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Households, inheritance, and support

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Yora, Dec 7, 2019.

  1. Yora

    Yora Maester

    I've been working on a setting for a while that is meant to be based on Bronze Age societies, but I noticed that simply having Bronze Age props like weapons and architecture isn't doing the job of bringing across.
    So I have decided to more properly work out a detailed culture that covers how people actually live. I think a lot of this might never directly come up in the stories I have in mind, but even just hinting at them indirectly from time might help making the world feel more ancient and different. Stuff like agriculture, economy, and trade, legal system, and so on.

    One really fundamental aspect is family organization, and I'm hoping I could get some help with this.

    From my understanding of pre-monetary and early monetary Bronze Age culture, there was not really a concept of personal property as economics are concerned, but communal property. Obviously it's your shirt and your comb, but fields, animals, buildings, and common tools did not have a singular owner but were the property of a family. The head of the family can make transactions of land, animals, grain, and so on on behalf of the family as its legal representative to outsiders, but is not the sole owner.
    You might have a small family of simple subsistence farmers with only eight people, or a royal palace with dozens of noble family members and thousands of employed or enslaved servants, but the principle remains more or less the same. This might not be quite historically accurate, but I think its a good enough approximation for a fictional culture.

    Where I am from, it was customary that the oldest son inherited everything and all his younger brothers would effectively be servants in his family. In many other cultures it was common that all possessions are split between all the sons who then form their own families. Both have their drawbacks. If the oldest inherits everything, there's incentive for the younger brothers to see that he doesn't live long enough to inherit anything. If everything gets split, property borders get constantly redrawn and you get lots of small families instead of stable big estates. While split inheritance seems to have been common in the Bronze Age, the exact distribution can get super messy and the Biblical stories of Jacob and his brother and sons is all about that. Since this is not really the focus of my story ideas and I want the same system to apply to farms and kingdoms, I am going with the simpler single inheritance.

    The advantage is that economically speaking, we're not dealing with any individuals but kin groups. When the head of the group dies, another family member gets that position and other than personal items, no property is changing hands. Also no problem with the support of orphaned children and the old, because they are members of the family and they get food, clothing, care, and housing from the shared communal pool.

    But now here is my main big question: How does marriage work?
    Since these families are in the size of a few dozen at most, marriage would have to be exogamous, that is you have to marry someone outside of your family. Since I want the culture to have flexible gender roles, either partner could join the family of the other and become part of that household. The main purpose and function of the institution of marriage is to clear up the support for widows, orphans, divorced women, and the old. Simply sending women back to their father or brother is often not desirable and would be economically impossible for families with many daughters and few sons. So to level out the burden of supporting dependents various forms of the exchange of wealth between families have been developed. And as someone in the western world in the 21st century where this is covered by the welfare state, I don't really understand how any of that works.

    So for simplicity's sake, let's say a man from Family A marries a women from Family B, who then moves into the household of Family A. Potentially they might get divorced at some point or the husband dies and the woman would rather go back to live with Family B. If she's still young and can work, no problem for Family B. But suppose she's very old at that point or has a four very young children and Family B has hit hard times, they really wouldn't be happy to take her back. And then we have a big problem.
    What exchange of wealth would take between the families at the wedding and when the woman returns to Family B?

    One aspect that would be critical is that it must make no difference whether the woman gets divorced or dies. There must be no profit in your wife dying instead of divorcing her. That's actually a real problem in India. But with taken into account, what is the typical practice for such a situation in preindustrial societies?
  2. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    I stumbled on this link while thinking about your question; perhaps you've already read it? Social Inequality, Marriage Habits, and Other Clues to Bronze Age Life Revealed in New Study

    It's fascinating, sends my mind down a few paths.

    As inspiration or a possible model...My best guess is that farms, estates, and so forth were more like corporations. For most people, "ownership" wasn't the kind of concept we now think when using that word, at least not for property like land, herds, crops. If this home was your home, then what benefits the home benefits you. If it was your brother's home also, what benefits it also benefits him. If a wife were brought into the family, this would benefit the husband, yes, but her addition would also benefit the farm/estate. Children of that union would benefit the farm/estate. (Maybe this is especially true of male children, in that example; but this could be modified for a fantasy setting.)

    Inheritance, then, isn't so much a question of sole inheritor versus splitting things evenly between children. If you lived on and farmed the land before your father died, you would continue to live on and farm the land after your father died. And so would your brothers, along with your wife and your brothers' wives. And children. The land isn't doled out after the death; it's still the same "corporation," with the surviving members still working the land and profiting from it. Herds and crops were held in common for these family units.

