A brief history of ‘marriage,’ part 17

From matrilineal clan to patriarchy — Feasting as an instrument for deepening social inequality

The dissolution of the matrilineal clan effectively isolated the woman from her mothers, sisters and brothers. She, rather than her husband, became the outsider: first, as a new addition to her husband’s patrilineal, patrilocal clan, and later, as growing economic inequality tore asunder all vestiges of clan society, as an agricultural worker and household slave in a patriarchal family unit.

The institution of slavery was unknown in pre-class society. When captives were taken in interclan conflicts, they were either killed or adopted into the victorious clan. Even as the beginnings of political inequality appeared with the rise of tribal chiefdoms, as long as the prevailing mode of production was foraging/hunting, the idea of singling out some special group of people to work solely for the benefit of others was unthinkable.

The development of material surplus and the accompanying economic inequality that it engendered changed all that. In Part 15 of this series, we described how, with the introduction of agricultural production, polygynous marriages were one important source of additional labor — in the form of multiple wives and children — that men’s enterprises like cattle herding and crop cultivation required. The previous work obligation that the potential husband owed to the woman’s clan — a way of winning their approval to the idea of his joining their clan — became something totally different.

Now, the ambitious and fortunate farmer, whose agricultural surplus was a source of economic power, could afford to pay a substantial bride price to his prospective wife’s family for what, in addition to having a sex partner, actually constituted access to her labor power, hopefully over her entire adult lifetime. What word should be used to describe this relationship?

Feasting as an innovation of transitional society

Since it was not all farmers, but only the most “ambitious and fortunate” ones, who were able to accumulate the wealth and prestige that constituted the raw material for the first class societies, it would deepen our understanding of this transition to examine one of the social practices that helped to effect this change. This nearly worldwide phenomenon found in transitional societies has recently received detailed consideration by archeologists, ethnographers and anthropologists in a book-length collection of papers titled “Feasts: Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives on Food, Politics, and Power.” (Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 2001)

Co-editors Michael Dietler and Brian Hayden explain their interest in the subject and offer a definition of feasting in the book’s introduction: “Both of the editors came to the conclusion over a decade ago that feasts are an extremely significant aspect of social life on a worldwide scale, and that understanding them is crucial for apprehending and comprehending many social and cultural processes in ancient societies. … Feasts are events essentially constituted by the communal consumption of food and/or drink.” (pp. 2-3) Further along they write, “[Feasts] are commonly a central element of life crisis ceremonies such as initiations, weddings, and burials.” (p. 9)

Then, they address the political aspect of feasting as it relates to relations between men and women: “Feasting frequently involves a gendered asymmetry in terms of labor and benefits. That is, very often female labor largely supports a system of feasting in which men are the primary beneficiaries in the political arena. … These labor inputs are one of the main reasons why there is such a strong linkage between polygyny and male political power. … In brief, cases where women provide the agricultural, culinary, and serving labor for male political activities are quite common. … However, cases of the inverse pattern (where men consistently provide the agricultural, culinary, and serving labor that underwrites feasts formally hosted by women) may exist, but they are extremely rare.” (p. 11)

Importantly, Hayden indicates that the phenomenon of feasting assumes the existence of surplus food. It’s therefore not surprising that there is no evidence for this kind of event among foraging and hunting groups. “With the emergence of transegalitarian societies (those between chiefdoms and true egalitarian societies [i.e., matrilineal clans]), the full range of feasting … becomes established. A range of other developments characterizes transegalitarian societies. These developments include the production of reliable surpluses, storage of food and valuables, private ownership of resources and products, the transformation of surpluses into prestige items, economically based competition, and the establishment of contractual debts.” (p. 44)

The occasions for feasting dealt with in this book range widely from the marking of life-transforming events, such as marriages, to the organization of large work parties, to the attempts at personal prestige-building by individual men. For our purposes, however, we’ll need to concentrate our attention on the economic and political motives that seem common to most of these various occasions.

The politics of the feast

Hayden generalizes that “the drive to achieve advantages through feasting is probably the single most important impetus behind the intensified production of surpluses beyond household needs for survival.” (p. 27) This assertion may be somewhat of an overstatement, since the utility of access to surplus food in ameliorating occasional calamities like crop failures would also have provided an impetus for increasing food production. But what, exactly, were the advantages offered by feasting that Hayden refers to?

We mentioned in Part 16 of this series the practice of interclan gift exchange, a collective custom among foragers and hunters whose obligatory nature had the effect of stabilizing interclan relations. The innovation of feasting with the transition to agricultural production can be seen as an elaboration of this earlier practice, but with several important differences.

First, the collective nature of the previous practice is missing. Now, there is an individual male host, backed up, of course, by his family members, who provide the necessary labor. Second, the usual offerings are no longer token food items given and received, but a more or less elaborate banquet type of event to be enjoyed — and appreciated — by the lucky invited guests. Third, the obvious imbalance of obligation inherent in a feast is somewhat smoothed over by the festive character of the event. But, as they say, the devil will have his due.

Among the various advantages accruing to the hosts that are mentioned by the book’s contributors are 1) social prestige — useful for those seeking increased political authority; 2) wealth — when the guests are made to feel obligated to bring contributions to the feast, the host gets to keep the “leftovers,” which may include storable food or luxury items; 3) labor mobilization — the host may make clear that the gratitude felt by the guests must be channeled into a collective work project of benefit to him; and 4) formalizing social inequalities — the men eat first, the women later; the guests eat, the workers serve; the “special guests” get special food, the others get more ordinary food; seating is arranged based on the value of the gift brought by each guest, etc.

Dietler observes, “The relationship of giver to receiver, or host to guest, translates into a relationship of social superiority and inferiority unless and until the equivalent can be returned. … In this feature, the potential of hospitality to be manipulated as a tool in defining social relations, lies the crux of commensal [feasting] politics.” (pp. 74-75)

The feast as an instrument for the exploitation of labor

Regarding so-called “work feasts” in particular, contributors Dietler and Ingrid Herbich note that “regardless of the formal ideology of a society, large work feasts that are viewed as a finite exchange transaction with no reciprocal labor obligations can result, in the course of practice, in asymmetrical labor flows, such that some individuals or households derive wealth and prestige from the labor of others. This fact has profound significance for the long-term development of social relations and economic structures.” (pp. 257-58)

The practice of holding feasts, along with the other economically based social innovations that we’ve previously noted, has brought us into a new world, a world dominated by men. The prevalence of feasting in transitional societies appears to have been an important vehicle in establishing the male social, political and economic dominance that relegated wives to the status of field and household slaves.

That said, we need, from this point on, to be mindful that we have entered the time period when human society becomes divided into haves and have nots, when the contradictory interests of the conflicting social classes are the motive force propelling social change. In a flash of class consciousness, Dietler reminds us, “Whatever kings, chiefs, or elite classes are doing with their food, common households will continue to hold feasts in their own way to establish community and personal relationships, mobilize labor, and build symbolic capital.” (p. 93)