Kinship Boundaries in the Southern Dutch Village of Heugem in 1796


Kinship is the language of social structure and is fundamental to human relations. Although increased individualism has reduced the importance of kinship in contemporary societies, past social life was strongly structured along family relations.2 Kinship is a social construct: a value system concerning the relatedness between people that determines whom we consider to be relatives.3 It is essentially free of biological influence. In anthropology, a distinction is made between the pater as the social father and the progenitor as the biological father. Kinship is the social network created by genealogical connections and other social ties, modelled on the natural relations of genealogical parenthood.4 The nature of kinship is dependent upon the cultural framework in which it is embedded. Different cultures place varying emphasis on certain types of relationships, and not all biological relationships are considered to be of the same value; e.g., in European cultures, relationships between siblings are usually perceived as having greater importance than relationships between cousins, but this is not necessarily the case in non-European societies.

Presentation for this paper.

Kinship includes more than just the people who live together in a household. In Ancien Régime societies, the connections between family members, whether they lived together or not, was strong. Kinship could stretch to relations distant in genealogy as well as geography. Distance or frequency of contact was not the main determinant for the strength of the tie.5 The strength of the relationship was determined by the value it could provide in times of need.6 The strength of social ties is generally a function of emotional intensity, intimacy and potential reciprocal services.7 Family structures are determined by the extent and content of people’s relationships, including those they have strong ties with (such as household members, kin and neighbours) as well as those they have weak ties with (such as friends and other non-kin).8 Little information is available on the nature of relations among non-household kin in the nineteenth century and before. Ties among parents and non-resident children, siblings living in separate households, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and so on have not been described in detail in the literature.9

In this paper, the kinship relations between all inhabitants of the village of Heugem in 1796 are described, providing an overview of non-resident kinship in an eighteenth-century Dutch village. The main question to be answered is to what extent kinship was confined by geography and how, in a deeply connected community, marriage impediments were observed. The preliminary results of this research show a strong relationship between kin and geography in the hamlet of Heugem. This suggests that kinship formed a strong social boundary within Ancien Régime communities in the southern Netherlands. Further research is required to apply this methodology to other villages in the region and validate these findings.

Kinship as a social boundary

As an underlying social principle, kinship influences human behaviour and provides substance to interpersonal relationships. The Catholic Church was interested in kinship because it could be used as a moderator for reproductive behaviour, in particular in order to avoid marriages between biological relatives. A church decree from the 11th century explains that marriage rules were important because they prevented couples having unhealthy offspring. If two related people wished to get married, dispensation from the church was required up to fourth-degree relationships. Several justifications to obtain dispensation to marry a relative were acceptable: a small population resulting in a limited pool of potential partners, protecting family possessions and legitimisation of existing or foreseeable future extramarital relationships. Marrying girls that were considered too old to wait for a more suitable husband was also accepted as justifications for dispensation.10

The Council of Trent, held between 1545 and 1563, recognised three types of kinship: consanguinity (genetic), affinity (legal) and ritual (spiritual) kinship. The importance of consanguineous kinship to the local priest is illustrated by the fact that the baptism register of the town of Heugem contains a loose sheet on which the priest has jotted down a diagram to illustrate the degrees of consanguinity.11 He would have used this to help determine the degree of relatedness between marriage partners. Affinity is a relationship created through marriage. It was defined in the same way as consanguinity, but marriage impediments only existed up to the second degree.12 Ritual or spiritual kinship exists within the Catholic context through baptism and confirmation. Prior to Trent, ritual kinship was a means to establish networks of social alliance with often many godparents per child. Tridentene law ended this custom and set a limit of one godparent per gender.13 Baptism created a spiritual link between the priest, the child and the parents, and between the child and the godparents. Biological parents were banned from being godparents as it would create an undesirable marriage; husband and wife would become each other’s ritual kin. In the eighteenth century, consanguineous relatives were preferred as godparents in order to prevent additional marriage impediments created through using non-related godparents.14


Researching Kinship in the Past

Kinship research is traditionally undertaken by anthropologists who scrutinise individual relationships through direct participant observation.15 To study kinship in detail requires access to systematic data encompassing the whole community under examination. For historians, the task of reconstructing kinship is more complicated than it is for anthropologists because the richness of the social reality of the past has been reduced to incomplete records, created for a specific context, usually other than reconstructing kinship networks.16 In some cases, not much more is known about an individual other than the fact that they were baptised; leaving no further traces of their existence. Kinship studies for eighteenth- and nineteenth century communities are rare. Detailed information is not always available, and even when it is, a large amount of effort is required to process all the data.17

