How the fall of the Roman state and persistence of Roman culture led to the modern world


The above map is from a new preprint, The Origins of WEIRD Psychology. If you don’t know, WEIRD refers to “western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic.” And, it focuses on the problem that so much of psychological research has been done through surveys and experiments on university students, who tend to be from the more privileged half of developed societies in the West.

Despite the title, this preprint is less about the particularity and distinctiveness of WEIRD psychology subjects, but rather the socio-historical and cultural context from which WEIRD has developed. From the abstract:

We propose that much of this variation arose as people psychologically adapted to differing kin-based institutions—the set of social norms governing descent, marriage, residence and related domains. We further propose that part of the variation in these institutions arose historically from the Catholic Church’s marriage and family policies, which contributed to the dissolution of Europe’s traditional kin-based institutions, leading eventually to the predominance of nuclear families and impersonal institutions. By combining data on 20 psychological outcomes with historical measures of both kinship and Church exposure, we find support for these ideas in a comprehensive array of analyses across countries, among European regions and between individuals with different cultural backgrounds.

The hypothesis itself is not entirely novel. I first encountered the argument that the Western Church was critical in eliminating the familial strategies used by Late Antique Roman elites to maintain their power and wealth in Adam Bellow’s book In Praise of Nepotism. This preprint outlines the exact process which Bellow described: the Western Church constrained and limited the pool of possible mates through incredibly stringent incest regulations, as well banning adoption and other ways to prevent lineage extinction. Bellow presents an almost materialist thesis, whereby the Western Church consolidated its power and wealth through regulating the personal lives of Western Europe’s ruling elite. By destroying powerful pedigrees not only did the Church eliminate a temporal rival, but often the wealth of these elite lineages went to the Church if there were no heirs.

I’ll get back to the history in a bit. But first it has to be admitted that formalizing and quantifying these patterns is the value of this preprint. It would be easy for me to critique a particular set of variables, but there are so many, and they did so many robustness checks, that it hard to deny that the authors picked up some signal in the data. Probably the most persuasive aspect is that some of the signals persist within countries. That is, areas subject more to Western Church coercion for longer periods exhibit reduced kinship intensity down to the present. In most of the world lineage groups and familialism were and are much more pervasive and powerful than in the medieval West, where non-familial organizations such as guilds and monasteries stepped into the gap. What we might call “civil society” or the “small platoons.” These became “high trust” societies, and set the stage for the cultural and economic revolution of early modernity, from science to industrialization and the flourishing of democratic liberalism.

There have been many debates about why Europe underwent lift-off after 1500. Some of the models rely on exceedingly simple causes, such as the discovery of the New World releasing parts of Atlantic Europe from Malthusian pressures, as well as the location of coal in accessible regions of England. It seems possible that a single necessary and sufficient cause does not exist. The combination of the European discovery of the New World, along with their relatively open and high-trust societies engendered by the dissolution of extended clan structures by the Western Church was likely a potent cocktail.

In any case, I want to revisit the issue of how and why the Western Church went the route that it did. Because Christians in other parts of the world did not reform family structure in the say way. As hinted in the preprint, it may have to with the fact that the collapse of the imperial order in the West resulted in the devolution to the Church certain powers that would otherwise have been accorded to the state. In the lands of post-Roman West local bishops had the power of princes. Even the Pope in Rome took the role of a prince on more than one occasion. But, they also had the power of religion, which for all practical purposes was magic. To make a nerdy allusion, the bishops of the post-Roman world were both Aragorn and Gandalf in one. They were priest-kings.

The same did not hold in the East Roman Empire. Though the Eastern Orthodox Churches have often clashed with rulers, they were much more subordinate for all practical purposes than the Western Church. The East Roman Empire maintained the bureaucratic function of the Roman world down to the medieval period. In contrast, much of the apparatus of state control withered in the post-Roman West, as it devolved into feudalism. The Western Church maintained the cultural connection with Romanitas in the West in a landscape where the authority of Rome had vanished. That cultural connection was channeled through Christianity, where marriage was a sacrament which the Church controlled. Though there were plenty of aristocrats in the post-Roman West, the political systems of control were relatively weak. The Western Church was a solid and critical institution which spanned the patchwork of independent dominions which characterized the political landscape. It was indispensable.

In a world where Rome did not fall, which to all practical purposes was the case in the East, the Church would have had a more normal role in society. It would not have been able to engage in a social engineering project, because established powers would have blunted its will. This is clearly the case in other societies. In addition, the Church also had accrued to itself a monopoly on provision of religious services in Late Antiquity, and so it had recourse to avenues of leverage not feasible for secular rulers.