    The issue of buildings is an interesting one. I know that our concept of a surviving house being inherited from generation to generation to generation doesn't describe what happened for a lot of medieval people. No, for a house to be passed down for generations was rare, especially for the non-wealthy. Houses just didn't survive that long; they fell apart within a generation or maybe two. If a young man married but stayed on the same property, a new hut would be built nearby and likely wouldn't survive much past his death unless he died young, heh. That was standard practice. I'd assume that something of the same sort of process happened even earlier in the Bronze Age. So we're not talking manor houses, or houses designed to inspire property disputes, i.e. requiring strict inheritance customs for the majority of people in such times.

    As far as marriage is concerned...I would suppose that anyone brought into the family becomes a member of that "corporation" dynamic. First, they would be expected to endeavor to benefit the farm/estate—this benefits everyone living there—and as long as they continued to benefit the farm in this way, they would be allowed to remain a part of that community even after becoming widowed. It's their bread and butter, so to speak; so, they are unlikely to move back to their old family after becoming widowed—unless of course the current "corporation" is failing or relations with the rest of the family have become very soured for some reason.

    I don't think there's any issue of whether marriage produces some sort of wealth that can be transferred from family to family, e.g. in the case of divorce or widowhood and the wife returning to her old family. Wealth is in the land, herds, crops and these obviously can't be carried away, heh. She as an individual is the only transferable wealth; or, perhaps her and her children. This becomes a bit tricky, depending on the culture of the people. Would they object to her taking her three young sons with her back to her old family, or even "transferring" just herself back to her old family? Maybe. Depends on the culture, and maybe it depends on specific circumstances. Would her old family, Family B want her back, or want her to bring her kids back with her? Again, depends. One thing not really being considered in this whole hypothetical is the effect of personal bonds that might develop. If she lived with her husband's family for ten years before he died, she's likely to have built familial bonds with others living there, and this alone might prevent any consideration for moving back to Family B. This is her home now. Plus, her children are still biologically related to that whole family and will be looked after as part of the community.

    Exchanges of wealth before marriage happens: hmmm. I don't know specifics, although probably various trade routes were opened, and maybe even certain alliances (for defense or other kinds of aid) may have been established between communities vis-a-vis exogamous marriage. Probably nothing incredibly formalized; so, just cordial relations. There may have been some material transference, like furs, livestock, harvested items...although given what I've written about the communal aspects, things like livestock or harvested items may have been "granted" as a matter of course to brothers who sought wives outside the family. Maybe different familial communities from all around would occasionally gather for certain festivals and religious observances, and this would be a prime time for finding potential wives and husbands, also. But any such wealth transferred prior to marriage would not be the sort to endure long enough to face an inheritance issue or divorce issue later, probably.
    Last edited: Dec 7, 2019
  3. Yora

    Yora Maester

    I am very much in agreement about the estate being a legal entity that owns land, animals, and slaves with all family members being equal shareholders. At least that's what I mean to go with. It makes inheritance basically not an issue. But it does make dowries and bridewealth even more important because when people move between estates, you also have to transfer their share of their native estate's capital, so to speak.

    I found out that in some cases the groom's family would make an initial payment of bridewealth to the bride's family, but the bride would then join the groom's family bringing an even bigger dowry, so the groom's family ends up with a net plus. If the marriage is dissolved or the bride dies without children, the dowry is returned to her family. If she died with children that are now part of her husband's family, the dowry remains in that family to help support those children.

    But interestingly I did not see indications that the bridewealth would ever be repaid if the marriage ends. I think this might make it a kind of insurance or collateral. If you want to marry a woman, you first have to put money (more likely animals) on the table. To proove that you're wealthy enough to support the woman, and also that you really mean to make the marriage work. If the marriage ends you don't get that money back, and if you want to marry a new wife you have to pay this fee again.

    And if your wife dies childless, either naturally or under suspicious circumstances, you have to return the dowry to her family. Not too familiar with the exact circumstances, but I believe the reason that this no longer works in India is because the tribal institutions that monitored this no longer exist and the state cracks down hard on blood feuds. And now that dowries are outlawed, people have even less hope of getting a dowry back.

    This might be grossly oversimplifying the historic reality, but I think for a fantasy story that does not deal with marriage negotiations this might be good enough.

