects of social life. Further, while the system downplays the social function of patrilineal kinfolk, it by no means denies their emotional importance in the life of the individual.

Accordingly, in the Crow system, though still important, the entire array of paternal relatives collapses into an "other" group, loosely defined as "father's kindred," with much less distinctive nomenclature than the members of the native matrilineal group, who play far more influential roles in ego's life. Hence, to define these roles, the language of a matrilineal society develops more specific terms for ego's clan kindred, all of whom are mediated by maternal relatives only. Thus, only the maternal relatives are considered close, even "consanguineal," although this may seem illogical to us, given our own bilateral orientation. On the other hand, "in thinking of the relatives in `father's' lineage, ego may regard all of them as lineage mates of father; that is, lineage mates are like a `brother' and `sister' to father. The implied logic is that any lineage mate of father is a brother of my father.... That is, a large group of men are in the same status relation to ego, something like men of the lineage that `fathered' ego. Missionaries and others who translated native terms into English had to equate the indigenous word with the English `father.'"(42) Thus we struggle to translate ambiguous terms like nefa and suhterga into Modern English, which has grown much farther away from the prehistoric unilineal structure whose reflexes remain apparent--and perplexing--in Old English.

As asserted above, then, a simple answer can be supplied for Spolsky's question, "What do all of these people have in common which is important enough to warrant calling them all by the same name?" It is an old answer, but one now supported by advances in cultural anthropology. Old English kinship terms are less distinctive for paternal kinsmen because, deep in the Germanic past, presumably in the formative stages of the society, a Grow kinship system prevails. Later on--centuries if not millennia later--a bilateral system develops.(43) But the cultural palimpsest retains faint, barely discernible traces, the focal points of this paper. Although the Beowulf-poet and his generation of Anglo-Saxons cannot fathom a system they never knew, their language and culture still preserved these traces, willy-nilly--the vestiges of a matrilineal clan system.

Therefore, though he lived in a bilateral but agnatically biased society, these vestiges of matriliny influenced the Beowulf-poet's language and the world view it reflects. Compared to us, he was less precise about the whole array of paternal kindred, as shown by his using the rare (and probably archaic) compound faederenmaeg (1263a), a blanket term for "any kinsman oil my father's side." Why does he generalize so broadly? Because the reflexes of matrilineal reckoning remained powerful enough to blur all the father-kin together. Faederenmaeg mingles not only patrilineal but also patrilateral kinsmen. Distinctions between father figures just did not matter that much yet in Anglo-Saxon England, where everyday life continually churned the father-folk together. Grandfathers, fathers, uncles, brothers, and their male progeny ate, worked, fought, and went to meetings together all the time. In this alien culture we think we know, there had been as yet no dispersal of the extended family, much less the nuclear. Even the kith remained intact, with neighbors and comrades-in-arms still thinking vaguely that they were somehow related. This is a clan attitude. No wonder the Beowulf-poet can substitute grandfather for father without a hitch.(44) A matrilineal equation validates this interchange: one father equals another father; ego feels essentially the same bond with both. This is precisely the orientation of ego in the Crow kinship system, where one can logically say that a father is a father's brother is a father's sister's son is a father's sister's daughter's son.(45)

Characterized by this blending of the father-kin, "Crow terminology is almost always associated with matriliny."(46) Recognizing the conflation of paternal relatives means acknowledging at least the theory of a Crow kinship structure, viable at some period in proto-Germanic prehistory. Among the convergent terms for paternal kindred (see figure 1), the most notable Crow types are faeder "father" and faedera "another father," i.e., "father's brother." Fa??u "father's sister," is interesting here too, since it seems to blur "sexual distinctions" somewhat.(47) Back formations from faeder, these terms lack much distinctiveness. Their key denotation seems to be "father-sibling." This convergence reflects the matrilineal point of view described above, where ego regards "relatives in `father's' lineage ... as lineage mates of father."(48)

Conversely, relatives in the mother's lineage assume more distinctive roles, apparent in the Old English term eam "mother's brother."(49) Although the preeminence of MoBr "mother's brother" seems largely sentimental by the historical period, the fact remains that eam is among the most distinctive of all Old English kinship terms. Prehistorically important--before the first Germanic expansion--its cognates surface in sister--tongues,(50) and persist (in orthographic variants) right through the Middle English period.(51) The very inertia of this archaism suggests great weight originally, strong cultural impetus. My inference is that this uncle was at some time the heafodmaeg "head-kinsman" of the matrilineal Germanic clan. Perhaps, as in Tewa clan hierarchy, the senior mother's brother was "the enforcer," hence chief, while his sister was venerated as figurehead.(52) Significantly, heafodmaeg is the term Beowulf applies to his MoBr Hygelac at line 2151a.(53) I have treated the etymons of eam elsewhere, in my study of sibreden "the kin treaty," where I suggest the following etymology for this term that may persist in Germanic lexicons as a reflex of matriliny: "*awo-z-haim for the head of a household, a key role played, apparently, by the senior mother's brother ... the *awozhaim or `great father of the hamlet.'"(54) Germanic kinship structure, though markedly different from the Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-American, is thus similar in one respect, at least, to various tribal systems studied in modern times, where the avunculate--the bond between MoBr and SiSo "sister's son"--tends to overshadow less important relationships.(55)

Keeping in mind that "the domestic group in preindustrial societies is usually the economic group,"(56) I view reflexes of the avunculate in Beowulf and the wills as traces of totemism. In twentieth-century parlance this term has usually been misconstrued. Since the thirties, it has been avoided by "serious" social scientists, except for a few intrepid theorists like Claude Levi-Strauss. Like shamanism and the avunculate, totemism has also had a checkered past in the last three generations of cultural anthropology. Also like these troublesome but nonetheless useful concepts, totemism has often been dismissed as yet another "old canard." Hence there is still plenty of confusion about the concept. Popular usage tends to equate the totem with the animal guardian of an individual; but guardianship is not the primary significance of the totem. Rather, the totem is a kinship sign--a group-related symbol that associates the individual with his or her lineage. Indeed, a wealth of secondary lore usually attaches itself to the totems of a tribe. Among the Hopi, for instance, totems become major classificatory devices for organizing not only social divisions but virtually the entire perceptible universe. However, such lore, elaborate and pervasive as it may become, is still secondary to the role of the totem as a delineator of kin groups.

For this basic definition I return to the etymon of totem, an Ojibwa word collected in the eighteenth century by the explorer John Long. In his Totemism, Levi-Strauss analyzes Ojibwa ototeman, parsing its morphemes to extract the meaning "he is a relative of mine," which strikes us as strange when used in reference to a wolf or a bear (not to mention a "carrying strap"). Correctly, Levi-Strauss places the totem in a "collective naming system ... not to be confused with the belief ... that an individual may enter into a relationship with an animal which will be his guardian spirit." To indicate the guardian animal--a more personal entity--the Ojibwa used another word, nigouimes, unrelated morphologically to their kinship term ototeman. Thus we too should distinguish between the totem, a kinship sign with prismatic folk implications, and the nigouimes "animal guardian," a personal vehicle of spirit power. The former is public and group-related, the latter individualistic, sometimes wholly private. Whereas the nigouimes is a mystical attribute of shamanism, the totem mainly designates kinship categories.(57) Often enough, though, the two culture complexes are woven together within the same society, their animal symbols mythically intermingled. It is indeed possible for the same animal sign to mean different things to different people at the same time; or for the same symbol to have diverse referents simultaneously for the same individual, especially in discrete social settings or phases of life. Also fairly often in a clan system based on matrilineal reckoning of descent--the Crow system--no member of the tribe is more significant than the senior mother's brother.