The pervasive power of the Western Church even in the face of the rise of social and political complexity in the late medieval period is illustrated by the impact of the Reformation. In Protestant areas of Europe religion became much more strictly subordinated to the ruler. Pastors became more like civil servants than independent sources of power. Two dynamics emerged rapidly with the adoption of Protestantism. First, the cousin marriage became more common among elite lineages again (e.g., Charles Darwin married his cousin). Second, young women were forced into marriages against their will more often than in Catholic Europe, where becoming a nun was often an option. To some extent Protestantism exacerbated the tendency to treat and see women bargaining chips in negotiations between elite lineages.

As the authors note in the preprint inbred lineage groups to come to the fore and operate as the atomic units of social organization in a society among agriculturalists. This is in contrast to hunter-gatherers, who seem to want to create kinship ties to distant people. There are clear differences between foragers and farmers in this model. Dense sedentary living fosters the emergence of endogamous kinship groups as natural cultural adaptations. The peculiarity about Western Europe is that this society broke out of this “default state,” and even after the Protestant Reformation it never went back. It may be that European society is now at a different equilibrium, or, that the economic lift-off of the last 500 years has allowed for individualism to persist even where the role of the Church in breaking up tight kinship groups has been blocked.

This preprint is a big deal, because it brings quantitative methods to a field which has been long on speculation. But there’s a real phenomenon that needs to be explored.

Addendum: The blogger “hbd chick” has suggested that she should have been cited, as she has been talking about these issues relating to family structure and the Church for many years.  I am not taking any sides, but just pointing that out.

17 thoughts on “How the fall of the Roman state and persistence of Roman culture led to the modern world

  1. As an aside it’s interesting in sense is how unsuccessful the medieval church were in Ireland (which had never been part of Roman Empire — coincidence? or just chance) in enforcing marriage laws. Most of the ‘nobility’ had civil marriages and divorce/remarriage were rife among them as a class (let alone marriage within the forbidden ranges) Of course it didn’t help that most of the native Church was made up of hereditary church families.

    It’s really only post the Tudor and Cromwellian conquest that if anything Ireland becomes more ‘Tridentine’ when it comes to Catholicism which probably ties in with it been adopted as a sign of ‘national otherness’ to the Anglican english state (particularly after language shift accelerated). Cousin marriage if anything is almost taboo among modern Irish, except of course among a particular nomadic subset of the population.

    No doubt it’s part of reason why there were higher ROH in Irish sample in that paper published a number of years ago (well that and been an island population)
    “Population structure and genome-wide patterns of variation in Ireland and Britain”
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2987482/

    0
  2. “That cultural connection was channeled through Christianity, where marriage was a sacrament which the Church controlled.”

    The Catholic Church did not actually control marriage. Pope Alexander III, for example, decreed that marriage must be made by free consent of the partners. In medieval England I understand marriages were done at the door of the church, followed by going in for a mass. The church increasingly expanded the law about consanguinity, as explained in Jack Goody’s book, ‘Development of the family and marriage in medieval Europe’, but I don’t think that canon law development was necessarily connected with a sacramental idea of marriage. The Catholic Encyclopedia does not mention the sacramental element as a motive for the policy at all.

    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04264a.htm

    0
  3. Also, I imagine you have come across Emanuel Todd’s classification and map of European family systems: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Europe_famille_todd.jpg

    If I may quote my own blog post on this: “This map, from Emmanuel Todd’s book L’invention de l’Europe (1990), shows that Britain and a few other regions including the coastal Netherlands were unusual in Europe in terms of their pattern of inheritance. Only these regions were traditionally characterised by la famille nucléaire et absolu. This is Todd’s classification for cultures where the custom was that the younger generation married and formed independent households and that inheritances were shared out according to the (legal) will of the older generation, rather than by a principle of equality. Todd describes this culture as ‘maximal individualisme’:
    The maximal individualism of this family system … not only insists on the necessary independence of children vis-à-vis parents, but demands too the separation of brothers by not treating them as equals.
    (My translation.)
    Was it a coincidence that the Netherlands and England, Europe’s most commercial societies, were characterised by this unusually individualistic inheritance culture?”

    0
  4. EmmaZunz: The Catholic Church did not actually control marriage. Pope Alexander III, for example, decreed that marriage must be made by free consent of the partners”
    So the Catholic Church decreed to the weaker noble families that those families couldn’t control who got married. Which the Church could decree because… it controlled the institutional process.
    Also you are forgetting the Church’s control over who got UNmarried, through annulment.

    0
  5. The debate is old and so are the arguments, but to bolster them up in a quantiative and qualitative way in detail is great.

    @EmmaZunz: By making it a sacrament, the church got its decisive role. It could control, decide and make money from its role. That was true for other aspects of life as well, like the burial, when at times poor people had to sell their last cow to satisfy a corrupt village priest, which could refuse to bury the dead otherwise.

