Relationship Terminology in Medieval Latin

Publications by D.C. Jackman Medieval Latin relationship terms had a potential to extend their meanings in systematic ways. The customary understanding is that relationship terms generally adhere to their basic meanings. If they extend, it is neither frequently nor regularly. This hasty conclusion causes many aspects of the structure of the medieval aristocracy to be misunderstood.

The Konradiner. A Study in Genealogical Methodology. Ius Commune, Sonderhefte: Studien zur europäischen Rechtsgeschichte, 47. Frankfurt am Main, 1990.

From a juxtaposition of several sources it became clear that the relationships of the Konradiner – the first post-Carolingian royal family of Germany – had been misconstrued in historical scholarship. In order to evaluate possible approaches, criteria for progressive proof of genealogical affiliations needed to be developed. These criteria allowed the principle of terminological extension to make a measured contribution to an argument for proof – thus a term was permitted to assume a rational extension, which would be confirmed if proof of the affiliation were achieved. The chief observation of principle regarding terminological extension was that specific terms, such as filius (son) and soror (sister), are able to extend their meanings, whereas non-specific terms, such as consanguineus (cousin of indeterminate degree) are not.

Review (in German) of Stirps regia. Forschungen zu Königtum und Führungsschichten im früheren Mittelalter. Festgabe zu seinem 60. Geburtstag, by Eduard Hlawitschka. Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte, Germanistische Abteilung, 108 (1991) 403–6. As to why so elementary an observation not been made before, there are many complicating factors. Ecclesiastical laws prohibiting consanguineous marriage were so sweeping – theoretically they outlawed marriage between cousins even to the sixth degree – that the possibility of relationships involving marriages between second cousins could not be accepted with equanimity. Yet Emperor Charles the Bald († 877) was married to his second cousin: this is explicitly documented by a contemporary source, which historians have chosen to ignore. Of course, first cousins in English novels like Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park are allowed to go through almost endless suffering until they finally are permitted – quite legally – to marry.

"Das Eherecht und der frühdeutsche Adel." Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte, Germanistische Abteilung, 112 (1995) 158–201.

Apparently Frankish law admitted marriages between 3:3 cousins, but not between persons any closer related. In the central Middle Ages, Frankish law generally prevailed over ecclesiastical law because the latter was believed to advise rather than prescribe.

"Systematic Extension in Latin Relationship Terminology." Prosopon: Newsletter of the Unit for Prosopographical Research, no. 8, November 1997.

Once the notion of system is accepted, a simple but incisive observation can be made: a ‘nepos’ was a relative within the second degree (2:3 or closer), hence this term could also be applied to relatives who could not marry according to Frankish law. The twelfth-century Annalista Saxo provides a fairly explicit example of this understanding.
Criticism and Critique. Sidelights on the Konradiner. Occasional Publications of the Oxford Unit for Prosopographical Research, 1. Oxford, 1997. The conceptualization of a system of relationship terminology greatly enlarges the parameters of discussion concerning the medieval aristocracy. This is a significant step forward in the sense that the terms of relationship must underlie discussion of the aristocracy’s crucial role in most aspects of government.
"Rorgonid Right – Two Scenarios." Francia, 26/1 (1999) 131-55. The term ‘germanus’, which means brother in the sense of sons of the same parents and is therefore a specific term, could be extended to an in-law relationship. The term ‘avunculus’, or maternal uncle, was sometimes applied to a relationship by marriage where a preexisting blood relationship was also involved.
"Abnepos, pronepos." Notes and Queries, 245 (2000) 14-16. The term ‘abnepos’ is used to describe an illegitimate nephew of King Baldwin I of Jerusalem. There are also instances where ‘pronepos’, which usually means great-grandson, was applied to a relationship of cousin beyond a 2:3 degree. Apparently the use of ‘abnepos’ for close relationship but illegitimate birth was justified by the fact that the extension of this term (normally great-great-grandson) leads to a legally and socially insignificant tie. Conversely, ‘pronepos’ could take on a more precise extended meaning.

