Kinship in Neckarhausen, 1700-1870.
In his first volume on Neckarhausen (i.e., Property, Production, and Family in Neckarhausen), David Sabean persuasively argued against the old interpretation that kinship played a more significant role in 'traditional' than in 'modern' rural society. In fact, Sabean found the whole concept of a 'web of kinship' to be utterly useless: Such terminology was "just an admission that there were social processes which we do not yet know how to think about" (1990, p. 432). Although providing no answer to this intractable problem, Sabean did intimate that he would eventually confront the overarching notion of kinship in another book. Eight years later that promise has been fulfilled, and the results are intellectually enthralling. Kinship, argues Sabean, is much more than just 'marriage exchanges'; it is "the encompassing patterns of reciprocities as well as their reverse side - with forms of behavior that refuse exchange, establish lines of fission, or set up practices of exclusion" (p. xxv). It is the network in which individuals find not only their identities but also the strategies necessary for movement within their societies. Studying kinship therefore reveals the 'underlying practices' that give fundamental structure to human societies, and without that, one simply cannot, in Sabean's opinion, begin to comprehend the past. In effect, Sabean moves kinship to the center of historical inquiry, suggesting that through this particular lens historians can find the most clarity.
To be sure, utilizing this lens is no mean task, for all possible kinship ties must be explored. The possibilities were - and still are - manifold; relationships could be established through marriage, godparentage, naming practices, guardianship, Kriegsvogtschaft (i.e., court guardianship of a woman's rights through a chosen man), and pledging (i.e., providing collateral security). Complicating matters was the fact that ties could overlap in more ways than one. Godparentage, for instance, bound individuals together in a spiritual/ritual relationship, but it could also reinforce consanguineal or affinal or even both ties. Furthermore, these relationships constantly evolved over time. In order to elucidate these seemingly inextricable webs, Sabean meticulously reconstructed the genealogies of over 4,000 families (one such genealogy reached a span of 10 yards! [p. 512]). Through such endeavors, the author has uncovered fascinating details about the development of human society in Neckarhausen and in general.
During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, villagers constructed kin relationships that 'agglutinated' (p. 112) the rich and the poor. Eschewing marriages with first, second, and even third cousins, the Bauern preferred exogamy and, hence, developed a pattern of marriage that united three or more households in "overlapping affinal relationships" (p. 115). Other forms of kinship extended familial alliances. Ritual kin, or godparents, were chosen not from close consanguineal or affinal relatives, but rather from the wealthier and older segments of society that would most likely serve well as patrons. Additionally, the practice of naming children reaffirmed the horizontal ties between brothers rather than the vertical ties of family ancestry. Therefore, strategies for survival relied on the relatively fiat kinship networks that were spread thin across much of Neckarhausen society.
Beginning in the 1740s, though, endogamous marriage became more common. The first to marry within their families were the village officials, who began to choose close relatives rather than influential outsiders as ritual kin. With this new system, the magistrates closed ranks. They discovered that with a tighter network of kin, they could surreptitiously take advantage of their roles as local tax collectors for an early modern state that was not yet overly concerned with accountability. This led directly to the phenomenon of Vetterleswirtschaft, which in turn made local politics extremely contentious as some wealthy villagers were excluded from political power. In order to compete, they too adopted the new strategy of 'overlapping consanguineal ties'. As competition for political and economic resources continually intensified, the practice of endogamy became even more widespread as more and more landholders appropriated it. By the end of the eighteenth century nearly all landholders in Neckarhausen had built complex webs of consanguinity, but many of the village artisans still relied on the older system of exogamy. Where there had once been strong patron-client links binding much of the population together, stark differences among 'classes' emerged. Therefore, kinship should be viewed as the "matrix for the construction of class" (p. 206). Indeed, the reciprocal relationship between class and kin (p. 183) now determined one's ability to 'durchkommen' (succeed), and by the first third of the nineteenth century, endogamy had become commonplace for all but the poorest families in Neckarhausen.
At the same time, however, political and economic turmoil altered the landscape. Serious economic difficulties at the beginning of the nineteenth century subsequently flooded the market with available land. The state exerted its authority at the local level and cleaned up the corruption endemic to the nepotistic, local politics of the eighteenth century. These events made it more difficult for kin networks to protect family property: No longer could kin easily collude with one another and the magistrates in organizing auctions so that property would remain within a family. Instead, "factional politics determined by class" (p. 359) gained the upper hand. In this atmosphere, where class seemed to supersede kinship, the latter once again evolved. Beginning in at least the 1820s, women began to play a decisively more important role as kin networks became more matrifocal, with women taking more responsibility for developing and furthering the all-important alliances with other households. The significance of kinship did not, however, diminish. If anything, its significance grew as kinship networks were, by the middle of the nineteenth century, designed as "a much more open and flexible way of managing and creating opportunity" (p. 468). In a competitive, public arena where advancement and success were superficially based on merit alone, kinship alliances oftentimes made the difference between success and failure. (In comparing his work to others, Sabean argues that similar trends with some variability occurred across much of European society.) 'Modem' society was, therefore, constructed and shaped through the conflation of kinship, class, and gender. Powerful and thought-provoking, Sabean's work has once again clarified our 'thinking about past social processes'.
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|Author:||Frey, Dennis A.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1999|
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