Therefore, one of the most plausible explanations for the manifold references to mothers' brothers in Anglo-Saxon sources is that they persist as reflexes of a totemic system in which the basic exogamous group was both matrilineal and matrilocal. In such an arrangement, the male finds a wife outside of his own clan. After marriage, he--or at least his children--will reside with the wife's family, the offspring's matrilineage.(58) When a son is born, he inherits his totem from his mother and not from his father,(59) The lineage is thus mediated by maternal kindred only; in effect, the descending line stops at male and continues through female progeny.(60) Therefore, if the father bequeathed his ancestral wealth and status upon his son, this patrimony would pass out of his own natal clan and into the matriclan of his affines. To avoid weakening his own matriclan by siphoning off its wealth and titles, the father bequeaths obliquely, to his sister's son, born into the clan where the father grew up and where his emotional ties, his kin-solidarities and family loyalties, still reside.(61) In this kind of kinship system (graphed in Figure 2), where neither patriliny nor cognation nor primogeniture prevail, the bond between maternal uncle and uterine nephew eclipses the bond between father and son. It is the most important bond of all, socially, economically, and politically.

Generalizing from the customs of Malinowski's Trobriand islanders, Schusky describes a hypothetical culture with a climax avunculate--a culture perhaps analogous to the prehistoric Germanic:(62)

In some contexts a `father' is like a stranger or an outsider, but he is also like the American father who cares for his children and lavishes affection upon them. Unlike an American son, however, the maturing boy discovers he belongs to a group different from his father. He begins learning many duties, restrictions, and concerns for pride that unite him with his mother's group but necessarily separate him from his father and his group.

As a boy matures the MoBr becomes a more important figure, and this male separates a boy even further from his father. The child begins to learn that he is regarded as a "stranger" in his father's village; his own or proper village is the one occupied by MoBr. In the village of MoBr a young man finds property rights, opportunity to succeed in office, and a future career. His natural allies and associates are the group associated with MoBr. In this circumstance, MoBr and his group increase authority over him, demand many services from him, and grant or withhold permission over a number of actions. Mother's brother will even determine in large measure whom ego will marry. Correspondingly, the authority and counsel of the father and his group decrease.

Although MoBr can assume powerful roles in other social systems too, it is nevertheless this kind of culture--tribal, totemic, matrilineal, and matrilocal--that invests him with the highest status and, conceivably, enough influence to leave puzzling traces in later language and literature.

In theory, then, the preexistence of an exogamous matriliny--the Grow kinship system--would explain why patrilineal kinship terms converge, why the avunculate leaves traces in Old English sources, why the "spindle-kin" retain notable status right to the end of the period, and why the Anglo-Saxon wills enrich nephews at the expense of sons. Regarding Old English reflexes of the avunculate, Rolf Bremmer observes that "it has not escaped scholars that Beowulf stands in a special relationship to king Hygelac of the Geats, but they have rarely gone beyond quoting this illustrative example of MoBr and SiSo in an Anglo-Saxon context. And yet quite a few instances of this bond are to be found in non-literary works of the period."(63) Bremmer assembles not only avuncular elements from the epic; he also lists references to sustres sun, sweoster-sunu, etc. in history, chronicle, will, and Riddle 46 from the Exeter Book.(64) This Riddle is usually taken as a reference to Lot's incest with his daughters, which produced two sons. Notably, the term applied to the sisters' sons in line 4a is frumbearn, glossed by Bosworth and Toller as "firstborn, primogenitus," with the genitival compound frumbearnes riht meaning "firstborn's right" or the right to inherit.(65) There thus seems to be a lack of definiteness regarding the identity of the principal heir--son or sister's son?(66)

The question is only affirmed, not resolved, by the Anglo-Saxon wills, which demonstrate no clear precedence for either nephew or son.(67) Granted their relative obscurity in Anglo-Saxon studies, we may think of the wills as neglected orphans lurking on the fringe of the literary domain. Though neglected, they have not been abandoned: about fifty wills are readily available in editions by Harmer and Whitelock.(68) Substantial studies appear in books by Eric John and Michael Sheehan.(69) Although I first approached the wills expecting to find inheritance rules neatly mapped out, with mothers' brothers regularly leaving estates to their sisters's sons, the documents themselves soon dispelled such rosy preconceptions. Like the laws, they provide for the exception, not the rule: they assume on the reader's part an intuitive knowledge of folkright. John and Sheehan agree that folcriht represents part of the Anglo-Saxons' native Germanic heritage; they also agree that these implicit folkways, vestiges of a preliterary society, remain very obscure to us today.(70)

There is little question, though, that these lost customs specified rightful heirs, probably a good number of them, perhaps with a preference for sisters' sons. Testamentary power was unheard-of, initially, among the Anglo-Saxons, whose estates were transmitted by well-established conventions beyond individual control--folkright. But by the end of the period, written wills had become common, even expected, to judge from the laws of Cnut, which allow for property owners who die intestate.(71) The written will evolved in response to the folkright restrictions; it opened a loophole in customary inheritance laws; it instituted the right to alienate property (propria potestas); it let the landowner concentrate family wealth in the hands of chosen heirs.(72) Thus the advent of the written will marks "a revolution in English landholding, making it possible to consolidate family power by establishing primogeniture and keeping the family holding together."(73)

The wills grew up alongside the charters or "landbooks," already common by Alfred's day. Charters granted bookright as opposed to folkright. They distinguished bookland, alienable estates, from folkland, inalienable estates. Concomitantly, the wills capitalized on the freedom to collect and bequeath bookland. In his late ninth-century will (c. 880), for instance, Alfred, Ealdorman of Surrey, designates bookland beneficiaries but acknowledges his lack of control over the folkland:(74)

7 gif se cyning him gunnan wille pes folclondes to ??em boclonde, ponne hebbe he 7 bruce.

And if the king will grant him the folkland as well as the bookland, then let him have it and enjoy it.

But such wills do little, overtly, to clarify the issues of folkland, folkright, and the traditional lines of inheritance.

Wills and charters alike resulted from ecclesiastical efforts to preserve clerical estates, the original booklands, within a social system that originally did not provide for bequests untrammeled by claims of the kindred. There was no lay bookland in the seventh century, when the written charter was introduced by Theodore and St. Wilfrid.(75) But in 734 Bede complained about the fraudulent monasteries of Northumbria--lay estates falsely represented as abbeys by sly nobles eager to acquire bookland and the associated right to consolidate and bequeath it.

This right, treasured by Anglo-Saxon nobility, is often mentioned at the outset of the will, which assumed a fairly consistent format by the tenth century. The testator, almost invariably an aristocrat, first gives his or her name, then declares royal permission to bequeath, and then specifies heriot. Often a parcel of gold, land, arms, and horses, the Late-Saxon heriot seems like a payment to the king for the right to make a will and the insurance that he will uphold it. From the king's perspective, it is a lucrative inheritance tax, as Rivers points out in his assessment of the noble widow's predicament:(76)

There are eight laws indicating the state's prohibition of remarriage by widows within one year of their husband's death.... A widow who remarried within this allotted time was to lose her morning-gift and all property which she inherited from her deceased husband, even if she was married against her will. The severity of this violation was extended to the husband the bereaved wife married, since he must forfeit his wergeld to the king. Nor were widows to be consecrated as nuns too hastily after their husbands' deaths. The reason for all this frowning on urgency is a simple one. If widows married or entered the convent within the first year of their husbands' death, the king lost the heriot tax, a principal source of revenue.

