The family was the basic social unit in post-Roman Gaul, as in almost all human societies; as modern anthropologists have shown, the study of the way in which a society organises its structures of kinship and marriage, out of the immense variety of possibilities, is fundamental for an understanding of how the whole society works. Anthropologists have expended much energy in the investigation of kinship terminology, which can often reveal much about the network of personal relationships. But they have usually been studying static societies, or ones unaffected by the impact of western culture. Ideas about the family and the kin in the early Middle Ages were rapidly changing, as Germanic ideas of the extended kinship group with well-defined legal and social responsibilities met the Roman concept of the individual with considerable personal freedom irrespective of family obligations, and both Roman and Germanic concepts began to take account of Christian ideas of morality. Kinship terminology in this world in which Frankish and Burgundian met Gallo-Roman, classical and Biblical Latin, was likewise in a state of such confusion that no certain historical conclusions can be reached. But it is worthwhile pointing to two Latin words, whose usage begins to introduce us to the alien world of the early medieval family: familia and parentes. The first meant the household, including blood-relations, dependants and slaves; it also meant the serfs who worked for an individual lord; and it was used of that Christian substitute for the natural family, the monastic community.
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