"Cousins of the German Carolingians." In: Onomastique et Parenté dans l’Occident médiévale. Ed. K.S.B. Keats-Rohan and C. Settipani. Occasional Publications of the Unit for Prosopographical Research 3. Oxford, 2000. Pp. 116-39.

The possibilities for systematic extension are numerous and varied. The use of ‘nepos’ by rulers to designate their distant relatives may appear to promote confusion, but it is in fact a rational usage. When King Louis the Child refers to Konrad (the later king) as ‘amabilis nepos’, it must mean that they were related once more within the 2:3 degree. Especially noteworthy is an instance of ‘neptis’ for relationship by marriage when the child of that marriage is a true ‘neptis’.

"The Position of the Counts of Sponheim as Heirs of the Konradiner: Apropos a Recent Investigation." Archiv für Familiengeschichtsforschung, 6 (2002) 266-84.

The potential of relationship terminology is demonstrated by simplistic situations where two families become more distantly related from one generation to the next. Duke Markward of Carinthia and his brother Bishop Adalbero of Bamberg are described as ‘propinquus’ and ‘consobrinus’ of Emperors Henry III and IV, but Markward’s son is merely ‘cognatus’ and ‘consanguineus’ of Henry IV. In this and similar cases the changing terminology can assist a precise understanding of the relationships.
"König Konrad, die letzten Karolinger und ihre sächsischen Verwandten." In: Konrad I. – Auf dem Weg zum ‘Deutschen Reich’? Ed. H.-W. Goetz and S. Elling. Bochum, 2006. Pp. 77-92. Louis the Child’s reference to Konrad (the later king) as ‘amabilis nepos’ having been posited as an indication of 2:3 or closer consanguinity, extensive materials are assembled to show that Louis’ mother Oda and Konrad’s mother Glismut were indeed sisters. As a corrective to the tendency of scholarship to accept ‘avunculus’ as an occasional and rather peculiar substitute for ‘paternal uncle’ (otherwise ‘patruus’), the case is examined of an ‘avunculus’ related to his ‘nepos’ as maternal uncle by marriage, but otherwise related by blood in a 2:3 degree.
"Comparative Accuracy." Historicity, no. 1, 2008. A well-rounded appreciation of the term ‘nepos’ is ultimately achieved by observing a case where the ‘nepotes’ of a woman are simply the husbands of her granddaughters. Further, the extension of ‘filius’ to the relationship of grandson is observed: it is an unusual extension that occurs when ‘nepos’ lacks adequate force.
"Gerhard Flamens (Part One)." Archive for Medieval Prosopography, no. 5, 2008. The term ‘germanus’ can extend to an in-law relationship in situations where the children of either party have the same pair of grandparents, since legally there is no difference between their rights of claim.
"The Kleeberg Fragment of the Gleiberg County." Archive for Medieval Prosopography, no. 11, 2012.

A further peculiarity of the term ‘nepos’ is ability to extend its meaning when drawing on its specific definition. Thus it is possible for a person to have a nepos who is not a grandson but rather the husband of a grand-daughter.

Three Bernards Sent South to Govern. State College, Penna., 2015.

The system of terminological extension is found to apply to ninth-century France much as it did to Germany. A germanus can be a brother-in-law. This book includes further discussion of the term ‘avunculus’ sometimes applied to a paternal uncle in recognition of some parallel relationship via the mother.

  The systematic extension of relationship terms in medieval Latin is an open-ended field, since the inference of an extension is evaluated on the strength of reconstructed affiliations. The importance of this inquiry can be stressed. The lines of a system demonstrate the uniqueness of the medieval perspective. Insight is gained into the manner in which Latinists perceived their language, the fundamental sort of esteem in which they held it. They devised and imparted system, which tells us something about the discourse among them concerning language.