After heriot come the ecclesiastical grants, sawolsceatt "soul-tax" to the church of burial, wealth and lands to other minsters and monasteries. After the church come the kindred, in no discernible order aside from pride of place for widows. Although movable goods appear (and offer rich resources for the study of domestic life), the wills mainly concern themselves with distributing bookland to king, cleric, and kindred. Therefore, estates are tallied up in detail--over seventy separate holdings spread through eleven counties in the will of Wulfric Spot.(77) As it concludes, the will may designate a round "guardian/executor," gifts to priests and servants, plus elaborate arrangements for almsgiving and manumission of thralls. Following an anathema calling the wrath of God down upon will-breakers, the document (sometimes a chirograph) concludes with a list of witnesses. Although content, order, and emphasis vary from one document to the next, these are nonetheless the standard components of the Late-Saxon will.

While they generally ignore the folkright inheritance rules, assumed at the time to be common knowledge and therefore otiose, the wills do contain intimations of a native kinship system formerly matrilineal and totemic. One such hint is the high status of the early English noblewoman, whose prestige declined markedly during the ensuing Middle Ages.(78) Before the Anglo-Saxon period, Tacitus seems surprised to find that Germanic tribesmen respected their women (ch. 8); with disgust he reports that: one tribe debased itself by allowing women to rule (ch. 45). Beowulf retains vestiges of the prestige queens enjoyed: Wealhtheow gives the richest ring in Heorot, Hygd feels free to manipulate the Geatish succession, and the merewife is manifestly more powerful than her son Grendel, despite the poet's hastening to say that femininity alone makes her the weaker monster (1282b-87). The wills also reflect feminine power and status--part of the noblewoman's Germanic birthright--which declined steadily after the Conquest, falling to the point where, by 1285, the wife no longer had the right to make a will nor, implicitly, any other right to alienate property controlled by her husband and inherited by her eldest son.

But Anglo-Saxon widows could retain control of their husbands' estates, as shown by several rich wills in Whitelock's edition, where ten of thirty-nine are bequests by women.(79) And even where the husband stipulates that his widow must remain unmarried in order to inherit, he acknowledges her ownership of the morgengyfu "morning-gift," usually seen as a sort of life-insurance policy, support for the wife if she should survive her husband.(80) Thus in his ninth-century will the reeve Abba says that, should his widow remarry, then his kinsmen should take charge of his estate 7 hire agefen hire agen "and give her back her own property."(81) The widow Wynflaed also distinguishes her morning-gift from the rest of her estates, bequeathing it to her son with reversion to her daughter in the event of his death. But this daughter has already appeared as first heir in Wynflaed's will, receiving jewelry and lands before the son is even mentioned.(82)

Elsewhere sons fare much more poorly, as in the aforementioned will of Alfred, Ealdorman of Surrey.(83) His wife and daughter receive 104 hides of bookland, with forty-four of those to go unbefliten "undisputed" to the daughter after the wife's death. Oil the other hand, Alfred's son receives a scant three hides, and only 100 swine as opposed to 2,000--twenty times as much livestock--for wife and daughter. By favoring female heirs over sons, such arrangements may reflect the substratum of a lost Germanic inheritance system, which once gave vast prestige to the maternal kindred. There is also the simple suggestion of tender concern: men were vastly more capable of self-support than widows and orphaned daughters. Such bequests also show that primogeniture was not yet the rule in Late-Saxon England. In fact, as Sheehan writes, "it is remarkable how rarely a son is indicated" in these wills.(84) And earlier in the period sons fared more poorly still. In Middle-Saxon times, according to Bede, the sons of Northumbrian nobles were forced to leave the country if they wanted land, virtually exiling themselves.(85) Apparently, Anglian folkright offered them next to nothing. Puzzled by this problem, John asks, "Why could these young men not expect to inherit from their fathers?" They suffered such dim prospects, I suggest, because the native Germanic inheritance system, disintegrating for various reasons while the written will evolved, favored not the son but rather the sister's son as principal heir.

Sisters' sons do seem to appear at least as often as sons, despite the late date of most surviving wills. For instance, King Edgar's Ealdorman Alfheah bestows one estate upon his son and one upon his sister's son.(86) Here son and nephew share equal status as heirs. Another mid-tenth-century will bequeaths the bulk of the estates, aside from rich ecclesiastical endowments, upon three sisters' sons.(87) Most striking, though, is the eleventh-century will of Wulfric Spot, mentioned above, who bestows estates upon a variety of kinfolk, including his suhtergan "brother's sons" Wulfheah and Ufegeat. But no one receives nearly as much land as Morcar, who in effect becomes Wulfric's principal heir. Unfortunately Morcar's relationship is not specified in the will; but Whitelock assumes he is yet another sister's son.(88)

Beowulf, too, is one of these, a favored nephew who inherits wealth and status from his mother's brother. Together, he and Hygelac form the centerpiece of an avuncular series that not only "antiques" the epic for the poet, but also unifies it for the reader. First we encounter the Sigemund digression (874b-900), which suggests that the link between mother's brother and sister's son is the closest of all Germanic kin bonds. For the poet emphasizes its confidentiality, stating how Sigemund's nephew Fitela was the only person who knew of hidden deeds, heroic feats lost to history and hence Hrothgar's knowledgeable scop, too. The scop knows as much as anyone except Fitela, in whom Sigemund confided (880-83)
   ponne he swulces hwaet secgan wolde,
   eam his nefan, swa hie a waeron
   aet ni??a gehwam nydgesteallan;

   when confidences he cared to share,
   uncle to nephew, since they forever remained
   in each pitched battle companions in need.

As Bremmer suggests, the sister's son may have been expected to join his mother's brother's warband: "within as well as outside the poem we have evidence that MoBr and SiSo went to battle as comrades."(89) Thus the poet gilds his patrons' past with glimmerings of noble antiquity, layering in these avuncular pairs, once upon a time revered as king and prince in the matriclan, where as heafodmagas "head-kinsmen" they shared uppermost status and authority. At the same time, while enhancing the romantic setting and unifying the epic, these archetypal pairs are not just figments of the poet's fiction, but remnants of his mythos and folkright--part of his Germanic heritage, fixed by tradition in the material he inherited. Yet the artist, as nexus of folkways, continually reweaves old strands and new.(90) It is fitting that Sigemund and Fitela appear first, since like the historiola or "epic" of a charm, they supply the mythic precedent that not only foreshadows but also validates ensuing avuncular allusions, glittering like rivet heads elsewhere in the epic, holding the ornate artifact together.