Several methods are available for studying the kinship of large groups. These include the use computer simulations and oral histories.18 For historians, two methods are suitable for historical kinship research:

  1. The patronymic indicator is used in areas where family names are inherited, as is the case in most European cultures. The patronymic indicator defines the extent of a kinship network by the number of times the same family name occurs within a geographic region.19
  2. The genealogical method, which involves reconstructing each individual family. This method requires large amounts of data covering family relations over several generations before the period under consideration. This methodology is, due to the large amount of effort required to collect the data, and the fact that data from the first generations is only used indirectly, not often used by scholars.20

Despite the inherent problems with the genealogical method, it is generally preferred over the patronymic indicator due to the richness of the data it is able to provide.21 For this paper, the genealogical method was used to reconstruct kinship structures for Heugem.

Genealogy and kinship need to be distinguished from each other in that the former relates to biological connections and the latter is focused on social connections.22 Birth, death and marriage information in isolation is not sufficient to recreate kinship networks. Additional data is required to assess the strength of ties and draw meaningful conclusions about kinship networks of the past.23 To understand the commonalities between genealogy and kinship, historians generally use overlapping sources. A conceptual problem with the genealogical method to research kinship outside of the households is that the data provides no direct information on the social significance of the kin relations that it describes.24

Within the context of the southern Netherlands in the eighteenth century, Catholic parish registers can provide this context because they have been prepared with the specific purpose of reconstructing kinship. The strength of ties within the eighteenth-century Catholic context is, given the system of marriage impediments, related to the level of consanguinity, i.e. the number of genes shared between individuals. It can also be presumed that the strength of ties is larger for relatives who are chosen as godparents, given the special role they play in the upbringing of the child. However, as no ego documents exist from the inhabitants of Heugem, only limited conclusions can, however, be drawn on regarding the strength of kinship ties.

In the Catholic context, the genealogical method provides limited opportunities to analyse ritual kinship. In standard genealogical methodology it is presumed that biological relationships were favoured as godparents.25 As godparents are used as a methodological lever to map family connections, opportunities to draw conclusions from the ritual kin network are limited.

Researching kinship in Heugem

To analyse kinship in the town of Heugem, a synchronic point-in-time analysis was chosen to analyse kinship in Heugem rather than a diachronic narrative, as is usually employed when analysing family histories. The synchronic perspective is commonly used within the field of anthropology because social scientists focus on society at a point in time, usually the present. In historical studies, the focus is on describing developments over a period of time.26 Herein lays the main difference between social science and historiography: social scientists are primarily interested in developing theories to describe contemporary society, while historians seek to theorise about societal developments over time.27 The data presented in this paper presents a snapshot in time of the social relationships with respect to kinship for the township.

The town of Heugem was chosen because of the availability of detailed sources and because of its small size. Primary sources used in this research include the 1796 census administered on behalf of the French occupiers and local parish records prepared by the local priest.28 Relationships were analysed using birth, death and marriage records from the local parish church (1734–1796) as well as post-1796 civil registry death certificates. Two secondary sources were used for information prior to 1734 and for other towns.29

The census data is not very accurate and has been corrected with information from the parish records and civil administration post-1796. A decision model, based on genealogical data, was developed to complete the list of inhabitants. The original census lists 153 people, while genealogical research indicates that this number should be at least 173. There are also a number of families that were not listed on the census, although they were born in Heugem and died in Heugem. Nor were they mentioned in the census of neighbouring towns. This research is limited to the 39 households listed on the original census.

This research is limited to relationships up to the second degree of consanguinity, as the number of relationships increases exponentially with each additional degree of relatedness. The analysis focuses on the relationships displayed in Table 1.30

Kin Male Female
parent father (f) mother (m)
child son (s) daughter (d)
sibling brother (b) sister (z)
uncle/aunt uncle (fb/mb) aunt (fz/mz)
niece/nephew nephew (bs/zs) niece (bd/zd)
cousin cousin (fbs/mbs/fzs/mzs) cousin (fbd/mbd/fzd/mzd)
grandparent grandfather (ff/mf) grandmother (fm/mm)
grandchild Grandson (ss,ds) granddaughter (sd, dd)

Table 1: Kinship terminology.


