Properties of Blood, I.7: Kith and Kin, Conclusion

More depends on kinship than feelings of affection or the obligation of mutual assistance.  Kinship has many dimensions, and a systems of kinship determines who inherits property and status from whom, who may marry whom, who is entitled or required to take vengeance for a slain kinsman, and who must bear what proportion of responsibility for the acts of a relative.  Conventionally, anthropologists and historians have categorized descent systems as patrilineal, when property and/or status are inherited from or through the father’s line, matrilineal, when it is through the mother’s, or some form of cognatic system in which both sides are taken into consideration.  Human realities, as we shall see when we take up marriage, can be more complicated.

Kinship is rooted in genetic reality.  Genetically, I inherit 50% of my makeup from each parent, but they are not necessarily my closest relatives, since I am potentially anywhere from 50% to 100% related to siblings.  I share only 25% with grandparents, aunts and uncles, and 12.5% with first cousins, and so on.  It would be possible, then, to construct a kinship system based on these percentages, but such a system would not take account of other preferences within a society, which might privilege vertical descent over other relations, male over female (or vice versa).

Kinship is primarily a social structure, if anything the social structure.  It is also, however, a moral structure that dictates forms of behavior.  Summing up a survey of several African societies, Meyer Fortes emphatically stated the basic premise of his widely influential research: “Kinship is binding; it creates inescapable moral claims and obligations.”  The closest analogy he can find is with the Christian notion of charity.  In this sense then, kinship is the means by which human beings learn to treat each other fairly, kindly, and generously, and the term overlaps with both the Hebrew rea (usually translated into English as “neighbor”) and the Greek philos.  It is highly significant, then, that early Christians referred to each other as brothers--much as many Southern Protestants and members of religious orders still do.

The familial law of love, translated into the domain  of kinfolks, becomes what Fortes calls the “axiom of amity,” a moral imperative for members of the kindred to help each other.  Universalized in the early Church, it becomes the that virtue of charity St. Paul regarded as supreme and indispensable.  If virtues are not the mere abstractions to which they have been reduced by the liberal tradition, then they are forged in childhood by the experiences of kith and kin.  It remains to be seen whether we can learn to treat all men as brothers if we do not how to treat our literal brothers and cousins.

Kinship is not, then, merely a matter of warming sentiments or shared experiences, but the bones of our moral order.  As a necessary part of human nature, it is rooted in our biological being.  Descendants from a common ancestor share common genes.  While social structures may sometimes obscure one or another aspect of genetic reality, it would be a grave error to assume that pre-modern or primitive peoples did not understand the basic principle.  The very complexity of their kinship terminology and their carefully constructed rules on inheritance betray a keen appreciation of sociobiological reality, even in societies in which the mechanics of procreation are not well understood.

Kinship and genetic descent are obviously related but not necessarily identical.  Some of my closest relatives may be structurally excluded from the lineage.  In, for example, a strictly matrilineal descent structure, where status and property are inherited through the mother but not from the father, I have no kin relationship with my father or his relatives.  Such structures do not at all exclude close bonds of affection and loyalty between me and my father’s family.  On the contrary, I may well be closer to people whose inheritance I cannot claim.  The same reasoning applies to my mother’s relations in a patrilineal system.  In some patrilineal societies, there can be a close relationship, sometimes referred to as the “avunculate,” between a man and his sister’s son.  This special tie among the ancient Germans was noticed in Roman times by the historian Tacitus [Germania 19-21]   Examples abound in Germanic literature, and the theme is echoed in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in the close relationship between Theoden and his sister’s son Eomer.

Tolkien was an Anglo-Saxon scholar whose work on Beowulf has been highly influential.  His hero, Frodo Baggins, is an orphan and the adopted heir of Bilbo, the finder of the ring.  It is explicitly stated that Bilbo had no niece or nephew to adopt and so selected the son of his first cousin Primula, who had married Bilbo’s second cousin Drogo. The care and affection lavished on Frodo is reminiscent of Beowulf’s concern for his cousin.  As the sister’s son of the late King Hygelac, Beowulf is offered his uncle’s throne, though he is reluctant to displace Hygelac’s son.  However, when the son is killed, Beowulf succeeds to the kingship.  In “The Battle of Maldon,” Byrhnoth’s sister’s son is one of the first to die fighting to avenge his uncle. (A) Among the patrilineal Anglo-Saxons, the inheritance and succession rights from father to son are predictably observed, but even in wills, some property often passes by the informal system of the avunculate. (B)

Though some efforts have been made to connect the Anglo-Saxon avunculate with an earlier matrilineal or totemic system, such ingenious explanations are not necessary: Kinship structures are flexible and adaptable, and without more precise information about early German social life, speculation is fruitless.  (C) Kinship is an organizing principle of most societies, but it would be wrong to reduce all social obligations and affections to descent patterns:  There are other forms of friendship, though, as we shall see, brotherhood and kinship very often serve as metaphors for institutionalized affections not based on blood or marriage.

This brings us back to the beginning.  Christians stake their lives on the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of Christians, while liberals and leftists dream of a world in which all men are brothers, regardless of blood or belief.  Christians sing of the crucifixion, a concrete fact of human reality,

O sacred head sore wounded

Defiled and put to scorn

O kingly head surrounded

With mocking crown of thorns

Leftists rewrite the words as a pie-in-the sky dream of rootless brotherhood and sisterhood that gets more and more remote with every passing day in a world controlled by leftist anti-Christians:

Because all men are brothers

Wherever men may be,

And women all are sisters

Forever proud and free.

Christians were once instructed to exercise patience with their pagan neighbors, and this was good advice, but with our post-Christian persecutors, war to the knife is beginning to seem more appropriate.

We have so far only scratched the moral surface of kinship, and in the next two chapters we shall look further at the benefits--and the liabilities--that blood relations entail.


A    Frederic Seebohm, Tribal Custom in Anglo-Saxon Law, Being an Essay Supplemental to (1) The English Village Community and (2) The Tribal System in Wales, London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1911, pp. 68-72,

B Dorothy Whitelock, Anglo-Saxon Wills, Cambridge UP, 1930, passim, e.g., wills on pp. 3,5, 23, 153.

C.  Stephen O. Glosecki, “Beowulf and the Wills: Traces of Totemism?”, Philological Quarterly Winter 1999, 78: pp. 15-47.  Cf. Lancaster, Lorraine. 1958. "Kinship in Anglo-Saxon Society." The British Journal of Sociology 9:230-50, 359-77.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina