Manorialism gave us nuclear families and a push towards modern civic engagement

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:


manorialism is important for at least two reasons — and probably many more that i haven’t thought about. firstly, the whole system was based on nuclear families. in the bipartite manor system, peasants or serfs or whomever (depending on time and place in western europe) lived on and managed their own farms (let out to them by the manor owner) and also worked on the manor or paid rent to the manor. extended families very much did not fit into the manor system as it operated in western europe (there was a different development in eastern europe where extended families were very much part of the package). so manorialism — at least western manorialism — “pushed” for the nuclear family. as early as the 800s in northwestern france, families that lived and worked on manors were very small, most often being only two generations (parents and children) and occasionally including a grandparent.

the second reason manorialism was so important was because this was the vehicle via which the ecclesiastical and secular laws against cousin marriage could be enforced. as greying wanderer commented the other day:

“Not only was the land owned by the Lord of the Manor rather than by the village commune as it was elsewhere the manor with its central manor house and church was a model of combined civil and religious authority. Those villagers who wanted to get ahead with their own little plot of land had to be respectable and that meant if married it had to abide by the church’s rules.”


so, because the populations in peripheral europe missed out on manorialism, they also missed out on the “push” for nuclear families and the more stringent enforcement of the cousin marriage bans.

however, mitterauer makes the point that it appears as though conversion to christianity was needed first before manorialism could be successfully introduced [pg. 77]:

“The introduction of Christianity always preceded the introduction of the hide system throughout the entire colonization in the East — often by only a slight difference in time, but occasionally centuries earlier. The time sequence was never reversed, anywhere. The western agrarian system at all times found a state of affairs where Christian conversion had either relaxed or weakened older patrilineal patterns. This process had already paved the way for the transition to a bilateral system of kinship and the conjugal family.”

medieval christianity weakened the old patrilineal clannish (or kindred-based) systems because it insisted upon the avoidance of cousin marriage which reduced the genetic ties between extended family members and set the stage for the selection of very different behavioral patterns in parts of northwestern europe — “core” europe. orthodox christianity in eastern europe also banned close cousin marriage, but this came later in that area of the world (since they adopted christianity later), and enforcement was not as firm as in the west — the secular regulations on marriage in medieval russia, for instance, flip-flopped several times and do not seem to have backed up the orthodox church’s canon laws as consistently as secular authorities had tended to do in the west (see here and here for example). and, again, the manor system was a very late arrival in eastern europe, and in many places it was not a bipartite system based upon nuclear families. the eastern european extended family networks were incorporated into the manor system which developed there, because the extended family had never been broken apart in the east, since the cousin marriage bans were adopted at a later point in time and were not as strongly enforced.