The township of Heugem

Heugem is currently a suburb of the city of Maastricht, in the south of the Netherlands. In the eighteenth century, it was an independent parish in the county of Gronsveld, which was a member of the imperial circle of Westphalia.31

At that time, the town was economically dependent upon Maastricht. It consisted mainly of market gardens that supplied fruit and vegetables to the city. Heugem is located in the fertile floodplains of the Maas, and many of the older inhabitants of the town would have suffered losses due to the great floods of the last half of the eighteenth century. In 1794, Maastricht capitulated to the French imperial armies and not long after the region was incorporated into the French empire. The town became part of the canton of Eijsden within the department of Meuse-Inférieure. On 21 April 1796, the people of the canton were counted, which forms the foundation of this research.


At the time of the census, Heugem had at least 173 inhabitants in 39 households, of which 53% were males. Only one household counts one person (the local priest), and there are two households with nine people. On average, Heugem counted 4.4 people per household. The average age in Heugem was 30.0 years, with the priest as the oldest inhabitant at 95. The youngest person was only two weeks old and six women were pregnant at the time of the census.

Figure 1: Population pyramid for Heugem in 1796.
Figure 1: Population pyramid for Heugem in 1796.

The age distribution in Heugem shows a growing population with a stage-1 demographic transition, which is common in pre-industrial societies.32 Mortality among the children of Heugem was low; all but one of the children present during the census reached adulthood. Heugem was on the verge of a population explosion caused by an increased birth rate, reduced infant mortality and the industrialisation of the nearby city of Maastricht.33

The majority (89%) of the inhabitants were born in Heugem and 90% of the people living in Heugem would also die there. All the inhabitants not born in Heugem came from towns within a 30km radius, with only very few people from the neighbouring town of Gronsveld. Marriage patterns within Heugem were thus predominately endogamous: people married within the known confounds of their community.

A large section of the population was listed as market farmers or had related professions. The village was fairly self-sufficient; there were blacksmiths, cobblers, a baker, a carpenter and a brandy distiller. The town also had a mayor, a teacher and a priest with his sexton.

Of the 39 households identified in the census, 24 were nuclear families and three families consisted of single parents caring for children. There were three married couples living together without children, two of which had children living in other households. Four households were combinations of two families. The reasons for this cohabitation were most likely related to increasing the possibility of pooling wages and labour, thus reducing the likelihood of individual poverty. Although economic utility as a mechanism for household formation has been disputed in other research,34 the data from Heugem indicates that in one of the four combined families, poverty could have driven cohabitation. For the other three combined families, the relationship between the household members is not fully clear due to gaps in the available data.


The inhabitants of Heugem are related to a very high degree, with some people having 32 direct kin relationships within the town, which means that 18% of the inhabitants were their direct relatives. The research shows that when affinity is taken into account, almost everybody could have been related to somebody else in town through a string of kin relations. For example, Petrus Custers (House 7) was the brother-in-law of the grandson of the grandfather of the son-in-law of Elisabeth Coston (House 13).

With 173 inhabitants in Heugem there are 29,756 possible reciprocal relationships. Of these possible relationships, 2,158 (7.3%) were realised. This includes 194 parent/child relationships, 356 sibling relationships, 58 grandparent/grandchild relationships, 265 uncles/aunts/nieces/nephew relationships and 786 cousin relationships. On average, each person in Heugem had a relationship with 12 other inhabitants (7% of the population). The highest number of relatives for one inhabitant was 33, with only the priest having no consanguineous relationships within the village.

Figure 2: Family relations in Heugem in 1796.
Figure 2: Family relations in Heugem in 1796. Click to enlarge.

Due to the fact that everybody in Heugem was baptised, ritual kinship was ubiquitous. The person with the most spiritual relationships in town was the priest, Hubertus van Bloer. He baptised every inhabitant born in Heugem after 1734 and was thus ritually related to 141 inhabitants and their living parents. Although the priest seems to be a lonely figure in the village when looking at the genealogical network, through ritual kinship he was the most connected person in town.

Given the high level of interrelatedness between the inhabitants of Heugem, it is surprising to see that only six marriages were conducted with dispensation. The marriage with the highest level of dispensation was mixed dispensation in the first and second degree of blood relation. Wilhelmus Bessems married the granddaughter of his mother and her first husband. One marriage was conducted between cousins and the other dispensations related to third- and fourth-degree relationships. One interesting entry in the records is the burial of Nicolaus Beckers, son of first-degree cousins Nicolaus and Anna Maria Beckers. The priest notes that he was born without mind (amens à navitate),35 which most likely points to a birth defect due to the close relationship of the parents.