Emphasizing the closeness of the bond, Bremmer offers an alternate reading of the next pair, Hnaef and his sister Hildeburh's son, nameless in the Finnsburg Episode (1063-1160a).(91) Although "critics have usually assumed that they were fighting on different sides," Bremmer argues, "there is no indication whatsoever in the text for this assumption. The probability should not be dismissed, therefore, that Hildeburh's son was a member of Hnaef's comitatus."(92) This scenario is worth considering, especially since in a preliterary matriclan the uncle and nephew would share the same unilineal totem and unilocal residence, thus forming a tight configuration, a "true atom of kinship." Whatever the nature of their relationship, though, it is undeniably close, emotional, and, to the Beowulf-poet, not just sentimental but exceptionally tragic when the two fall in the same fight. His geomuru ides "mournful lady" Hildeburh (1075b), sheared of brother, son, and in the next battle husband too, commits the two to the same sad pyre (1114-17):
   Het ??a Hildeburht aet Hnaefes ade
   hire selfre sunu sweolo??e befaesten,
   banfatu baernan, ond on bael don
   eame on eaxle. Ides gnornode.

   Hildeburh commanded on Hnaef's funeral pyre
   that her own son then be sent to the flames,
   his bone-vats burnt, and so upon the bier he lay
   by his mother's brother. She mourned, that lady.

This scene may represent the utmost tragedy in the old Germanic tradition: the fall of uncle and nephew--formerly chieftain and heir?--upon the same battlefield. Thus could a dynasty's present and future be cruelly swept away.

Beowulf's devotion to Hygelac represents the same kin-loyalty, since he and his uncle were "shield-companions" in their prime. Recounting his adventures before the dragon fight, the aged hero clearly takes pride in his archetypal devotion to king and uncle. Equally clear is the inspiration the old man finds in fond memories of his beloved leader (2497-2500):
   Symle ic him on fe??an beforan wolde,
   ana on orde, and swa to aldre sceall
   saecce fremman penden pis sweord pola??,
   paet mec aer ond si?? oft gelaeste.

   Always in the foot-troop before him I went,
   alone at the point; and in life must I thus
   excel in battle while this, sword endures
   that soon and late saved me often.

To us it may seem strange that, although the paternal relationship crops up throughout the epic with hollow regularity, Beowulf's own father Ecgtheow seems somehow distant, almost extraneous, divorced from the hero, a biological necessity and not the close companion represented by his maternal uncle.(93) This, too, suggests the traces of a matrilineal arrangement, where sometimes "the word for father carries only a social definition ... it means `a man married to my mother.'"(94) In the Crow system, it is mother and her brother who stand out as focal points in the clan--as heafodmagas. The miscellaneous fathers all fade together, a tendency underscored by the compound faederenmaeg (1263a) and those disparate references to Ecgtheow as father and grandfather of the hero.(95)

Commonly, too, it is the sister's son who inherits status and property from his mother's brother, a point emphasized above. My position is that the Beowulf-poet, swayed by Late-Saxon influences like primogeniture, had no sharp recollection of avuncular inheritance, although traces of it lingered in the wills of the nobility. But this oblique line of bequeathal was petrified in traditions received from the continental home of his ancestors. Although we can only attribute the uncle/nephew relationship tenuously to the last two leading characters, the pattern established by other riveting pairs supports Bremmer's hypothesis:(96)

In his farewell-speeches Beowulf has given Wiglaf full instructions as to the funeral (lines 2802-8). Wiglaf, so to say, becomes the executor of Beowulf's will, and indeed carries out his lord's instructions with authority. Although the epic ends with the funeral rites performed for Beowulf and a last ode to him by the poet, it does not seem adventurous to assume that Wiglaf, as the last member of the Waegmunding clan (lines 2813-14a), succeeds his kinsman to the throne.

I share Bremmer's assumption that "Beowulf is Wiglaf's maternal uncle, or, in other words, that Wiglaf is the son of a sister of Beowulf's, even though such a sister is not mentioned in the poem."(97) He supports his argument with a convincing diagram, showing the stemma from Waegmund through Wihstan to Wiglaf. Thus Bremmer views Wihstan as a??um "son-in-law," "sister's husband"(98) to Ecgtheow and Beowulf, respectively. The warmth of the avuncular bond seems implicit in Wiglaf's exceptional fidelity to the hero, which mirrors Beowulf's own loyalty to his uncle before him (and so forth back down through the mythic lineage to an Anglo-Saxon alcheringa "illo tempore"). Indeed, the patterning of the epic seems to demand that a mother's brother/ sister's son pair complete the narrative, thus filling out expectations set up by the recurrent focus on the preceding pairs. As in three-dimensional design, the same stylized motifs repeat themselves. This gives us a matching "rivet head" at the close of the epic by placing "Wiglaf in the same relation to Beowulf as Hildeburh's son to Hnaef and Fitela to Sigemund,"(99) not to mention the hero himself to Hygelac min "my Hygelac" (2434b). The warmth of Beowulf and Wiglaf's relationship is equally characteristic of the avuncular bond. And to my mind the gifts bestowed by the dying king seem exceptional indeed. More than opulent rewards, these treasures are the royal regalia, like the crown jewels, a globe and scepter, or the riches from Sutton Hoo (2809-16):(100)
   Dyde him of healse hring gyldenne
   pioden pristhydig, pegne gesealde,
   geongum garwigan, goldfahne helm,
   beah ond byrnan, het hyne brucan well--
   `pu eart endelaf usses cynnes,
   Waegmundinga; ealle wyrd forsweop
   mine magas to metodsceafte,
   eorlas on elne: ic him aefter sceal.'

   From his neck he took the torque of gold,
   thinking of glory, gave it to the thane,
   the young spear-warrior, and the yellow-gold helm,
   rings and his mail-shirt, commanded, `Use well!--
   Now come you last in this lineage of ours,
   we Waegmundings, all wasted by fate;
   kinsmen of mine carved out their doom;
   noble the heroes; now must I follow.'

The necklace seems tantamount to a crown, typologically if not historically. It is a large gold ring, property of the sacral king--royal regalis symbolic of state, more than we would expect a retainer or an earnest cousin to get from any grateful lord. And when we pile on the other gems and accoutrements, the image cluster becomes more than rich, even in the glittering catalogues of epic. It is royal, like the grave goods of Anglian or Upplandish kings. Beowulf's gifts to Wiglaf are a virtual investiture. The dying monarch bequeaths the emblems of office. Again, I suspect that hints of Wiglaf's succession filter through to us from a much earlier period, from a culture quite different from that of the poet, who feels bound to attribute impulses of primogeniture to his fading hero (2729-31):
   `Nu ic suna minum syllan wolde
   gu??gewaedu, paer me gife??e swa
   aenig yrfeweard aefter wurde.'

   Now would I settle upon a son of my own
   these war-garments if he were given to me,
   any guardian of heirlooms afterwards coming.

Like a literary double exposure, the fuzzy image here, son superimposed upon nephew, reflects the blurring of cultures in the social continuum of Anglo-Saxon England. Wiglaf's impending succession--barely suggested in the poet's own material and so as faint to him as to us--gives the epic artful closure, like the Aristotelean restoration of order in the catastrophe of Lear. Thus the word-smith hammers his last rivet home.