    But one thing I noticed is that with this system paternity becomes irrelevant as far as economics are concerned. Say Matriarch A gets a new daughter in law from family B. She hands over the bridewealth to family B and the young lady moves on her estate and brings her dowry with her that is added to assets of Family A. When she has children, these children will be fed, clothed and housed with resources from Family A, and if they marry into other families they get a dowry from the same resource pool. Which one of the matriarchs sons, brothers, and nephews is the father of the children does not make any difference. None of these men are paying child support or have anything to pass down. If the family is low on children, the matriarch might not even care if the father is from outside the family. But when additional children are more a burden than a benefit, this would be a huge problem.
    This still would require clear social institutions to regulate. Conventional monogamy or polygyny doesn't quite seem to fit here.

    I think the Hawaiians had very unusual rules for personal relationships, which apparently worked out pretty well for everyone involved. Probably should try to research that.
  4. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    Maybe relevant, maybe not. I have (or had, it might have expired) a subscription to 'Archaeology' magazine, which reports on dig sites across the planet and provides info on the various societies. What follows is from memory of a print article from a year or so ago, hence it might not be on the internet.

    Anyhow, one report described an abrupt shift in ancient Peru. They went from a sort of 'arrogant God King' phase complete with internal strife and revolution to a sort of collectivist society. Said collectivist society appears to have been organized in family groups, each of which focused on crafts, or farming or trading. Lot's of trading, because this part of Peru was critically short on arable land - nowhere near enough to feed a populace estimated at into the mid five digit range. Yet, there was a *lot* of feasting going on - daily (family) feasts, which according to the authors, anyhow, pretty much guaranteed a good meal a day for everybody. Unlike the prior period, there was little evidence of internal strife, either. Somehow, this collectivists society remained functional for a good four hundred years - before the climate shifted.
  5. Yora

    Yora Maester

    Collectivism is probably the natural human way of life, but seems to require small societies where everyone is connected by personal relationships. Doesn't seem to work when you're supposed to share with people in other cities you've never been to.

    I actually was able to find something about Hawaiian families and it turns out they didn't marry at all. Children were raised communaly and inheritance apparently didn't exist. Ancestry only mattered to nobles. When nobles wanted to have children together and everyone to know about those children's high status ancestry, they would make sure their relationship is publically known, and that was it.
    King Kamehameha did not have a super high status father, but having two noble fathers gave him a lot of prestige that enabled him to become king.

    Going that far would probably take my story in interesting new directions, the Hawaiiand apparently were very casual in their choice of partners. But apparently a system where the only legal requirement is that the father is from within the economic unit wouldn't be implausible.
    Perhaps choice of partners could just be handled informally like it is today in western society. The one big problem would be unwanted children. When every child is welcome, having fathers from outside is not an issue. But a major element of my setting is that climate is perpetually changing and populations frequently get uprooted because agriculture collapses. I think such a society would frequently experience periods in which no additional children can be afforded.and men are really unhappy about keeping children that are not their own.
    Maybe any outsider boyfriends need official approval from the family head. Seems a bit akward, but people have regularly used much weirder customs. But it leaves the question of what happens with unsanctioned pregnancies? If they fall outside of the regulated system, prooving the father would be impossible. I sense potential for interesting feuds there, so I don't want to sweep that under the rug.
  6. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    what you are describing is a situation where a significant portion of the populace will pack up and relocate. Given the 'how' and 'where' of that relocate, that could result in significant innovation and or conflict - aka new shipbuilding technology, construction of a road or bridge(s), hostile tribes and/or monsters (new types of weapons and/tactics) plus more.
  7. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Inkling

    I think you must first decide on the importance of weddings and monogamy in your society. You either have a society with high value on weddings and monogamy or you have a society where monogamous relationships don't really exist. Both have existed (and still exist), so either is fine. But they have a big impact on the relationships in your society.

    If you have monogamy then you could expect weddings and dowries and the like. My feeling is that in such a setting, divorce would be relatively unlikely to exist (though that might just be my western, too much catholic church in our history point of view). If you have a completely equal society (which feels unrealistic to me from a historical perspective, but it's fiction, so why not), then at the wedding the couple would pick a family to belong to and that's it, they become part of that family for all intents and purposes. It could even be part of the wedding negotiations.

    If you have a society with much looser relationships then everything becomes more fluid. I know there's some african cultures where the father of a kid doesn't matter. The women live together in groups and raise kids together. The father lives more on the fringes and sometimes drops in, but a woman can have children by multiple fathers. But in this setting, you have to think differently about things like unwanted pregnancies. After all, the only way a kid could be unwanted is if there were way too many mouths to feed. And in a bronze age society, the general idea would probably be that most kids die before they become adults, so more is almost always better, simply as a way to ensure the continuity of the group.

    Also, in such a setting, the kids would be raised by the family and be kids of that family. A father wouldn't care if a kid was his or not, this kind of family tie would not really exist in this setting. He would care if a kid was from his family or not.

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