Kin Male Female Total
parent 93 101 194
child 107 87 194
sibling 190 166 356
uncle/aunt 128 137 265
niece/nephew 154 111 265
cousin 434 334 768
grandparent 30 28 58
grandchild 34 24 58
Total 1170 988 2158

Table 2: Consanguineous relationships in Heugem (1796).

Social Network view of Heugem

An alternative method for analysing and displaying kinship relationships is by using social network theory and the associated network diagrams. Social network theory views social relationships in terms of nodes and ties. Nodes are the individual actors within the networks, and ties are the relationships between the actors. Within kinship analysis and genealogy, the social ties are either parent-child relationships or marriages.36 These concepts can be visualised in a social network diagram. In the diagram shown in Figure 3, nodes for men are triangles and nodes for women are circles. Blue nodes indicate people born in Heugem, red nodes indicate those from outside the town, and white nodes indicate deceased people. Parent-child relationships are indicated with black arrows, while marriages are denoted with blue lines.

The closer to the centre of the diagram the person is, the more connected they are. It is interesting to note that most of the people not born in Heugem are on the perimeter of the diagram. The core of the diagram is filled with the Beckers family, the largest and most connected family in town. The priest appears as a lonely figure as he has no blood-relatives within Heugem.

Figure 3: Network diagram for Heugem in 1796. Click to enlarge.
Figure 3: Network diagram for Heugem in 1796. Click to enlarge.


The research reveals a high level of genealogical interconnectedness within Heugem. It was a very introverted town with a low percentage of exogamous marriages. Only few marriages within the town were conducted between relatives, showing the effectiveness of the registration kept by the Catholic Church. Further analysis using social network theory is required to describe the nature of the kinship network within Heugem in more detail. No firm conclusions can be drawn about the significance of these findings as no similar data exists for towns in the region.

Further research

Further research is required to expand knowledge on kinship networks in the late Ancien Régime in the Netherlands. This research shows that the available sources and tools are suitable for gaining insights into historic social relationships.

The genealogical method for reconstructing kinship networks is time consuming, which tends to prohibit professional research. The advent of Internet genealogy, however, provides opportunities to increase the efficiency of this methodology. A large number of sources have been digitised and transcribed by volunteers and are available online. Kinship relations can be reconstructed using crowd-sourcing methods to build on-line genealogical databases that not only contain transcriptions of records but also show relationships between people.

Contemporary technology has enabled the analysis of genealogical data in ways previously too costly to contemplate. A treasure trove of genealogical data is waiting to be analysed and visualised, and the use of advanced information technology allows us further insights into social networks of the past.


  1. Cite as: Prevos, P. (2012). Kinship Boundaries in the Southern Dutch Village of Heugem in 1796. In Frontiers in Genealogy and Heraldry. Presented at the XXXth International Congress for Genealogical and Heraldic Sciences, Maastricht. 

  2. C. Lipp, “Kinship Networks, Local Government, and Elections in a Town in Southwest Germany, 1800–1850,” Journal of Family History 30, no. 4 (2005): 347–365; Henk Nicolai, “De Genealogie Van Het Voorwerp: Dierbare Voorwerpen En Familiecultuur Bij De Kingma´s Te Makkum,” in Cultuur En Maatschappij in Nederland 1500–1850, ed. Peter Te Boekhorst (Meppel en Heerlen, 1992). 

  3. Andreijs Plakans, “Ties of Kinship and Kinship Roles in an Historical Eastern European Peasant Community: A Synchronic Analysis,” Journal of Family History 7, no. 1 (1982): 52–75; H. Bras and Theo van Tilburg, “Kinship and Social Networks: A Regional Analysis of Sibling Relations in Twentieth-century Netherlands,” Journal of Family History 32, no. 3 (2007): 296–322. 

  4. Roger M. Keesing, Kin Groups and Social Structure (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975). 

  5. Muriel Neven, “The Influence of the Wider Kin Group on Individual Life-Course Transitions: Results from the Pays De Herve (Belgium), 1846–1900,” Continuity and Change 17, no. 3 (2002): 405–435. 

  6. James E. Kelly, “Kinship and Religious Politics Among Catholic Families in England, 1570–1640,” History 94, no. 315 (July 2009): 328–343. 

  7. Mark S. Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” The American Journal of Sociology 78, no. 6 (1973): 1360–1380. 

  8. Ibid.; Bras and van Tilburg, “Kinship and Social Networks.” 

  9. H. Van Baelen and K. Matthijs, “Comparing Two Methods to Reconstruct the Kin Network Outside the Household with Nineteenth Century Antwerp Data,” Journal of Family History 32 (2007): 149–160; Bras and van Tilburg, “Kinship and Social Networks.” 