Aside from these reflexes of the avunculate in Beowulf, other "symptoms" of totemism need further study. Shamanic lore lurks in rune, riddle, and charm as well as in epic, gnome, and elegy.(101) In the future, more connections should be made between sources usually studied alone, e.g., epic and charm, epic and will, epic and charter. Archaeology steadily unearths surprises that reconfigure the corpus. For example, we have yet to articulate the implications of the Pioneer Helmet, found in the Midlands in 1997. But as the third boar helm in a corpus of four, its ramifications are significant. This paper barely introduces kinship concerns. Nor has the full range of animal folklore been explored. Along with the shapeshifting motif, zoological nomenclature also suggests totemism. In personal names, animal referents imply that proto-heraldic beasts once symbolized the kindred. The same can be said for the place-name Heorot "Hart," Hrothgar's dynastic seat, his men's house said to be banfag (780a) "decorated with antlers." Other group-related animal images have similar overtones, e.g., the boar-adorned battle standard that Hrothgar gives Beowulf (who in turn presents it to Hygelac upon his homecoming; 2152b). This standard can be compared with the anomalous Sutton Hoo scepter, adorned with a stag figurine, an artifact that "may have been vested with a totemic significance that cannot easily be translated into modern concepts."(102) Along with the stag image, individualized faces carved on the scepter suggest ancestor veneration in the culture of the artist, which was probably as much "Swedish" as "English" in the early seventh century. At the outset of the epic, too, the mythic overtones of Scyld Scefing--a culture hero comparable to Ing or Frey--may stem from venerating the eponymous ancestor, another totemic trait. Is that Scyld's face peering down from the Sutton Hoo scepter, first in line?

When viewed alongside the kinship concerns discussed above, these isolated motifs gain a new coherence, since they all look like traces of totemism in Old English sources. In a totemic frame, these scattered elements combine into an integral whole--ancestor veneration, zoomorphic names and symbols, suggestions of kin-solidarity, converging terms for paternal kinsmen, flecks of matrilineal patterning plus faint reflexes of the avunculate from Beowulf and the wills. Suggesting an obscure past, these reflexes reach the poet who in turn transmits them to us. Ultimately, then, in view of the restrictive nature of folkright, it is unlikely that his character Hygd, despite the high status of the Germanic queen, ever had the power to abrogate customary rules of succession in prehistoric Geatland. And when the poet implies that Hygelac's rightful heir is his son Heardred, he probably introduces an anachronism by projecting primogeniture upon continental Germanic culture long before it developed there. He hastens to explain Hygd's motive for the attempt to disinherit Heardred in favor of Beowulf, sister's son of the slain king (2370b-72):
   Bearne ne truwode,
   paet he wi?? aelfylcum epelstolas
   healdan cu??e, ??a waes Hygelac dead.

   She didn't trust her son,
   that against threatening outsiders the throne of the homeland
   he knew how to hold with Hygelac dead.

I suspect that the poet imputes this motive and interpolates the reign of Heardred because primogeniture was gaining currency in Anglo-Saxon England when the epic was composed. He received legendary material wherein the sister's son succeeded the mother's brother. Unaccustomed to this prehistoric pattern, he may have invented Hygd's offer in order to account for Beowulf's oblique ascent to the Geatish throne--transversely, along the lost line of the avunculate. But the avuncular line of inheritance, weakly reflected in the wills too, may have been the folkright rule in early Germanic Europe. And traces of this pattern, not fully erased, are among the more notable vestiges of totemism in the Old English corpus.

University of Alabama at Birmingham


(1) Part of my purpose in this paper is to reexamine aspects of the outmoded argument for "the matriarchate," proposed by German scholars well over a century ago, starting with Das Mutterrecht: eine Untersuchung uber der Gynaikokratie der alten Welt nach ihrer religiosen und rechtlichen Natur by Johann Jakob Bachofen (Stuttgart: Krais and Hoffman, 1861; 2nd ed.: Basel: B. Schwabe, 1897). A Darwinist evolutionary theory proposing patterned stages in social development, Bachofen's argument--that matriarchy precedes patriarchy, which then gives way to cognation--exerted its most profound influence in the writings of Karl Marx. Via such writers as Bastian, Tylor, and Frazer (and, one might add, Joseph Campbell), this nineteenth-century notion has influenced medieval studies ever since, if only subliminally for the last generation or two. The theory has been rejected, by American if not by English Anglo-Saxonists, but never fully refuted. A detailed history of the dispute appears in Alexander Callender Murray's Germanic Kinship Structure: Studies in Law and Society in Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1983), 12-32. Milestones in the study of Anglo-Saxon kinship structure can be found in Vilhelm Gronbech, Vor Folkeoet i Oldtiden (1909, 1929), trans. William Worster as Culture of the Teutons, 3 vols. (Oxford U. Press, 1931); Lorraine Lancaster, "Kinship in Anglo-Saxon Society," The British Journal of Sociology 9 (1958): 230-50, 359-77; Bertha Surtees Phillpotts, Kindred and Clan in the Middle Ages and After: A Study in the Sociology of the Teutonic Races (Cambridge, 1913; New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974); and Frederic Seebohm, Tribal Custom in Anglo-Saxon Law (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1911). G. Ausenda also explores Germanic kinship in "The Segmentary Lineage in Contemporary Anthropology and among the Langobards," After Empire: Towards an Ethnology of Europe's Barbarians, ed. G. Ausenda (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1995), 15-45. Learned but less reliable are works like Thomas William Shore's Origin of the Anglo-Saxon Race: A Study of the Settlement of England and the Tribal Origin of the Old English People (London: Elliot Stock, 1906) and Francis B. Gummere's Germanic Origins: A Study in Primitive Culture (New York, 1892), edited and reissued as Founders of England by Francis P. Magoun (New York: G. E. Stechert & Co., 1930). Gummere's book is deemed "excellent" by F. Klaeber in my text for this paper, Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg (Boston: D. C. Heath and Co., 1950), clxxvi. Murray engages the extensive German scholarship throughout his book (in turn, Ausenda engages Murray in "Langobards"). Contrasting the geschlossene or feste Sippe "closed or fixed kin group" with the wechselnde Sippe "open or shifting kin group," he notes that "examples of the traditional teaching can be found everywhere in German (and many non-German) historical works, legal and otherwise" (16 n12; this note includes bibliographic citations). Murray also indicates that "patterns of reckoning relationship are reflected in the terms schwert-, ger-, or speermagen, the sword or spearkin, composed of male relatives of the male line, and spindel-, spill-, or kunkelmagen, the spindle kin, consisting of females or those related through a female; another classification was current which simply divided the magschaft, or kindred, into vatermagen and muttermagen, relatives whose relationship was mediated through one's father and mother, respectively" (16). By 1920, in Traces of Matriarchy in Germanic Hero-Lore, Albert William Aron could say that "the literature on the subject has grown to ... 437 titles" (U. of Wisconsin Studies in Language and Literature, No. 9, 6). In his day he could assume widespread acceptance of Das Mutterrecht: "we have shown that matriarchy must have existed among the Germans centuries before Christ in a purer form than Tacitus and Germanic hero-lore give evidence of" (72). Such confidence in social Darwinism and suppositional reconstructions of "Urgermanentum" (Phillpotts, 256) would be impossible today. Treating "the Cycle of Beowulf" (50), Aron could also unreservedly "quote Gummere's excellent comments on these passages" (including 2367-70a): "it is clear that Beowulf is expected to succeed his mother's brother on the throne," a presumption that I find probable, prehistorically, though not at all clear by the time of the Anglo-Saxons. Further, according to Gummere (and Aron, 50), "when Hygelac is slain, Beowulf shall marry the widow and rule over the realm, an expectation clearly founded on precedent custom, which cares little for the fact that Hygelac has left a son" ("The Sister's Son" in An English Miscellany Presented to Dr. Furnivall, ed. W. P. Ker, A. S. Napier, and W. W. Skeat, [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901], 138). Though worthy of reconsideration, Gummere's "precedent custom" is anything but clear. This paper began as a presentation on the wills at the 1991 Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, where Phillip Pulsiano included it in a session called "Anglo-Saxon Orphans: New Approaches to Neglected Texts." For such support I am grateful to Phillip and also to Jill Frederick, Geoffrey Russom, and Elaine Treharne. Recently, the advice of John M. Hill has been indispensable. For designing Figures 1 and 2, I owe thanks to Dylan M. R. Glosecki. Unless otherwise attributed, translations of Old English are mine.

