Nobility vs clanishness


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If we inspect European history from the early middle ages to modern times, two categories of cultures stands out : those favouring clans, and those favouring nobility.

The main difference is that clans spring up from a less organised society, where family ties matter more than the political affiliation.

Nobility is just the opposite. It favours loyalty to a lord, and a hereditary devolution of power (e.g. title, land, castle) to the first male child.

Nobility appears as a more individualistic and elitist system, while clanishness is collectivist and more egalitarian.

Clans and mafia

The most famous countries or regions for clans are probably the Celtic cultures of Ireland and Scotland, as well as southern Italian families (e.g. mafia). In fact, most modern mafias sprang up in countries with a strong tradition for clanishness, such as Ireland, Southern Italy, Serbia, Albania, Armenia, or even China and Japan. The only notable execption I can think of is Russia, which now has a prominent mafia but no particular tradition for clanishness.

On the contrary, countries with virtually no mafia or family-organised crime are those with a strong tradition for hereditary nobility, like France (esp. the Northern half), the Benelux, Germany (esp. the North and West), and England.

The Frankish and Saxon connection

This territory could be seen, in fact, as the core of European nobility. It coincides with the land conquered by the Franks and the (Anglo-)Saxons, two neighbour Germanic tribes from the Benelux and North-Western Germany.

The Saxons and assimilated tribes (Jutes, Angles) conquered Roman Britain, which later became known as 'England'.

The Franks created an Empire centered around Northern France, Belgium and Central-West Germany (Rhineland), which expanded to Catalonia, Northern Italy (as far as Rome), Austria and Northern Germany in its heydays.

It is interesting to note that this Frankish territory, and to a lower extend also the Saxon one, coincides almost perfectly with the regions of Europe with the greatest surname diversity. This can be explained by the fact that the most varied surnames are place names, most of which come from noble family names.

Many surnames have disappeared since the late Middle Ages, but it was a time when abouy every hamlet, village, town or region had a lord bearing their name. Some families even gave a different name of locality to their junior branch(es) to distinguish them from the head branch.

Clan cultures in Europe, however, tend to have few surnames, because most of them are patronymic (e.g. "given name + son", including all the names starting with Mac- or O'- in Scotland and Ireland). In French, Dutch or German cultures, patronyms are surnames of non-noble origin. This names tend to be the most commonly found, but there is rarely a family tie with another bearer of that name, as completely separate ancestors in different regions could have been given this last name.

For noble names, however, one can almost be sure that if (s)he meets someone else with the same family name there is a family connection, even if dating back to many generations.

Outside the Franko-Saxon land

Another element that reinforces the hypothesis that the Franks and Saxons are the real founders of the individualistic medieval European nobility system is that the other Germanic tribes actually had clans. the Lombards, Alamanni, and Bavarians in Southern Germany and Northern Italy had what is known to historians Sippe.

Eastern European countries just outside the Frankish sphere of influence have kept a tradition for clans, such as the Polish and Czechoslovakian cultures.

Scandinavia and Spain are also cultures with dominant patronymic surnames. The old Norse culture had its clans as well, but they disappeared as Christianity arrived and the Norse copied the the Frankish and Saxon systems of government and nobility. Clanishness in Spain has never really be strong, probably because of the long Islamic presence, followed by the reconquest by knights heavily influenced by the Frankish tradition.
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