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seals and medieval family identity

In Brigitte Miriam Bedos-Rezak’s review of Ted Evergates’ Aristocracy in the County of Champagne, 1100-1300 (U. Penn. Press, 2007), just out in American Historical Review 114 (2009):192-3, she is not the first to point out how Evergates contradicts Duby’s orthodoxy by showing that the most important aristocratic family unit is not the lignage, but rather the nuclear or conjugal family. When I first saw this in another review (probably TMR) I read Evergates carefully. He does not busy himself destroying paradigms, but he does convincingly show the primacy of the conjugal family in many aspects of aristocratic economic and social life in Champagne. I am sure that he would not deny that, elsewhere and even in Champagne, certain types of evidence do show the rise, in the 11th and 12th centuries, of the land-based agnatic ‘lignage’ as a model for identification of one’s extended family; but Evergates’ work reminds us that this paradigm (or other paradigms of spiritual and commemorative kinship), no matter how compelling, should not lead us to neglect the day-to-day importance of the conjugal family; and especially that women were not (as Duby implied) necessarily systematically victimized and disenfranchised in aristocratic society—so long as they married.

In her review Bedos-Rezak makes one interesting suggestion—that more attention could be paid to seal epigraphy and and iconography—including heraldry—as a way to trace the evolution or relative strength of agnatic lineages in self- and family-identification. Here’s an interesting way to take an old and marginalized antiquarian field and make it relevant to the current social history! Of course, given that the trend of heraldic identification on seals only appears late in the ‘mutation féodale’ timetable, there is the potential pitfall of a ‘mutation documentaire’ suggesting false societal trends, but reviewing the evidence for such a comparitive study would be a fun way to look afresh at a corpus of seals…

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  1. Things on the web « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe on Thursday, March 19, 2009 at 15:58

    [...] nice to see someone else reading Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, particularly when it’s about ways to tackle Duby’s picture of the family. She seems to [...]

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