(2) Perhaps we should speak of "fratrilateral" rather than agnatic or bilateral succession in proto-historic Germanic dynasties. Below I argue that the prehistoric pattern was cognatic in the obsolete sense, i.e., "matrilineal," with mother mediating between heirs, specifically between her brother and son. On the galaxy of anthropological terms, see the glossary in Ernest L. Schusky's Manual for Kinship Analysis (1965; New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1972), 89-93.

(3) The lack of fixed succession rules fomented dynastic strife throughout the Anglo-Saxon period. See Pauline Stafford's Queen Emma and Queen Edith: Queenship and Women's Power in Eleventh-Century England (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997). She writes that "`throneworthy' is a highly charged political term ... a claim rather than a title, and those who used it ... were making political bids as much as stating inheritance rules" (83). Vicissitudes of succession ultimately brought the period itself to a violent end.

(4) One could consider feudalism itself an outgrowth of Roman law, or rather of the Late-Roman manorial system. Archaeologists continue to unearth evidence that the feudal infrastructure was already in place by the Late-Saxon Period.

(5) The Geatish throne, for some reason resisted by the hero, is now bestowed as a virtual fief by Heardred's killer Onela, upon whom King Beowulf eventually wreaks vengeance, thus exacerbating the Hrethling/Scylfing feud that darkens the end of the epic See Norman E. Eliason, "Beowulf, Wiglaf, and the Waegmundings," Anglo-Saxon England 7 (1978): 95-105.

(6) Opinion now tends toward a post-Alfredian provenance for the poem--see Colin Chase, ed., The Dating of Beowulf (U. of Toronto Press, 1981)--rather than Dorothy Whitelock's "Age of Bede" in The Audience of Beowulf (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951). The Anglo-Danish argument of John D. Niles is convincing (Beowulf: The Poem and Its Tradition [Harvard U. Press, 1983]). But I suspect that distinctions like "Anglo-Danish" may have more to do with subsequent British politics than with social realities in that attractive archipelago, which probably had more permeable borders and a less homogeneous culture than we have been taught to envision.

(7) See Craig Davis, Beowulf and the Demise of Germanic Legend in England (New York: Garland, 1996) and John M. Hill, The Cultural World in Beowulf (U. of Toronto Press, 1995), 5: "What matters is similarity of social organization, not ethnic background or geography." I apply the term tribal to Hill's "house" or "face-to-face" societies, including the premigratory Angles and Saxons, Norse and Frisians. Broadly, tribe specifies a premarket, preindustrial, and often preliterary culture, usually organized in small, contiguous, frequently factitious kin groups, where family is indistinguishable from polity.

(8) In a similar vein I sought to account for the pervasive animal imagery in Anglo-Saxon art in my book Shamanism and Old English Poetry (New York: Garland), 1989.

(9) Quotations in this paragraph appear in Schusky (see n3, above), 15.

(10) Phillpotts emphasizes the laws. Esp. see 1-9, 205-44, where she ascribes "to Danish influence passages which show a slightly greater degree of kinsolidarity" (242). Cf. Lancaster, 239-47, 360-62. A list of legal codes appears in Theodore J. Rivers, "Widows' Rights in Anglo-Saxon Law," The American Journal of Legal History 19 (1975): 209n5. Cf. Anne L. Klinck's "Anglo-Saxon Women and the Law," Journal of Medieval History 8 (1982): 107-21. The classic study is F. Pollock and F. W. Maitland, The History of English Law (Cambridge U. Press, 1898).

(11) See Murray, 16: one school of thought "defines the shifting kin group as blutsverwandten, verwandtschaft, or magschaft, the whole circle of an individual's blood relations. The word Sippe ... has to be applied to both these conceptions, although its primary and original meaning applies only to the agnatic lineage (feste Sippe or Geschlechtsverband)."

(12) Phillpotts, 3.

(13) Murray, 25.

(14) As with the continuum of sound change, cultural change sweeps on subtly, although we tend to regard our own institutions, like our own phonology, as touchstones for analyzing other systems. Some Americans now give newborns dual surnames, thus adding cognate variants to a traditionally agnatic nomenclature.

(15) For my definition of reflex see Glosecki, 1 (n8, above).

(16) Lancaster, 232. So too Hill, 13-14. This is also Murray's thesis (n1, above): "there is no evidence for the idea that the society of the ancient Germans was rooted in a clan or extensive lineage structure" (8; cf. 6-7, 11-12, 14-17, 27, 29; yet on 14 he hedges: "it cannot be said that the debate was ever completely settled"). In "Kinship in Anglo-Saxon England," Anglo-Saxon England 3 (1974), H. R. Loyn acknowledges the bilateral orientation of the attested system: "both paternal and maternal kin participated in the composition group" (204-5).

(17) As illustrated in Figure 2, matrilineal descent concerns kin reckoning. The term matriarchy invokes a Utopian ideal, unattested anywhere (see Schusky, 91). In matrilineal tribes like the Tewa the eldest sister tends to be a figurehead, with the political power invested in her eldest brother. Perhaps we should speak of an "avuncu-archy" rather than a "matriarchy." See Edward P. Dozier, Hano: A Tewa Community (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966).

(18) My main source on the avunculate is Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, trans. C. Jacobson and B. G. Schoepf (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1967), 37-50. He writes that "this elementary structure, which is the product of defined relations involving four terms, is, in our view, the true atom of kinship" (46). His "four terms" are ego plus ego's mother, father, and mother's brother.

(19) Ausenda (n1, above) sees corporateness in the Germanic fara "clan" (15-18, 39). Rules of exogamy ("seeking a wife outside one's kin group") arise to prevent "incest." In this context incest has expansive applications. Totemic groups often include individuals with no consanguineal bond, in our sense of the term; yet custom still forbids marriage between members of the same clan, phratry, moiety, etc. In effect, exogamy reinforces kin solidarity. See Schusky, 53-75 (n3, above).

(20) See, e.g., Phillpotts, Lancaster, and Loyn, 201-203.

(21) Social Structure (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 1-2.

(22) Cf. Hill, 14.

(23) Loyn, 202.

(24) Phillpotts, 217.

(25) Ibid., 216. Cf. Lancaster, 237: "the maeg?? need not have been an extensive group." No doubt the kindred varied radically in size. The laws do allow for the maegleas "kinless" man (Phillpotts, 217-18), whose plight, dreadful to the Anglo-Saxons, is immortalized in The Wanderer. Yet, while the kindred need not always have been large--and like an estate its size was a measure of one's fortune back then--it could hardly have been small if it were to vie against the burgers of London.

