So many questions, so many arguments, so much confusion and uncertainty. The answer was right in front of us in the ideals whites articulated long ago about the institution of the family. A fundamental reason why whites created societies so different from non-whites is that they were the only people to become conscious of the superiority of monogamy over kinship networks based on polygamy.
Henrich’s argument is that the Catholic Church “unintentionally” abolished kinship groups and cousin marriage in the Middle Ages for the economic gains it stood to gain and for its own “peculiar obsessions” about controlling the sexual inclinations of humans. The historical record shows, however, that whites were already quite WEIRD in their family laws and practices in ancient Greek and Roman times, and that Christians had already articulated a “new sexual morality” favoring monogamous marriage before the Middle Ages. Henrich is right that the Catholic Church played a huge role in thoroughly dismantling the strong kinship based networks the Germanic tribes brought with them as they conquered the Roman world. The question is: what were the motivations of the Church? The view of this commentary is that the Church was motivated by the WEIRD values it had learned from the ancient Greeks, Romans, and early Christians in antiquity.
Why the Catholic Church Abolished Kinship?
In chapter 5 Henrich is adamant that it was “between about 400-1200 CE [that] the intensive kin-based institutions of many European tribal populations were slowly degraded, dismantled, and eventually demolished by the…Roman Catholic Church”. It was only after this demolition that Europeans “began to form new voluntary associations based on shared interests or beliefs rather than on kinship or tribal affiliations”. It was only during the High Middle Ages that Europe began to witness “novel institutions such as charter towns, professional guilds, and universities.”
Pre-Catholic Europe, Henrich says, was a normal culture without WEIRD institutions and personalities. Individuals did not have an identity outside their extended family household and their tribal groups. Their legal and social identities were determined by their position and role within their kin-based groups. Disputes were adjudicated on the basis of the customary norms of the kinship group, not on the basis of impersonal legal principles. Individuals as individuals had no legal status and extended family members were held equally responsible for the actions of individual members. There was no concept of intentionality and free will. Wives lived with their husbands’ kinfolk. Kinship groups collectively owned the land, and even where individual ownership existed, the kinfolk had inheritance rights. Marriages were arranged and marriages with relatives were customary. Polygamy was accepted and polygynous marriages were common for high status men.
The Church dismantled Europe’s clans and kindreds by using its moral authority, threatening excommunication, expanding the incest taboos, and imposing numerous prohibitions during the course of many centuries, until by about 1200 it managed to dissolve not just Europe’s extended families but create in substitution a new pan-tribal Christian identity across much of Europe. It prohibited: all marriages between both blood relatives and affinal or in-law kinfolk, sororate and levirate marriages, polygynous marriage, marriage to non-Christians, arranged marriages, while requiring bride and groom to publicly consent to marriage, and it promoted individual ownership of land and inheritance by personal testaments against customary inheritance.
All these prohibitions seriously undermined the authority of kinship groups, forcing people to reach out beyond their clans and localities to find marriage partners, releasing individuals from age-old kinship obligations and inherited interdependence, into new voluntary associations. With individual ownership and the promulgation of the idea that wealthy individuals could bequest by testament their wealth to the poor (to be administered by the Church), kinship groups lost much of their land to the Church. The idea that charitable acts could ensure one’s entry into heaven, along with the power of priests to administer the dying in preparation for the afterlife, encouraged many wealthy landowners to give their wealth to the Church as they were freed from the duties of kinship inheritance. “By 900 CE,” Henrich observes, “the Church owned about a third of the cultivated land in western Europe”.
Henrich raises a crucial question at this point: “Why did the Church adopt these incest prohibitions?” He concludes that this question is not really that important; what matters is that the Church’s prohibitions “worked” and Europe was set on a totally different historical path that culminated in modernity. But I believe it is a key question. For it seems that the intellectual elite in charge of the Catholic Church was already psychologically WEIRD before it started to promote WEIRD institutions. How did the Church come up with ideas for “pan tribal” religious associations, for marriages based on the free consent of couples, and for moral universal principles applicable to all family units independently of the contextual world of kinship?
The Sexual Morality of Christians, Romans, and Greeks
Henrich’s portrayal of the Catholic Church is very much in line with the now too-common Enlightenment attitude that Christians have always been strangely uptight about the sexuality of humans. The Church prohibited sex and marriage with relatives, affines and distant cousins, we are led to believe, because such marriages were against the will of God because of “Christianity’s own unique obsession with sex (i.e., not having it) and free will”. Obsession with free will? This is odd since free will and intentionality are supposed to be WEIRD psychological traits — but my point now is that he trivializes the beliefs that led the Catholic Church to carry out its prohibitions. Christians had long been carrying a moral critique of kin-based sexual practices.