  10. L. de Meuter, “Huwelijksvoorwaarden En Beletselen in Het Oud Regime,” Vlaamse Stam 12 (1976): 73–82. 

  11. Regionaal Historisch Centrum Limburg (RHCL), Doop-, trouw- en begraafregisters van Heugem. inv. nr. 20.240. 

  12. de Meuter, “Huwelijksvoorwaarden En Beletselen in Het Oud Regime.” 

  13. Guido Alfani, “Godparenthood and the Council of Trent: Crisis and Transformation of a Social Institution (Italy, XV-XVIIth Centuries),” Obradoiro De Historia Moderna, no. 18 (2009): 45–69. 

  14. L. de Meuter, “Geestelijke Verwantschap,” Vlaamse Stam 11 (1975): 495–499. 

  15. Keesing, Kin Groups and Social Structure; D. I. Kertzer, “Anthropology and Family History,” Journal of Family History 9, no. 3 (1984): 201–216. 

  16. Plakans, “Ties of Kinship and Kinship Roles”; Andreijs Plakans, Kinship in the Past: An Anthropology of European Family Life 1500–1900 (Oxford, 1984). 

  17. Van Baelen and Matthijs, “Comparing Two Methods to Reconstruct the Kin Network.” 

  18. Wendy Post et al., “Reconstructing the Extended Kin Network in the Netherlands with Genealogical Data: Methods, Problems and Results,” Population Studies 51, no. 3 (November 1, 1997): 263–278. 

  19. Wendy Post et al., “Reconstructing the Extended Kin Network in the Netherlands with Genealogical Data: Methods, Problems and Results,” Population Studies 51, no. 3 (November 1, 1997): 263–278. 

  20. K. Matthijs and S. Moreels, “The Antwerp Cor* Database: A Unique Flemish Source for Historical-demographic Research,” The History of the Family 15, no. 1 (2010): 109–115; Van Baelen and Matthijs, “Comparing Two Methods to Reconstruct the Kin Network.” 

  21. Van Baelen and Matthijs, “Comparing Two Methods to Reconstruct the Kin Network.” 

  22. Plakans, Kinship in the Past: An Anthropology of European Family Life 1500–1900

  23. Alfani, “Godparenthood and the Council of Trent.” 

  24. David I. Kertzer, Dennis P. Hogan, and Nancy Karweit, “Kinship Beyond the Household in a Nineteenth-century Italian Town,” Continuity and Change 7, no. 1 (1992): 103–121. 

  25. Régis de la Haye, Limburgse Voorouders. Handleiding Voor Genealogisch Onderzoek in Limburg, 2nd ed. (Maastricht: Stichting Vrienden van het Rijksarchief in Limburg en Stichting Limburgs Genealogisch Archief, 1994). 

  26. Plakans, “Ties of Kinship and Kinship Roles.” 

  27. Jan Kok and Kees Mandemakers, “A Life-course Approach to Co-residence in the Netherlands, 1850–1940,” Continuity and Change 25, no. 02 (September 7, 2010): 285–312. 

  28. RHCL, Doop-, trouw- en begraafregisters, inv. nr. 20.240; RHCL, Frans Archief, inv. nr. 1037. 

  29. Henk Boersma, De Bevolking Van Het Kanton Eijsden in 1796 (Maastricht, 2002); A.P.L. Paquaij, Geboren, Gehuwd, Overleden in … Breust – Eijsden – Gronsveld – Heugem – Mesch – Oost – Rijckholt – St. Geertruid 1600–1915+, Tweede. (Brunssum, 2005). 

  30. V. Batagelj and A. Mrvar, “Analysis of Kinship Relations with Pajek,” Social Science Computer Review 26 (2007): 224–246. 

  31. A.H. Jenniskens, Heugem. Klein Dorp in Een Grote Wereld, Maastrichts Silhouet (Stichting Historische Reeks Maastricht, 2008). 

  32. John C Caldwell et al., Demographic Transition Theory (Berlin: Springer, 2006). 

  33. Jenniskens, Heugem. Klein Dorp in Een Grote Wereld

  34. Kok and Mandemakers, “A Life-course Approach to Co-residence in the Netherlands, 1850–1940.” 

  35. RHCL, Burial registers Heugem, 24 November 1796. 

  36. Batagelj and Mrvar, “Analysis of Kinship Relations with Pajek”; Wouter de Nooy, Andrej Mrvar, and Vladimir Batagelj, Exploratory Social Network Analysis with Pajek, Rev. and expanded 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011). 

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