(26) This power can hardly have resided elsewhere than in the comitatus romanticized in Beowulf, The Wanderer, and The Battle of Maldon. There is no doubt that patriarchal military solidarity contributed to the cohesiveness of the maeg??, as Ellen Spolsky argues in "Old English Kinship Terms and Beowulf," Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 78 (1977): 233-38. See her chart of kinship terms (238). Lancaster's lists are even more useful (235, 248); she also prints genealogical diagrams.

(27) Loyn, 203.

(28) This conflict figures in the celebrated Cynewulf and Cyneheard entry ("in the Parker chronicle, entered for the year 755, although Cynewulf dies in 786" [Hill, 14-15]; the chronicle is two years behind, which would make the actual entry year 757). When offered quarter by kinsmen among their attackers, the defenders say they could never follow their lord's enemies. Battle ensues, and the defenders fall with their lord, kinsmen versus kinsmen. Did life imitate art in Anglo-Saxon warfare?

(29) Murray, 25. He responds to Phillpotts (243): "the whole case for kinship-solidarity in England really rest on the not very frequent occurrence of the word maeg?? in the laws." My paper offers further evidence. By no means do I argue for totemism in Anglo-Saxon England, but rather for the reflexes of a system that influenced the attested culture. To fathom this culture we must dig for its preliterary foundation.

(30) The proverbial kin loyalty of this period was both manifested in and maintained by feuding, bequeathing, marriage negotiations, and compurgation, as well as the elusive rights and obligations implicit in the mysterious abstraction folcriht.

(31) Lancaster, 237.

(32) Phillpotts, 243.

(33) Spolsky, 234.

(34) Ibid.

(35) Hill, 43.

(36) Spolsky, 234. Clearly Ecgtheow is the hero's father. But Spolsky overlooks a key detail: in 1. 373 the poet uses ealdfaeder in a C hemistich with a vowel in the following head-stave: waes his ealdfaeder Ecgpeo haten "was his old-father Ecgtheow by name." Here prosody determines diction: the poet needs the compound's initial diphthong for vocal alliteration. Still, what strikes us as semantic imprecision is not that at all. To the poet the distinction between "father" and "grandfather" is so minimal that the two terms, virtual synonyms, are metrically interchangeable.

(37) Jack Goody interprets such blurring of some distinctions and sharpening of others as a function of the universal incest taboo. In "Domestic Groups," Addison-Wesley Module in Anthropology 28 (1972), 25, Goody writes that "so far as terminology is concerned ... the number of roles distinguished within each generation tends to be maximal in the terms for an individual's own generation and for the first ascending, that is, the parental generation."

(38) A concise account of the Crow as opposed to the Omaha (patrilineal) system appears in Schusky, 28-44 (n3, above). The definitive treatment is Floyd G. Lounsbury's "A Formal Account of the Crow- and Omaha-Type Kinship Terminologies," Explorations in Cultural Anthropology, ed. Ward H. Goodenough (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 351-93.

(39) Schusky, 29.

(40) Murdock, 15 (see n17, above).

(41) Ibid., 15-16.

(42) Schusky, 30.

(43) It is difficult to determine whether an agnatic system intervened. Certainly there is no "evolutionary" need for an "agnatic stage" of societal development. But cultural transformation itself is inexorable, albeit not governed by any "rule" of sequentiality. Anglo-Saxon kinship seems to afford an example of "the change of particular lineal organizations as the descent system becomes bilateral" (Schusky, 73).

(44) We marvel over his substitution because our concept of family has changed. We make distinctions his society lacked and vice-versa. It would never occur to him to ask the questions that prompted this paper. He would probably wonder what we were wondering about.

(45) My unwieldy nominatives expand the technical equation Schusky uses to describe the Crow system (33): "Fa= FaBr= FaSiSo= FaSiDaSo." There is a sense of shadow-boxing here because the anthropologist adopts quasi-algebra in his effort to bridge a gap in our language: Modern English can come no closer to expressing a relationship pattern beyond the scope of our lexicon.

(46) Ibid., 33.

(47) Cf. Goody, 25 (n37, above).

(48) Recognizing the Crow pattern in Old English nomenclature confirms Hill's assertion that "the father's-brother's son can become a father" (43). By extension, so can father's-sister's son, father's-sister's-daughter's son, etc.

(49) A.R. Radcliffe-Brown's Structure and Function in Primitive Society (New York: Free Press, 1965), 15-31, includes "The Mother's Brother in South Africa," first published in the South African Journal of Science 21 (1924): 542-55. As Bremmer writes (see n63, below), 21-22, "although his explanation has been proved wrong and his representation of the facts was misleading, he greatly advanced upon Bachofen in that he discarded the evolutionary scheme in which the special relationship was considered as a survival of matrilineal times." I too discard "the evolutionary scheme" but still believe the Germanic evidence suggests prehistoric matriliny.

(50) E.g., Old High German oheim, Old Frisian em, Middle Dutch oem.

(51) E.g., aem, aem, hem, eyme, eme, em, attested in Arthurian works from Layamon's Brut to Malory's Morte Darthur.

(52) Traces of goddess-worship, as in the mysterious, cult of Nerthus, suggest prehistoric, prominence of sacral women. The merwif seems to reflect a mythic underworld "tooth mother," too.

(53) Cf. Hill, 41: "Hygelac is his maternal uncle (`eam'), lord, and great kinsman."

(54) "The Kin Bonds of Camelot," Medieval Perspectives 11 (1996): 146-47. "Kin Bonds" touches upon the Indoeuropean background of MoBr. I disagree with Spolsky (235): "PIE awyos (OE eam) denoted, at least in several dialects of PIE, a set of older men in the mother's patrigroup."

(55) The anthropological material on this topic is vast, e.g., Jack Goody, "The Mother's Brother and the Sister's Son in West Africa," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 89 (1959): 61-88; Robert Lowie, Primitive Society (New York: Liveright, 1970); Bronislaw Malinowski "The Family Complex in Patrilineal and Matrilineal Societies," Kinship: Selected Readings, ed. Jack Goody (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971), 42-44; I. A. Richards, "Matrilineal Systems," ibid., 278-89; Schusky, 8, 30, 37.

(56) Goody, "Domestic Groups," 21.

(57) John Long, Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader (London, 1791; New York: Johnson Reprint, 1968). The quotation above is from Levi-Strauss' Totemism, trans. Rodney Needham (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963), 18. In my Garland book (see n 8, above) I also distinguish shamanism from totemism and argue, that both culture complexes influenced Anglo-Saxon prehistory.

(58) Economic motives reinforce such residence arrangements; the more hands in a household, the more wealth it will generate. The frequently misunderstood "bride price" is also relevant here (see n77, below): in patrilocal cultures (including the historical Anglo-Saxon), the exchange of wealth for a woman is less purchase of a person than compensation rendered to the birth family for losing a valuable worker from their manufacturing/ marketing enterprise.

(59) In a sense, matrilineal practice inverts current Anglo-American custom; it would be as though the newborn received the mother's surname rather than the father's.

(60) See Figure 2 and Schusky, 24-33.

