Tuesday 6 October 2020

The youngest son

There is a peculiar plot found in many Eurasian fairytales: Brothers (mostly three) have to complete a task (like kill a dragon), which will get them a princess and a throne...And all the brothers fail, except the youngest, who gets both the girl and the throne...

Russian: Tsarevitch Ivan, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf

Serbian: The Nine Peahens and the Golden Apples

German: The Queen Bee

Iranian: Simorgh

One interpretation of this fairytale plot is that it describes Ultimogeniture, the inheritance practice in which all the family land and the family house is inherited by the youngest son...

The fact that this plot is found in stories from Europe to Central Asia is very interesting, because in most parts of Eurasia in the past it was the oldest son who inherited all the property or the property was split equally between all the sons...

There were some exception to this rule though:

1. Slavs

Ultimogeniture was particularly prevalent in Russia, where it was enshrined in law in The Pravda Russkaya, or Yaroslav’s Law, written ca. 1017 AD by Yaroslav the Wise...You can read it here...

Ultimogeniture was recorded in the 18th and 19th century in many Slavic countries like Russia, Poland, Serbia... You can find some data about in in "Between Traditional Collectivity and Modern Individuality: An Atomistic Perspective on Family and Household astride the Hajnal Line (Upper Silesia and Great Poland at the End of the 18th Century)" and "Social Behaviour and Family Strategies in the Balkans (16th – 20th Centuries)"...

2. Mongols

Among Mongols, Ultimogeniture (the inheritance by the youngest son) was practiced in combination with Primogeniture (the inheritance by the oldest son) and several other inheritance rules. Which caused chaos...You can read about it in "Remnants of the Mongol imperial tradition"...

3. "Some people" from England, Eastern Germany, Denmark, Austria

Ultimogeniture was also practiced in certain parts of England where it was called "Borough-English" and was by the Normans called “the custom of the English towns”...And in some parts of Eastern Germany, Denmark and Austria...

Now this is interesting. The origin of the Ultimogeniture in England, Germany, Austria and Denmark is unknown...

Thomas William Shore, in his 1906 book "Origin of the Anglo–Saxon race" attributed this custom "to the West Slavic tribes which were part of Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain" and "to the West Slavic tribes who once lived in Germany, Austria and Denmark" 

Some have argued that this custom was brought to Europe by the Steppe nomads, like the Huns, Mongols and Turks...

But I couldn't find any mention of Ultimogeniture being practiced by the Huns or Turks who both practiced Primogeniture. And as I said, Mongols had several different conflicting inheritance rules which leads me to believe that they adopted Ultimogeniture from someone else...

Who? Well maybe the stuff I talked about in this post about the Iron Age nomadic societies of the Northern Chines borderlands can give us a clue...

But I think that Ultimogeniture originated not in Iron Age Eurasian steppe societies, but in much earlier, Bronze Age Indo-European steppes societies...

Why do I think so? Because we find Ultimogeniture at the core of the Ancient Greek myths...

There, Uranus gets overthrown by his youngest son Cronus. Only to be overthrown by his youngest son Zeus.

Yet the Greeks, like everyone else around them, practiced Primogeniture...So what's going on here?

I believe that this practice probably comes from the times of the expansions. When elder sons were sent away to "carve their own piece of land for themselves" and the youngest was left at home to take care of the parents and the ancestral lands...

Why this was practiced by some settled peoples like Slavs is not easy to explain...

Interestingly David, the youngest of 8 sons, becomes the king of Jews...Joseph of Genesis also the youngest son and favoured...And Isaac...

But just like Greeks, Jews practiced Primogeniture...

I wonder what's going on here...


  1. A fairy tale that would be popular with the whole family except the eldest son. Mothers seem to prefer their youngest, and fathers dote on them. Underdog stories have always been popular, since most people are not the eldest son.

  2. Healthy, well fed chieftains used to have many kids, bourne by many wives, over decades.

    By the time the big Daddy is obviously losing it, eldest offspring is already a bit long in the tooth, and politically neutered, for decades now, else they be gone.

    Former wives are dead or de facto banished, their clans too.

    If mom of the youngest son still has the old codger's ear, and she has a couple of brothers at the court, the kid is a shoe in.

