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Spiritual Kinship as Social Practice: Godparenthood and Adoption in the Early Middle Ages.

By Bernhard Jussen. Translated by Pamela Selwyn. The Family in Interdisciplinary Perspective 3. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2000. 362 pp. $55.00 cloth.

The old saying that the fates choose our relatives for us, while we pick our friends by ourselves, like so many cliches is only half true. The adage assumes that biology alone dictates kinship. According to Bernhard Jussen, that common assumption is fallacious. Jussen, a member of the Max-Planck-Institute for History at Gottingen, maintains in the opening section of this stimulating monograph that a functional definition of kinship fits the evidence better than a biological one. Culture, not blood, historically defines kinship. Most societies, he argues, provide some means whereby persons not related by blood may be incorporated into a kindred when this seems advantageous.

The usual method employed in ancient Rome was to create kinship by adoption. Roman notions of adoption, to be sure, differed significantly from ours, just as Roman concepts of a household (familia) only distantly resembled what we mean by a family in modern European societies. Romans who were adopted came under the power of the paterfamilias of the adopting familia and counted by legal fiction as blood relatives for many other legal, social, and political purposes but did not usually reside as a matter of course with their adoptive parent and siblings.

Once the so-called "Germanic invasions" that began in the late fourth century started to alter the cultural environment of Western Europe, changes in the conception of kinship inevitably commenced. The usual construction of events maintains that the practice of adoption soon faded away, then disappeared altogether among Western societies in the early Middle Ages. Adoption would only reappear, it is usually (and erroneously) said, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Jussen shows in the second section of his book that adoption was in fact transformed, but did not really vanish, during the early Middle Ages. He rests his argument primarily upon a close examination of Gregory of Tours's History of the Franks, the most detailed surviving account of events among the elite society in the regions under Frankish control during the sixth century. Jussen shows that while Frankish adoption practices differed in important ways from those described by the classical Roman jurists, the Franks nonetheless did practice adoption. The paradigmatic case, which Jussen examines in minute detail, is that of the relationship between King Guntchramn of Burgundy and his two orphaned nephews, Childebert II of Austrasia--whom he adopted in 577, and Chilperic of Neustria--whom he adopted in 584. Gregory of Tours makes it plain that Guntchramn's actions had more to do with his ambitions to gain control over his nephews' kingdoms than with concern to protect them or advance their fortunes. Guntrchram, however, was no Roman paterfamilias: adoption failed to enable him to achieve the purposes that he evidently hoped for.

Baptismal sponsorship proved altogether more successful as a method of creating kinship during the early Middle Ages. This institution appeared at roughly the same time that classical Roman adoption was entering into decline. Godparenthood, unlike adoption, lacked clear antecedents in pagan antiquity. The practice of having an adult serve as proxy to assent to baptism and to affirm belief in the articles of the creed for infants and young children developed during the fifth and early sixth centuries, when adult baptism became increasingly uncommon and parents routinely had their children baptized early in life. Sponsorship became a virtually universal Christian institution by the end of the sixth century and remains widespread to the present day.

Theologians and canon lawyers credited baptismal sponsorship with creating spiritual bonds not only between godparents and their spiritual offspring, but also between the godparent and the biological family, especially the parents, of the child whom they "raised from the baptismal font." These spiritual bonds also carried worldly consequences. They created a functional kinship, technically called affinity, between the sponsor and the godchild's family that bound them together permanently. Just as Christians were not allowed to marry persons to whom they were closely related by blood, so also they were prohibited from marrying their godchildren or anyone to whom those children were closely related. At the same time, the sponsor became a co-parent who shared numerous rights and obligations with the godchild's natural parents. Baptismal sponsorship (and to a much slighter degree sponsorship at the time of confirmation) in this way largely displaced Roman-style adoption as a means of creating legal and social kinship.

Jussen's treatment of godparenthood occupies the largest and most detailed section of his book. Here too he relies primarily on close reading of the evidence that Gregory of Tours provides for sixth-century Francia. And here again he focuses especially on King Guntchramn's experiences, this time as a godparent for Chlothar, another of his nephews. The comparisons and contrasts strikingly illustrate the shifting social roles of the two methods of creating ties among persons not related to one another by blood.

Jussen's book inevitably invites comparison with Godparents and Kinship in Early Medieval Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986) by Joseph Lynch. Although Lynch also draws upon the evidence of Gregory of Tours and devotes some space to King Guntchramn's adventures in godparenthood, these do not form the central focus of his work. Lynch instead covers a considerably wider span both in time and space than does Jussen. Lynch also pays greater attention than Jussen does to theological and canonical treatments of sponsorship. On the other hand, Lynch gives only passing attention to the topic of adoption. The two books in many respects thus complement one another. It is unfortunate that Franck Roumy's L'adoption dans le droit savant du XIIe au XVIe siecle (Paris: Libraire Generale de Drot et de Jurisprudence, 1998) apparently appeared too late for Jussen to take into account.
James A. Brundage
University of Kansas
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Author:Brundage, James A.
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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