Henrich is wrong that the “package of prohibitions” the Catholic Church implemented had “only tenuous (at best) roots in Christianity’s sacred writings” (161). It was certainly not rooted in Judaism; as Henrich observes, “Jewish law…permitted cousin marriage, polygynous marriage, and uncle-niece marriage” (176). But abundant evidence has been compiled and interpreted by Kyle Harper in his book, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity (2013), showing a “transition from a late classical to a Christian sexual morality…a quantum leap to a new foundational logic of sexual ethics.” Christians consciously preached against sexual activity outside marriage, including sex with minors, divorce, infanticide and abortion, on the grounds that these practices were harmful to the soul of humans, their families and the ordering of societies.
I would not go as far as to say that monogamous family values were an invention of Christians. In earlier times, Rome was a traditionally conservative-farmer warrior society in which monogamy was emphasized and the family was seen to consist of father, mother, and children in a state of “affectionate devotion“. But it can’t be denied that, as Rome became an empire with millions of slaves supporting the ruling class, the character of Romans weakened, divorce became normal, the birth rate declined, and the pornographic exploitation of slaves, especially girls, women, and boys, became rampant in elite circles. As Harper observes, slave minors were “subjected to untrammeled sexual abuse” (26). It was quite common for wealthy men to include in their households boy slaves for sexual usage.
It was against this late Roman decadence that Christians objected. They rejected the Roman notion that a man born free could have sex with slaves, prostitutes, and boys. Paul condemned same-sex relations and sexual activity outside of marriage as porneia (“fornication”). Harper does not get into polygamy, but it should be noted that late Antiquity Christians, Paul, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Tertullian, spoke against polygamy, without getting rich for it.
Early Christians also developed, as Harper writes, a “thoroughly libertarian view of free will, defined by the capacity to act in a certain way” (118), in the same vein as they articulated this new family ethic. In the Roman world people were in awe of the powers of fate and fascinated by astrology, but Christians came to emphasize the power of human freedom to transcend sexual appetites, the possibility of redemption for all including sinners. These ideas were gradually adopted and transmitted in the second and third centuries by Christian officials, bishops and emperors – to their populations. Saint Ambrose (340–397) and Saint Jerome (347-420) insisted on the right of women who chose celibacy not to be forced into unwanted marriages, and on the need to judge women not by sex but by soul. Christians were thus “unique,” but not because they were sexually uptight but because they sincerely thought that unrestrained sexuality and suppression of the free will were damaging to human relationships.
The invention of monogamy by the ancient Greeks and Romans is a topic we will address when we reach Henrich’s chapter 8 on “WEIRD Monogamy”. Let it be said for now that the Greeks and Romans rejected polygamy. I am not yet sure if they consciously opposed polygamy because it created a situation in which high status men monopolized the bride market leaving many lower status men without hope of marriage and therefore without a stake in their society, but there is no question that Romans identified monogamy with the formation of loving families and social cohesion. While Henrich acknowledges that “Roman law only recognized monogamous marriages” and that “early Roman law…prohibited close cousin marriage,” he thinks that monogamy was seriously limited by the presence of “secondary wives and sex slaves”. He fails to mention that in Roman law monogamy was the only valid form of marriage that could produce legitimate and heritable widows and children.
These facts in combination with Harper’s argument on the new “sexual morality” of Christians in antiquity cannot but lead us to conclude that Europeans were already rather WEIRD in their views about families long before they set out to dismantle kinship ties among the Germanic tribes that took over Europe in the Middle Ages. Christians did not invent monogamy. Greeks and Romans had already articulated arguments on the superiority of monogamy over polygamy. What the Christians did was to frame the Greco-Roman views on monogamy within a powerful new sexual morality backed by the sanctified authority of one God in charge of ultimate moral judgement.
One should also be aware that, long before the Middle Ages, the Athenian statesman, poet and lawmaker, Solon (630–560 BC), took some decisive steps to weaken the power of polygamous kinship groups headed by the highly bellicose and unruly aristocrats we read about in Homer’s Iliad. Cleisthenes (b. late 570s BC) is said to have “dealt the fatal blow to Athenian tribalism by dissolving the traditional connections of clans entirely and creating in their place a remarkable system of 10 groupings that were artificial tribes”. These new groupings were called demes, and the members of these demes were identified as citizens regardless of kinship lineage; they were free, native-born males with the right to participate in the general assembly for the city-state of Athens and in local assemblies for each deme. The laws that these assemblies passed were not customary but based on open discussion by Athenians as members of a political order relatively freed from tribal groupings.
The evidence Henrich puts together, and there’s more to come, showing that the Church was responsible for the break up of the kinship identities of the Germanic tribes that took over Roman lands is very powerful. His argument would have been more accurate if he had argued instead that what the Church did was to tackle the reinforcement of kinship ties brought onto Europe with the arrival of the more primitive Germanic tribes that took over this continent in the early Middle Ages, rather than arguing that the Church “inadvertently” demolished kinship for the first time in history. It looks like Europeans were proto-WEIRD long before the Middle Ages, and that it was the Church’s own psychological WEIRDness that motivated it to break up Germanic polygamous ties and cousin marriages.