(61) In an effort to clarify matriclan motives, my statement here may seem to suggest that ego in such cultures can exercise discretion in the choice of residence, heirs, etc. This is not the case at all: the system tends to be unquestionable in tradition-bound tribal culture. That is, inheritance rules are as fixed as primogeniture was among most European feudal states in the High Middle Ages.

(62) Schusky, 37.

(63) Rolf H. Bremmer, "The Importance of Kinship: Uncle and Nephew in `Beowulf,'" Amsterdamer Beitreage zur Alteren Germanistik 15 (1980): 23. We could quibble that anything written is "literary," including wills, laws, charters, writs, charms, etc., all of which illuminate one another and the rest of the Saxon corpus. The perplexing emphasis on the MoBr/SiSo bond is common knowledge in Beowulf studies. Yet it has never been satisfactorily explained, as Bremmer suggests. He also cites commentary (23n12) on the subject by Gummere (n1, above), Seebohm (n1, above), and Spolsky (n22, above).

(64) Bremmer cites the text as "no. 47"; but it is listed as Riddle 46 by G. P. Krapp and E. V. K. Dobbie, eds., The Exeter Book, ASPR 3 (Columbia U. Press, 1936), 205.

(65) In Beowulf (London: Edward Arnold, 1978), 32-33, T. A. Shippey suggests that SiSo regularly inherited from MoBr in preliterary Germanic society.

(66) It is true that incest complicates this example, since Lot's sin blurs the lines between father and grandfather, sister and mother, sister and aunt, brother and cousin.

(67) Since Bremmer lists the specific avuncular passages in Beowulf and the wills, the rest of my paper highlights key examples to avoid covering the same ground twice. Bremmer also quotes the avuncular locus classicus, chapter 20 of Tacitus' Germania, which emphasizes the closeness of the bond between MoBr and SiSo.

(68) F.E. Harmer, ed., Select English Historical Documents of the Ninth and Tenth Centuries (Cambridge U. Press, 1914); Dorothy Whitelock, ed., Anglo-Saxon Wills (Cambridge U. Press, 1930).

(69) Eric John, Land Tenure in Early England (London: Leicester U. Press, 1960); Michael M. Sheehan, The Will in Medieval England: From the Conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to the End of the Thirteenth Century (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1963).

(70) John, 16n2; Sheehan, 5.

(71) Sheehan, 81. This law thus illustrates the preceding assertion that early legal documents provide for the exception not the rule. Unfortunately, we are therefore left groping in the dark for "the rule."

(72) This important distinction, crucial to aristocrats eager to bequeath, clarifies the murky passage where Hygelac rewards Beowulf with a vast estate comparable to that of Wulfric Spot (Mercian nobleman [d. c. 1002], thane of Ethelred). In 2.2195-99, the hero receives with his "seven thousand [hides of land] ... both together," the relatively new right to alienate or settle this land on an heir (lond gecynde, cf. bookright) and the right to possess in native fashion (e??elriht or folkright).

(73) John, 41n1.

(74) Harmer, 14, 48 (her trans.).

(75) John, 1.

(76) Rivers (n10 , above), 213.

(77) Sheehan, 99.

(78) Another complex issue, quite volatile in the past few decades of Old English scholarship, the role of noblewomen occupies me in another project, where I mainly agree with Stafford (n3, above) and Christine Fell, Women in Anglo-Saxon England (Indiana U. Press, 1984).

(79) The issue of widows' rights is also complex. See Klinck (n10, above) and Rivers.

(80) The morning-gift is distinct from dower or "bride-price" (cf. dowry; see Stafford, 66-67). The dower does not reduce the bride to chattel, as some argue (e.g., Klinck, 109-10). It compensates her family for losing a worker. It also guarantees safety (cf. The Wife's Lament): if ill-treated, she can return to her kindred who then keep the dower. Both sums express status. The greater the dower, the more prestigious (or proud) the groom's maeg??e. For an anthropological explanation of the bride-price, see Murdock (n18, above), 19-21.

(81) Harmer, 3.

(82) Whitelock, 10.

(83) Harmer, 13-14.

(84) Sheehan, 78.

(85) John, 45. Phillpotts mentions "these supernumerary heirs" (262-64), among the traditional causes of the Viking expansion as well as the nineteenth-century Norwegian emigration to North America.

(86) Whitelock, Wills, IX.

(87) Ibid., I.

(88) Ibid., 153.

(89) Bremmer, 32-33.

(90) Niles (Speculum 73.2 [April 1998]: 499) addresses this syncretic aspect of epic in his review of Davis (see n7, above): Beowulf demonstrates "the ability of literature to absorb changes that affect society as a whole, assimilating non-native elements to entrenched patterns of thought and giving expression to these new syntheses in symbolic form." The converse is equally valid: entrenched pattern assimilates to innovation, too. The avunculate coexists with primogeniture before being fully displaced by it.

(91) Bremmer theorizes that MoBr and SiSo were traditional comrades-in-arms. With nydgestealla, cf. hondgestealla "hand-companion," lindgestealla "linden[shield]-companion," both applied to the relationship between Hygelac and Beowulf (2159a, 1973a; Bremmer, 33n55). These compounds suggest a formulaic avunculate. Klaeber speculates (251) that in Finnsburgh Fragment 18-21 "the Frisian Gu??here tries to restrain the impetuous vouth, Garulf--perhaps his nephew, cp. Nibel. 2208 ff., walthariaus 846 ff.--from risking his life `at the first onset." Thus the master/MoBr Guthhere attempts to train his apprentice/SiSo Garulf.

(92) Bremmer, 33.

(93) Though Celtic culture is beyond the pale of this paper, a similar strangeness attends the Arthurian mythos, where the dysfunctional king generally has no (or else an incestuous) son. See n55, above. When we add Roland and Charlemagne (and Oedipus and Creon), then Spolsky's theory of an Indoeuropean avunculate gathers force (see n26, above).

(94) Schusky, 37.

(95) See n36, above.

(96) Bremmer, 35-36. Elsewhere in his article, he argues for other putative MoBr/SiSo pairs, such as Heardred and Hererice (29), Hygelac and Swerting (30).

(97) Cf. Hill (15): Wiglaf "is Beowulf's kinsman on his father's people's side." Though no final criterion of male relatedness, one would then expect alliteration of Ecgtheow with Waegmund. Citing Edward B. Irving--Rereading Beowulf (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1989), 115--who also doubts Wiglafs succession, Hill argues against Wiglaf as Beowulf's heir (182n13), a likelihood supported by the hero's own, albeit clouded, accession to the Geatish throne as well as by the likelihood of matrilineal patterning in the epic's prehistory.

(98) The term had both meanings in OE--another example of the conflation of male kindred.

(99) Bremmer, 36.

(100) Hill, on the other hand, believes that "Beowulf's free gifts ... honour Wiglaf even as they express close kinship" (182 n 13). For different reasons, Eliason (see n5, above) also doubts the avuncular connection (101) and Wiglaf's succession (104).

(101) See n8 and n57, above. The tendency in Anglo-Saxon studies has been to prevent error by narrowing the focus of our inquiry. However, confronted with a masterwork like Beowulf--a "shapely silver drop" reflecting all the constellations of its ethnic cosmos--we must use every available lens to view the entire artifact.

(102) A. C. Evans, The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial (British Museum, 1986), 85. Here too Evans reads the carved faces as evidence of ancestor veneration.
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Publication:Philological Quarterly
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Date:Jan 1, 1999
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