    In Germanic and even early Christian societies of North Western Europe marriage was primarily a thing between two fathers and a father and the future son in law. There was no role for a priest and of course the father had a say in when the daughter married whom.

    But then the church and the priests came in and the fathers had nothing to say any more – in theory. In practise, that was a long process, but the most important aspect is that women could marry even against the will of the father, whom they want, decline a marriage, or even don’t marry at all. That individualist approach destroyed the extended family and without it the current idea of a wife making an abortion without the consent of the husband (!) would be unthinkable. In many societies before the consent of the woman was to be asked, that’s not as much a thing and of course good, but the main role of a father was to decline a marriage. In Christian Europe that influence was primarily coming with the fathers ability to give or decline money and wealth to his sons and daughters. That’s why poor people had more of a choice, if they could marry at all, for which they had to have a certain wealth, with their partners. Yet it wasn’t the fathers rule and any more, and thats decisive. The patriarch was dethroned already by this shift in medieval times. He could only blackmail with his wealth and inheritance, not his authority in society.

    The Catholic church wanted kinship being a persiflage, with people living for the “otherworld” rather than this world. Don’t forget that a lot of those ideas became prominent under a doomsday vision, under which long term planning seemed to be rather far fetched.

    The believers should be, while living on Earth, being one panmixed community of pious sheeps in the hand of gods without thinking about the future of their lineage. That’s in the bible, it was no Catholic invention. It was just that the Catholic church actually read the bible, interpreted it in a strict, even fanatic way and had the power to force their view upon the people. In absense of other intellectual powers in particular! It was not that the church had so much of a worldly power actually, but an intellectual one. It had a monopol of interpreting life, which includes sexuality, family and kinship.

    Its not just cousin marriage, they even wanted to have godparents to be nonrelated and they forbade the marriage of “kin by law”. Kinship was defined by their canonical law and if they said the daughter of your godfather or brother in law is related to you like your sister by blood, it was so, by church law. The English language is pretty clear about it.
    That way people really had to go on a journey, in theory, to find a partner at all! You were not allowed to marry blood cousins, related people of your godparents and your family by law and so on…
    So a large portion of your neighbourhood was, in theory, forbidden territory for a future spouse. It was blatantly absurd, but they really made a mockery out of the old kinship system and replaced it by their ideas of spiritual relationship and a complex law system which was, quite often, even hard to impossible to implement by the local priests.

    I have a case from my own family, where my greatgrandfather needed a dispensation for marrying the sister of his deceased wife. Because with the marriage with the deceased wife, her sister became his “sister-in-law”. Just think about it, the most logical thing to do, if possible, if your wife or husband dies, especially if you have children already, is to marry the brother or sister of the deceased. That was even the rule in a lot of societies and its definitely good for the children (more often), because there is an actual relationship (and kinship) present already. Unlike it is with a totally foreign stepfather or -mother.
    But no, the church refused it – of course there were dispensations, but to even apply for those was a shame at the height of religious frenzy in Medieval Europe and it needed a lot of time, efforts and could be declined of course.

    0
  6. “Two dynamics emerged rapidly with the adoption of Protestantism. First, the cousin marriage became more common among elite lineages again”
    Weren’t the Habsburgs, who were the poster kids of inbreeding, vociferously Catholic?

    0
  7. RK wrote: There have been many debates about why Europe underwent lift-off after 1500. Some of the models rely on exceedingly simple causes, such as the discovery of the New World releasing parts of Atlantic Europe from Malthusian pressures, as well as the location of coal in accessible regions of England.

    A nit to pick in a very interesting post.

    The bolded phrase is a part of Robert Allen’s hypothesis for why the industrial revolution began in England rather than elsewhere in (esp.) Europe or Asia.

    Coal was easily accessible in e.g., the Ruhr area of France/Germany. So, why England?

    The Nickel version of his hypothesis (I originally wrote the TL/DR version, and then looked at what I had typed) is:

    1) England had cut all its forests so needed a wood-substitute for cooking and heating;

    2) This generated a sequence of developments, one after another, each in response to the previous one.

    2a) mining of coal in England more heavily than on the Continent:

    2b) a great need to pump water from these mines earlier than on the Continent:

    2c) the development of primitive steam technology for pumping.

    2d) Over time (IIRC, a century and a half), this led simultaneously to both gradually improved efficiency and a body of engineers and engineering know-how.

    3) At the same time (and this is key), the growth of the overseas English empire raised wages in London, drawing labor there and out of the countryside, resulting in higher wages in the countryside.

    Expensive labor in the same areas as cheap fuel and a technology that could take advantage of the fuel was the driving force of the IR in England.

    The technical improvements continued through the IR in England until the technology became cost effective in regions with coal but low-cost labor (France, Germany), after which it spread to those areas.

