New Worlds: Family Feud

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

The Campbells and the MacDonalds. The Montagues and the Capulets. The Hatfields and the McCoys. In between the small-scale violence of one individual against another and the large-scale violence of one tribe or state against another, you get the feud: families falling into a cycle of vengeance, where some initial offense leads to retaliation, which in turn must be answered in kind.

Such things don’t have to be limited to families, of course. It isn’t uncommon for the expanding sphere of conflict to wind up pulling in allies and associates, and when the families in question are sufficiently influential — aristocrats or royalty — this can segue directly into a state-level war. But feuds often center on families, because kinship networks are one of the most powerful organizing systems in human society. In pre-modern times, people’s loyalty to their family or clan is often far stronger than their loyalty to the abstract ideal of the state, and an offense against their relatives is felt almost as strongly as an offense against the individual.

In that sense, you can see feuds as a scaled-up version of the culture of honor and subsequent dueling traditions we discussed back in Year Two. “Family honor” can be as much of a thing as individual honor, and even someone who isn’t personally involved may get dragged into the fray because standing aloof means getting branded as a coward or a traitor to their kin. But whereas a duel between individuals provides a formalized way of settling disputes and answering insults — at least in theory — feuds rarely have such clear-cut endings. One cousin may be satisfied, but another is not . . . and so it continues onward, “an eye for an eye, until everyone is blind.” (A line I first encountered in the song “There Were Roses,” about the feud-style Catholic/Protestant violence in Northern Ireland, though it’s hardly a unique sentiment.)

The custom of feuding is widespread in both history and geography, because you’re liable to find it anywhere there’s a strong kinship system and relatively weak state authority. As I mentioned last week, interpersonal violence has decreased over time partly because we’ve gradually removed that right from individual hands, reserving it for the representatives of the state. Rewind time, though, and you’ll soon find eras where private retaliation is not only permissible, but seen as natural and expected. The state might not have the capacity to intervene in personal disputes, nor did its citizens think that was the proper use of its authority. So rather like a busy parent, it might tell its children to sort a problem out themselves — until the dispute rose to a sufficient level that it interfered with the state’s business. Whereupon, much like a parent whose patience has run out, it tended to wade in and impartially smack down all those involved.

Not that every feud rises to that level. Some families can go on for generations in a low-grade war of sheep-stealing or courtly maneuvering, constantly irritating one another, but never doing anything that demands a more significant response. Until one night a sheep raid results in someone getting shot, or a drunken scuffle ends in a fatal fall, or someone’s female relative gets dishonored, consensually or otherwise. (Feuding culture tends to go hand-in-hand with strong patriarchy, hence placing the sexual control of women on par with people’s lives.) When that happens — even it was an accident — the injured side can’t just go on the way they did before, with low-grade retaliation. The offending side has to pay.

If you’re lucky, then cooler heads manage to prevail, and payment takes some form other than blood. The dishonored woman gets married off to the man responsible, simultaneously insuring that her marriage prospects aren’t ruined by the incident and creating a bond between the feuding clans that limits how willing they’ll be to murder each other in the future. (What she thinks of that solution rarely factors in.) Or the killer’s family pays reparations to the family of the deceased, whether in the form of cash or some other valuable compensation like a disputed bit of land. Sometimes one or more hostages get traded; we’ll look at those next week.

It’s even possible for formal justice to prevail. Depending on the circumstances of the offense and the temperament of the patriarch, one family may decide not to rally behind their guy. Sure, communal honor demands that you not look like cowards or otherwise show weakness . . . but if what your nephew did is truly heinous, then defending him means letting that stain seep outward to the rest of your family. Some feuds get nipped in the bud because the person who started or escalated the conflict gets handed over to the authorities, to be exiled or imprisoned or hanged.

But all too often, nobody’s thinking that impartially. The nephew is one of ours, and must be defended as such. Or if he must be punished, we should handle that ourselves — because remember, this kind of thing is most prevalent in societies where the state is relatively uninvolved with personal matters. What we did isn’t any worse than what the other side did, or if it is, then it’s only a little worse, and the escalation is necessary to teach them a lesson. If you shoot and wound my brother during a raid, then me going and slaughtering five people in their sleep would obviously be disproportionate. Like the proverbial boiling of a frog, though, if a wound leads to a wound that winds up being fatal leads to a single killing leads to a group killing, you can get from sheep-stealing to burning a house down with the inhabitants trapped inside, and still see your actions as justified.

Feuding isn’t entirely gone from our own societies. Any group that either hides from or doesn’t trust state authority, like organized crime syndicates or street gangs, may still wind up in a small-scale war with their rivals. Actual kinship bonds tend to play a smaller role now, but the rhetoric of “family” is still common, as are the resulting actions. Reputation is everything; insults must be answered; losses must be avenged.

An eye for an eye, until everyone is blind.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Family Feud — 3 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Family Feud - Swan Tower

  2. And “Family” can be defined in many ways.

    We protect family that has messed up. And if a “good” cop protects his blue family “bad” cop, that cop no longer is good.

  3. Thanks for more insights. The history of feuds is certainly depressing, with the human tendencies toward “blinding” and blind clannishness.