Bilateral Kindreds

Personal kindreds are widely observed in bilateral systems and are prevalent in Western European societies, where they can be traced back to early Germanic institutions. They are structured on the basis of egocentric, or ego focused, networks, which individuals construct through both parents, to all of their grandparents and their descendants, and consecutively to more distant ancestors and descendants in an ever widening circle.

A Bilateral Kindred
A Kindred

In contemporary Western societies the definition and extent of the kindred is usually unspecified. Individuals are able to personally decide on the range of kin they wish to recognize and the individual relatives with whom they will develop contacts. In general, the range of kinship recognition is quite narrow and is confined to first or second cousins. However, civil and canon law systems within European traditions specify fixed kindred ranges in their provisions concerning inheritance rights, marriage prohibitions, and other kinship matters. For instance, the current (post Vatican II) Catholic canon law asserts that relatives within four degrees of consanguinity, calculated according to the Roman (civil) degree system, cannot get married without special dispensations. (Simply put, first cousins are forbidden to marry.) Relatives within this range are also considered too close to hear one another's cases in Church tribunals or inherit ecclesiatical property from one another.

Impediments to Marriage
(Women whom Ego cannot marry are shaded in red)
Pre Vatican II Post Vatican II
Pre V-II impediments Post VII impediments

The Church previously imposed a wider range of exogamy of three degrees according to the Germanic (canon) degree system. (This range is actually more inclusive that four Roman degrees and includes second cousins.)

The practice of formally specifying a kindred range is documented in other societies which are organized on a bilateral basis. The Iban, a Malasian group, recognize kinship obligations within a kindred of second cousin range but are fairly flexible in their inclusions of relatives, since they do not maintain genealogies. (Freeman 1961). Third cousin ranges are recorded for several societies in the Pacific and Europe and were probably in force in medieval Germanic societies, although some interpretations of medieval texts suggest the imposition of a sixth cousin range.

Within a specified kinship range, distinctions of degrees of relationship may be important for assigning responsibities to different kin. For example, among the ancient Franks, the compensation payment, or wergeld, awarded to a murdered man's family was paid by the guilty party's kin on a sliding scale in relation to kinship degree. Anglo-Saxon custom was similar but added another complication by differentially allocating reponsibility to extended patrilateral and matrilateral relatives in a 2:1 ratio.

© Brian Schwimmer
University of Manitoba
Created: Sept. 1997
Last Updated: August 1998