    So not uni-causal (duo-causal?) nor trying to explain why take-off occurred so much as why it occurred where it did.

    0
  8. I do hope my previous comment did not get eaten. I will wait awhile before resubmitting it.

    0
  9. Obs wrote:

    I have a case from my own family, where my greatgrandfather needed a dispensation for marrying the sister of his deceased wife. Because with the marriage with the deceased wife, her sister became his “sister-in-law”. Just think about it, the most logical thing to do, if possible, if your wife or husband dies, especially if you have children already, is to marry the brother or sister of the deceased. That was even the rule in a lot of societies and its definitely good for the children (more often), because there is an actual relationship (and kinship) present already.

    The name for this is Levirate marriage. The biblical tale of Onan (and Onanism) revolves around this, and one interpretation of his sin was not the common one of masturbation or even spilling his seed but that he was denying his deceased brother a family line (the son that might have been conceived would have been attributed to the deceased brother) so that he (Onan) could inherit what would otherwise have gone to his brother.

    0
  10. The Levirate marriage was one option for Jewish polygyny.
    What I didnt mention before is how regulated marriage was in Europe both by the church and the feudal lord and how much restricted it was. A large portion of the people, especially in young age, were not allowed to marry at all. This resulted in very late marriages with less children and high numbers of illegitimate children, especially among poor and dependent people.
    Only the aristocracy kept the traditional rules with planned young marriages. But even those gave away a lot of offspring to the clergy.

    0
  11. Weren’t the Habsburgs, who were the poster kids of inbreeding, vociferously Catholic?

    you could get dispensations. depending on various power relations.

    royalty are kind of a different class.

    0
  12. “The same did not hold in the East Roman Empire. Though the Eastern Orthodox Churches have often clashed with rulers, they were much more subordinate for all practical purposes than the Western Church.”

    Yes, but on the map you show the Eastern Orthodox Church’s domains in Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece do look remarkably similar to Catholic/Protestant Europe (except Finland and the heavily Turkified parts of the Balkans).

    How do you explain that?

    0
  13. Very interesting, but does the connection between kinship intensity and openness still seem compelling if one looks at Hindu northern India or Ethiopia?

    0
  14. Stephen: “How do you explain that?”

    I’d think it’s that this is a measure “with the average observation occuring around 1900 CE”; so measures a point when economic process to weakening kin-based communities has extended out of Western Europe, but not much post 1900 changes in e.g. economic transformation away from kin-based local communities in East Asia.

    If observation point was 1800 or 1700 probably see a different distribution, on that measure (less flat within Europe; flatter across world as a whole).

    The KII measure is explained in their supplement as the composite of five measures: Co-residence of extended families, Lineage organization (unilineal or bilineal descent), Community organization (do extended families dominate in particular areas without crosshatching?), Cousin marriage preference, Polygamy. It seems like most of these should not be truly independent but relate to underlying mobility of residence rates within a population; only polygamy and cousin marriage seem reasonably independent of mobility (but mostly determined by West African and Islamic cultural expansions for former and Islam alone for latter; no diff in cousin marriage pref between N.India, China, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa).

    Re; paper, looking at correlations, also looks like they need some wealth and education controls as controls alternative hypotheses. The ERD looms large.

    0
  15. @Matt, Stephen
    Part of the problems on the KII map ultimately come from the Ethnographic Atlas which is the source for data behind KII measure – it’s limited and doesn’t encompass all the populations represented on the map. The data is here: https://www.d-place.org/home

    They mention in S8 that the data for missing populations (like Germans, Poles, Finns, Western Balkan Slavs, modern Italians) is provided by an algorithm, meaning the algorithm has picked a proxy representing them – and not necessarily the best one. You can contact the authors for further details or calculate KII’s to figure out which proxies have been used with the D-place data, for example Finland’s KII scores are from the Sami or some Uralic minority people living further from the Baltic in Russia.

    0
  16. To make a nerdy allusion, the bishops of the post-Roman world were both Aragorn and Gandalf in one. They were priest-kings.

    I see the point you’re making, but it’s worth stressing that this formulation gets things importantly wrong. Bishops were not priest-kings; bishops were priests and kings were kings. Aragorn and Gandalf’s relationship is Tolkein’s idealisation of the king-priest relationship. Aragorn depends upon and defers to Gandalf, but the rule of Middle Earth belongs to Aragorn and not to Gandalf. Not only were priests an independent power source from kings, but no matter how deeply interrelated each was in principle independent of the other, with their own independent spheres: the secular sphere and the religious sphere. This fact too was important in shaping the modern world, in that modernity assumes that government is fundamentally secular in a way that would have been unfamiliar to pre-moderns outside of Latin Christendom.

    0

Comments are closed.