There is ample evidence that European civilization has been invested in the idea of organizing kinship groups into patrilineages, time out of mind. The pattern is enshrined even in Proto-Indo-European and its descendant languages.
With this in mind, I’ve been trying for many years to get a handle on how our ancestors thought about adoption. Historically, adoption seems to have been very different from our modern world, where the motivation is to ensure the well-being of children.
I started with this question knowing only that ancient Romans had a practice where childless men would adopt a boy from a family with extra sons.
I expected to find arguments in favor of some theoretical “Indo-European” original. Instead I found wide differences in practice, as well as in theory. I’m focusing on just two of them.
I should add that it’s not clear to me how far modern scholars would go in accepting broad generalizations from 100 years ago. My interest here is not in modern theory, but in how this subject was explicated in the heyday of nationalism.
“Every where, as at Rome, ‘ the aggregation of families forms the gens or house. The aggregation of houses makes the tribe. The aggregation of tribes constitutes the commonwealth.’ The state is therefore the result of the expansion of its primordial cell; and the genealogical organization of the society precedes and overlaps the territorial. All these groups, lower and higher, regard themselves as united by the bond of kinship. But, as a matter of fact, the kinship is often assumed; and the heterogeneity of blood is explained as the result of the fiction of adoption by which relationship is artificially extended and strangers are admitted to the sacra (Kocourek & Wigmore, 198-99).
“The central principle of the Aryan [Indo-European] household is the Hestia-Vesta cult, or the worship of the sacred hearth. To gain the protection of the ancestral gods the hearth-fire must be kept always burning; and the care of the family sacra is the special function of the house-father, who is lord and priest of the family. . . . The primary purpose of the [marital] union is the birth of a legitimate son to perpetuate the paternal line and to foster the ancestral cult. So paramount is this motive that, in case no son is born in wedlock, resort may be had to adoption, or to analogous expedients for the fictitious extension of fatherhood” (Kocourek & Wigmore, 209).
There’s an elephant in the room. Behind these long-winded explanations about patriarchy, patria potestas, and agnatic descent, we see no attempt to claim a Proto-Indo-European original. Instead, the only argument is that patrilineal descent was so important for the family rites, it gave rise to systems of adoption and fictive kinship.
“To the early Greeks and Romans, the goal of adoption was to perpetuate the family based on the male line of descent and to ensure the continuation of the family’s religious practices. Thus, the adopter originally had to be a male without a legitimate son” (Marriage and Family Encyclopedia).
The Roman adoptio “was the ceremony by which a person who was in the power of his parent (in potestate parentum), whether child or grandchild, male or female, was transferred to the power of the person adopting him. It was effected under the authority of a magistrate (magistratus), the praetor, for instance, at Rome, or a governor (praeses) in the provinces. The person to be adopted was mancipated by his natural father before the competent authority, and surrendered to the adoptive father by the legal form called in jure cessio. When a person was not in the power of his parent (sui juris), the ceremony of adoption was called adrogatio. Originally, it could only be effected at Rome, and only by a vote of the populus (populi auctoritate) in the comitia curiata (lege curiata)” (Smith 1875).
Both adoptio and adrogato required a ritual called detestatio sacrorum (renunciation of private rites) at a comitia calata, a particular type of religious assembly called for particular purposes often involving family law. The adoptee renounced the sacra of his paternal family and placed himself under the authority and family sacra of his adopting father.
The arrangement was purely among the men of the families. “The effect of adoption, as already stated, was to create the legal relation of father and son, just as if the adopted son were born of the blood of the adoptive father in lawful marriage. The adopted child was intitled to the name and sacra privata of the adopting parent, and it appears that the preservation of the sacra privata, which by the laws of the Twelve Tables were made perpetual, was frequently one of the reasons for a childless person adopting a son. In case of intestacy, the adopted child would be the heres of his adoptive father. He became the brother of his adoptive father’s daughter, and therefore could not marry her; but he did not become the son of the adoptive father’s wife, for adoption only gave to the adopted son the jura agnationis” (Smith 1875).
This last is an important point. It is a common mistake of amateur genealogists working to flesh out their data on Ancient Rome. Not understanding the history of adoption, they include the mother as an adoptive parent, But beyond that, I would expect to find somewhere an argument in favor of a cognatic system that depends on this seemingly minor point. Why, after all, should a woman’s family have kinship ties established on their behalf for no more reason than her husband’s need for an heir>
In Norse society the father had absolute control over whether an infant would live or die. If the father accepted the child and gave it a name, it became a member of his family. If he rejected it, it was exposed. Someone might take pity on the child and rescue it–such is the stuff of fairy tales–but more often it would die.
As far as I can discover the Norse did not have a custom or procedure where one man might be replaced by another as the legal father of a child. In other words, once accepted by the father, a child did not leave the family.
I find one reference to Aetleidung, but haven’t been able to discover what it was. From the context is seems to be relevant in a discussion about whether the child belongs only to the adoptive father or also to his family: “The adopted child would thus be received into the whole family connection; as was the case, for instance, in the Aetleidung of the Old Norse law” (Kocourek & Wigmore, 342).
The Norse did, however, have the custom of fostering. In effect, this can be counted as a form of incomplete adoption.
“The general custom was first to have the child knee-seated (knésetja), or put on the knees of him who was to be fosterer; the child was then called the knee-seated (knésetjningr) of his foster-father, who bestowed upon him as much care as if he had been his own child” (Du Chaillu, 43).
Fostering was a hall-mark of upper class child rearing. The foster parents were always of a lower class than the biological parents.
The tie to ones’ foster parents was extraordinarily strong, but it did not affect the child’s standing or inheritance rights in his biological family. King Haakon Magnusson of Norway (1068-1095) kept the patronymic surname (Magnusson) he got from his father but had the nickname Toresfostre because he was fostered by Tore på Steig.
- “Adoption: History and Purpose“. Marriage and Family Encyclopedia <family.jrank.org/>. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2019.
- Du Chaillu, Paul Belloni. The Viking Age: The Early History, Manners, and Customs of the Ancestors of the English-speaking Nations, Vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2019. Probably outdated.
- Maine, Henry James Sumner. Ancient Law: Its Connection with the Early History of Society, and Its Relation to Modern Ideas. London: John Murray, 1861. Probably outdated.
- Kocourek, Albert; John Henry Wigmore (comps.). Primitive and ancient legal institutions (Evolution of Law: Select Readings on the Origin and Development of Legal Institutions, Vol. 2). Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1915, 341-46. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2019. Probably outdated.
- Smith, William. “Adoptio“. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London, John Murray, 1875. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2019.