Uncle-niece marriage in Europe
September 11, 2009 5:31 PM   Subscribe

I was looking at this chart of the ancestry of Charles II of Spain. There are quite a few uncle-niece marriages in his family tree. Presumably, at the time, this was permissible under Spanish or Austrian laws. When did uncle-niece marriage start to be considered incestuous in Europe?
posted by Charmian to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It was illegal then, both under canon law and civil law. All of those people got dispensations from whoever was then Pope.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:41 PM on September 11, 2009

You might be interested in reading about the history of consanguinity, including its status today.
posted by woodway at 5:49 PM on September 11, 2009

All of those people got dispensations from whoever was then Pope.

These marriages had the added benefit that if you wanted an annulment, you could get one on the basis of consanguinity.
posted by deanc at 5:55 PM on September 11, 2009

Total derail, but...
All of those people got dispensations from whoever was then Pope.

These marriages had the added benefit that if you wanted an annulment, you could get one on the basis of consanguinity.

If I'm not mistaken, getting a dispensation meant the Pope said it was ok. This is what Henry VIII had with Catherine of Aragon (who was briefly married to his brother) and that's what he challenged in order to marry Ann Boleyn. Not so easy...
posted by parkerjackson at 6:54 PM on September 11, 2009

Henry VIII thought that Pope Clement would give him an annulment for consanguinity vis-a-vis Catherine of Aragon because a) the dispensation for consanguinity was from the previous pope, and b) Clement had recently reversed a consanguinity dispensation for someone in Henry's court (Duke of Norfolk, maybe?). Clement, who was famously pusillanimous, suddenly grew a spine and said no to Henry's shenanigans.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:00 PM on September 11, 2009

Don't underestimate the fact that Henry wanted to dissolve a marriage to a princess of Castile and Aragon to marry the daughter of a commoner. Although she had ancestors who were low-level dukes and a Lord Mayor, and a father who was an Ambassador, she would not have been considered worthy of dumping a princess for.
posted by julen at 7:39 PM on September 11, 2009

I think that there's a difference between "considered incestuous" (which, so far as I can tell, uncle/niece relationships have always been) and being considered incestuous and thus illegal.

Incest is far from always illegal now. It hasn't been illegal in France since the early 1800s when Napoleon dropped it from the penal code. In my understanding, it's similarly legal in Belgium, Holland, Netherland, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden. (This may not be an exhaustive list; additionally, some countries mentioned may simply have a policy not to prosecute it, regardless of if it's technically illegal.) While I don't think that there's any question that many, if not most, people believe it to be immoral, neither is it criminal.

Our buddy Charles II was well before the 1800s, though, so what was the deal with all the relatives getting hitched back then? You answer is here, specifically this:
In the Roman Catholic Church, unwittingly marrying a closely-consanguineous blood relative is grounds for an annulment, but dispensations were granted, actually almost routinely (the Catholic Church's ban on marriage within the fourth degree of relationship (first cousins) lasted from 1550 to 1917; before that, the prohibition applied to marriages within the seventh degree of kinship). The general rule was that while fourth cousins could marry without dispensation, those more closely related needed dispensation, with it becoming harder and harder to obtain the closer the couple were related.
So the immediate ancestors of Charles II would probably go have a chat with Pope Urban VIII. He wasn't really a Pope known for his awesome fairness and lack of bias, either--he was a fairly controversial guy who was big into nepotism, advancing the status of his family, wars, and extending his own territory. In light of all that, I can't imagine that dispensations were all that hard to get: "Hey, man, so, what say I give you these awesome shiny weapons, and you say I can marry my niece. Cool?" Dispensation granted, marriage goes forward, the blue-bloods are happy, and the Pope has shiny new toys: win/win, save for the unfortunate descendants who ended up sickly and deformed.
posted by MeghanC at 8:30 PM on September 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think uncle-niece marriage may have been something of a gray area, morally speaking. It's gross, but not in the same league as marrying your dad. I don't know enough about history to answer your question definitively, but here's some interesting and possibly relevant factoids:

There's a precedent for royal uncle-niece marriages in Ancient Rome. This book, Women and the Law in the Roman Empire describes what happened when that little minx Agrippina took a shine to Uncy Claudius: "Originally all uncle-niece marriage had been banned….an exception to the rule was made to accommodate the emperor Claudius, who wished to marry his brother Germanicus’ daughter Agrippina. Claudius’ marriage was quite controversial…[Claudius] forced the Senate to pass a decree legalizing marriage between an uncle and his brother’s daughters" (pp137-38). It remained illegal for a man to marry his sister's daughters, and the ban on marrying your brother's daughters was reinstated, but only in 'late antiquity' which I think means quite a long time passed before the law was overturned.

Apparently uncle-niece marriage was accepted among Jews, and tolerated by at least some of the non-Jewish Europeans amongst whom they lived. James de Rothschild married his brother's daughter in 1824, in Frankfurt. I don't know how much outcry, if any, there was among Christian Europeans over this, but the marriage certainly happened. Another Jewish uncle-niece marriage was the subject of a British court case described in the Encyclopaedia of International Law: "A Jew and his niece, British subjects domiciled in England…[were] married in Germany according to German law and…Jewish ceremonies. Both German and Jewish law permitted marriage of Uncle and Niece. The English Court held the marriage void."(p 25) This case was in 1900. So uncle-niece marriage was apparently legal in part of Europe in the 19th century, but I don't know if it was for everyone or an exception for Jews. According to this book (The Cultural Defense, published 2005) just such an exception exists or existed in modern America: "there is an exception to the prohibition against uncle-niece marriage. In Rhode island, the law exempts Jews from the prohibition."(p 121)

I'm talking about Rhode Island now, which is not Europe, but if you'll permit a further non-European tangent, I'll point out that in Australia "a person may marry their aunt or uncle". Wikipedia points out the interesting conflict that exists within the Criminal Code of the state of Queensland, which defines uncle-niece sex as incest, but also states that sex between persons eligible to marry each other is NOT incest. Either way, there's still a strong cultural taboo against it.
posted by eatyourcellphone at 10:18 PM on September 11, 2009

Henry VIII's divorce issue is further complicated by Charles V's involvement and imprisonment of the pope around this time period. In addition, Charles V was also Catherine's aunt, so that's also might have played some part in the pope's refusal to grant Henry VIII a divorce lest he make his much closer and more powerful monarch Charles V unhappy.
posted by dealing away at 12:27 AM on September 12, 2009

I think that there's a difference between "considered incestuous" (which, so far as I can tell, uncle/niece relationships have always been) and being considered incestuous and thus illegal.

Yes, but it was illegal, under both canon and civil law, in the Holy Roman Empire from the 8th century on.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:07 PM on September 12, 2009

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