    1. This is all amazing. But why didn't all the peoples do this then? Why is Primogeniture the main succession procedure?

  3. Perhaps established adult sons were capable of fending for themselves in the societies where this practice developed, at the time of their parents' death, because inherited wealth wasn't terribly important in these economies or there was a practice of making lifetime gifts to older children when they became adults and established their own households. But if these economies were based more on labor than on capital wealth, then the wealth of dying parents wouldn't have been substantial enough to have much impact if divided among all of the sons.

    The fact that this was mostly an urban practice at its Western European extent, in towns where commerce and labor were economically important, unlike rural farmers for whom inherited land was most important, supports this analysis.

    However, the least well established youngest son who might be only a young adult, or even an adolescent when his parents died, might be the most likely to need economic life support through an inheritance (and the mostly likely to still be at home, giving the youngest son a logistical edge in controlling the inheritance as well), and out of fairness would have received the least benefit from lifetime gifts from a parent. In the pre-birth control world, the youngest son might have been born with parents in their late 30s or early 40s, and the life expectancy for adults in that era was probably around their 60s.

    Life expectancy at birth was often 25 to 35 years, but infant and child mortality was high, and people who survived to adulthood could live to as long as about 70 under ideal conditions. In crude averages, typical people had four or more children children, a quarter of whom died as infants, a quarter of whom died as children or young adults, sometimes after having children and sometimes not, and the rest of whom who survived well into adulthood. Only a little more than half of children born in premodern times survived to adulthood and had surviving children.

    Some semblence of ultimogenitor, if the parents die before all of their children have reached middle age, is a not uncommon way for trusts for the benefit of the children of upper middle class modern families to be handled (something I do regularly in my day job as an attorney).

    1. Again, why didn't all the peoples do this then? Why is Primogeniture the main succession procedure?

    2. Because farming was predominant and land was scarce, and farming scarce land was the basis for the wealth of the rulers who decided what the rules should be, in most of these societies. But the Slavs were ruled by herders (regardless of their own preferences) and those he retained the practice were more often urban.

    3. Sorry that doesn't make any sense...

  4. The notion would be that ultimogeniture makes less sense in societies where land is the primary factor of production. Land was the primary factor of production in most of Europe and in the Levant. Land was not a primary factor of production for primarily pastoralist people in places that were land rich so that even if they did some farming too there was not land scarcity, so ultimogeniture could arise there.

    So, why were the Slavs different?

    The Slavs were different because despite being farmers themselves, they were ruled by Indo-European herders for whom land was not a major factor of production and the elite rulers set things like inheritance rules. Once this rule was in place for the Slavs, inertia set in and they continued that practice even though it was no longer optimal for them, perhaps because the monarchs who ruled them for centuries were tradition bound, or because land was not as scarce for the Slavs as it was elsewhere.

    The Slavs and other Indo-Europeans directly from the steppe carried ultimogeniture to the West with them and initially followed it.

    In most places in the West, like Greece and Germany, the economic reality that land was a scarce major factor of production overcame the traditions that the Slavs and other Indo-Europeans from the steppe brought with them. But the economically reality driven transition to primogenitor didn't happen in British towns because land was not a major factor of production in commercial oriented towns the way that it was in farming oriented rural areas, so the inertia of Western Slavic tradition continued in those towns.

    You can follow this analysis to the Hebrews as well. Legendary history describes them as a pastoralist people for whom land was not a major factor of production before migrating to Israel/Palestine. So, it makes sense that early on that they would be a people not disinclined to have ultimogeniture. But, after a while, they became a society of farmers and due to economic pressures, they transitioned to a primogeniture system just as the Europeans mostly did.

    1. What doesn't make sense, is that no "Indo-European herders" practiced Ultimogeniture...The only nomadic people who practiced it, Mongols, practiced is as one of tree different succession rules...So who are those "Indo-European herders" who "imposed ultimogeniture on the Slavs", who seem to be the only people who practiced it? Do you see what I mean?

  5. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I've often thought that 1st born sons inherited the farm and some livestock, but later/lastborn sons were given breeding livestock and allowed pastorage to build their herds freely, and then frequently moved to better locales to start fresh, including getting new 'foreign' brides, as happened in Europe & the Levant.

    1. Yes that was the norm...Except where it wasn't, like with Slavs...

    2. Right. I was thinking that when these 2nd/last born sons were out ranging & mating foreign brides and producing 1st borns, they hadn't yet settled on big farms, so there was not much to inherit, but years later, prosperity would rise along with the youngest kids, who would be encouraged to stay and care for the parents by a stable & reassuring inheritance.