Fun with Matrilineal Patriarchies

My previous post on Rules of Succession What-Ifs (which was really fun to write) focused on alternatives to the system of primogeniture, but at no point did I touch on more exotic systems beyond patrilineal or at best bilateral descent. I’d like to take some time to delve into matrilineal descent systems, since I’ve been thinking lately that have a lot of fun potential for fantasy worldbuilding, especially when coupled with a patriarchal social system.

Matrilineal descent is where kinship is traced from a mother through a descendant, with individuals of any intervening generations being females; in other words, the female line. In worldbuilding, what-ifs, and social analysis, this is usually associated with matriarchy, rule by women, with the assumption that such a culture would be a mirror-image of our own, where we tend to trace our descent through a father through a descendant with individuals of any intervening generations being males; in other words, the male line. We think of patriarchy as coupled with patrilineality, matriarchy as coupled with matrilineality. This isn’t necessarily true, however. World history offers no shortage of cultures where men rule but kinship passes through women.

The Pleasures and Perils of Matrilineality

There are sound fundamental reasons for a society embracing such a system. By human nature, it’s far less certain who the father of a given child is than who the mother is. A male ruler can never be absolutely sure that his wife’s children are in fact his. By contrast, a man knows with absolute certainty that his sister came from the same mother and is related to him, and that his sister’s son came from her. Thus if you’re a man your sister’s son is the closest relative of the next generation you can be absolutely sure is related to you.

Indeed, this so neatly sidesteps the whole problem of ensuring women show marital fidelity to assure paternity that it’s a wonder that more patriarchies didn’t use matrilineal descent, inheritance passing from a man to his sister’s son, rather than brute-forcing a father-to-son succession. I guess the temptation of the stronger sex to make every aspect of inheritance a men’s club was just too much to resist, which sucked for everybody.

“Children have the Right to a Mother and an Uncle! Everyone knows that!”

It’s rather awkward for a man to raise children with his wife that his inheritance won’t even pass to, so the most common situation seems to be an extended-family or clan setup where a broader family group tend to share the load of raising all the children together (the infamous “village” it takes to raise a child). Many such societies, however, cut fathers out of the loop; instead, men raise their sister’s children and assume the father’s role in their lives. Thus a man has a great hand in raising his own heirs. In such a culture the nuclear family would be considered to consist of children being raised by their mother and their maternal uncle.

One weakness of such a system is that people aren’t as naturally inclined to love and care for someone they’re 25% related to (their nephews) than someone they’re 50% related to (their sons), but the relationship is close enough that “uncle-fathers”, as they’re sometimes called, is a stable arrangement within a culture. It’s not the most common setup today, but there’s no particular reason to think such cultures couldn’t have dominated the world.

In such a culture a child being raised by their mother and her brother would be considered the normative arrangement, but as with our version of the nuclear family that’s not always possible. If a mother doesn’t have a brother then the nearest male relative, as traced through the female line, would likely fulfill the paternal role in her children’s lives.

Normative and contingent Succession in Patriarchal-Matrilineal Societies

For succession of inheritance, such as kingdoms, the normative passage would be from a man to his sister’s son, but what if said sister only has daughters? What if the man doesn’t have a sister? As with the patrilineal inheritance most popular in our world, which ranges from a slight male preference (the British monarchy’s old rules) to outright excluding the lineage of the “wrong” sex altogether (Salic law), there are options.

It really depends on how strict or not-so-strict the patriarchal and matrilineal aspects are. The most fun variant is if the society is both strictly patriarchal and strictly matrilineal, so only males related through the female lines can inherit, period. In the strictest variant of the system, if a sister has no sons she’s passed over in favor of the nearest female-line male heir, who we would consider to be some sort of cousin. In no instance would a man’s own children or descendants be allowed to inherit, unless they are related to him through a female-line by some other route (which might easily occur if his wife is also some sort of a maternal cousin).

Since it was not exactly rare even in times when families were larger for a man’s sisters to not have any sons, or for him to not even have any sisters period, we might see cousins routinely receive preference over a man’s own sons in such a world. A weird system to us, but to people ensconced in a culture like this it would make perfect sense, since they would not consider the (male-line) sons to be as close a relative as the (female-line) cousin.

This is patriarchal-matrilineal world’s version of Salic law, our patriarchal-patrilineal world’s strictest inheritance system. One drawback of such a system is that heirs that meet such exacting criteria tend to be relatively scarce, so it’s much more common than in looser systems for there to be no heirs period.

Semi-Salic inheritance in our world addresses this problem, by permitting the most closely related (through the male line) woman to inherit if no male heirs are available. This world’s version would permit the female related the most closely through the female line to inherit. So if no distant male cousins through any female line are available, but if a man has a sister who has a daughter, said niece would inherit.

This would represent a bending of the patriarchal norm; bending the matrilineal norm would mean the last resort after all female-line male heirs are exhausted would be the male-line male heirs, starting with the man’s son (assuming he has one). Bending the patriarchal norm is more fun, since it permits female rulers to crop up occasionally in an otherwise male-dominated world and keeps the traditional and rather dull father-son succession out of it, so if I were a fantasy worldbuilder I’d go with that option.

It’s also possible for the patriarchal norms to be weakened even further. In a system that was strictly matrilineal but not-so-strictly patriarchal, a sister’s daughters would take precedence over a more distant female relative’s sons. This is the patriarchal-matrilineal world’s version of the sort of system used traditionally in Britain, where a man’s sons were preferred but if he had daughters and no sons a daughter would inherit rather than a more distant male relative. In such cases the logic of proximity of blood trumps the logic of being the “right” sex to rule.

A fantasy worldbuilder could incorporate different polities that are more or less patriarchal, sort of like the distinctions between the weak sauce male-preference primogeniture and the strong sauce of Salic law was in medieval Europe, but with matrilineal inheritance being strict and very entrenched across the board. Thus some countries allow a sister’s daughters to inherit while others pass them over for more distant female-line male relatives, but male-line passage from father to son is unheard of.

First-born Sons: the Bastards of a Matrilineal World?

Of course some of these sons passed over for rulership might resent it, and try to press their claims with force or subterfuge much like bastards (sons of fathers born out of wedlock) were known to do in medieval Europe with some frequency. Indeed, it’s possible the bastard role in society might be filled by male-line sons, and bastardy and illegitimacy as we know it might not even be a thing.

By which I mean, in a strictly matrilineal society, there’s very little point to assuring paternity, since paternity is irrelevant to succession and inheritance. Under an avunculate, i.e. maternal uncles taking the paternal role, paternity isn’t even relevant for determining which male helps raises the children. Only maternity is. So there’s an excellent chance that this society wouldn’t care much whether a woman had a child in or out of wedlock. Indeed, half the time medieval northern Europe could barely be bothered to care, let alone a culture like this.

Love, Marriage, and Hostage-Taking in Patriarchal-Matrilineal Societies

On the other hand, marriage, being a human universal, would still be a thing, and with a sufficiently strong mystical or religious imperative behind it it might be considered very important for a woman to be married when she has her children. This might have implications for inheritance; or, in a more interesting twist, perhaps not, by which I mean out-of-wedlock births might carry religious disapproval but wouldn’t change the line of succession.

Marriage would also still be useful for forging and maintaining political and financial alliances, though with wives raising the children with the maternal uncle and husbands raising their own maternal nephews it’s likely it wouldn’t be quite as important as it was in, say, medieval Europe. A corresponding increase among the nobility in marrying for love might be expected.

There might also be a corresponding increase in the exchanging of hostages between noble families and their polities as an alliance-building tool. Hardly unheard of even in our world; for example, ancient Ireland had a king known as Niall of the Nine Hostages.

Fun with Incest Taboos

I mentioned cousin marriage above, and it’s worth noting matrilineal cultures often have incest taboos somewhat different than ours. For instance, in Western culture historically uncle-niece marriage was somewhat acceptable (and is still legal, even if taboo, in many jurisdictions), especially among nobility in Mediterranean countries; the Spanish Habsburgs practiced it with some frequency, and later, in the 19th century, both of Alfonso XII of Spain’s parents were the product of uncle-niece matches.

In a matrilineal culture that practices the avunculate, with maternal uncles assuming the paternal role, a person marrying or having relations with their maternal uncle is for understandable reasons taboo, much more so than it was in our culture historically. On the other hand, some other types of avuncular relations tend to be less taboo. For example, such cultures often accept and even outright encourage a flirtatious relationship between a man and his paternal aunt, which is considered a lesser degree of relative than a maternal uncle.

It’s not unheard of in such cultures for incest taboos to extend out to first cousins or even beyond (to the point of including any female-line relative, no matter how distantly related) on the maternal side but for incest taboos to be much less strict on the paternal side of the family tree. Ah, the wonders of unilinearity. A fantasy worldbuilder could craft a norm where every (close) relative on the mother’s side is forbidden but every relative on the father’s side bar (hopefully…) the father himself is fair game, perhaps even encouraged as a match. That might be rather interesting.


So there you have it; the typical medieval fantasy world where men rule and women obey, but made all the more exotic and fascinating by a simple change to the kinship system. Understandably, fantasy worldbuilders are inspired by European history and mythology, so a lineage system such as this, which hasn’t been the norm in Europe since very ancient times, isn’t the first thing one might think of when worldbuilding how family and inheritance works, but paying a bit of attention to kinship systems unlike ours can really liven up one’s world beyond the Tolkienian template. If any of this interested you, I encourage you to go forth and worldbuild!

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