Social networks in 1796: Family Relations in an Ancien Régime village

Social networks are considered the latest development in how humans interact with each other. This is, however, not correct as a social network is based on relationships and not limited to electronic communication. Social networks are an integral part of human existence and are as old as humanity itself. The term has been popularised due to the rise of social electronic media.

Before modernity, before the rise of individualism, social networks were defined by kinship, which was mainly based on genetic connections between people. Kinship is, however more than a network of genetic relationships as it is the social language in which society is expressed. In pre-modern collective societies kinship defined the boundaries of society. In the time before Facebook, social networks in Catholic societies were recorded in church books.

I have undertaken research to determine the kinship boundaries for the Southern Dutch agricultural hamlet of Heugem, combining the 1796 census and local church records. In 1796 the hamlet consisted of 39 houses with 172 inhabitants, of which 54 below the age of 12. Almost 90% of the population was born in Heugem. The social networks of genealogical relations have been been graphically displayed using the Pajek software for the analysis of large networks. The analysis shows a high level of interrelatedness within the community, with the priest as the only person without relatives. The research also shows that the overwhelming majority of people were born and died in Heugem. As such, a high correlation between geographic and kinship boundaries was found.

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. Click on the diagram for an enlarged view.

Social network for Heugem in 1796

Social network for Heugem in 1796.

The preliminary results of this research will be presented at the XXXth Frontiers in Genealogy and Heraldry conference in Maastricht, the Netherlands.

The Praise of Folly: Philosophical View of Limburg Carnival

Today is Ash Wednesday and in many places around the world, including my home town of Hoensbroek, this marks the end of the annual carnival. Traditionally, Ash Wednesday was the start of the lent and carnival were the last three joyful days before the sombre time of fasting until Easter.

The annual carnival is an important part of the annual calender in the southern parts of the Netherlands and has played an important part in the first thirty years of my life. When I was a boy I was dragged by my parents to many carnival parades and parties. When I was in my second year of university I even had the honour of being known as Prince Peter I of the Klotsköp in Hoensbroek. My last carnival experience was when I visited a party of the Limburger Kangaroos in Melbourne Australia.

Prince Peter I and the Council of Eleven of the Klotsköp (1989-1990).

Prince Peter I and the Council of Eleven of the Klotsköp (1989-1990).

Having been away from my home town for ten years now I have obtained some distance from these traditions to be able to place them in some philosophical context. Although it might seem at first sight that carnival is about eating, drinking and fornicating as much as possible, in this article I will argue that carnival plays an important part in contemporary post-modern culture, specially with the disappearance of its religious significance as a preparation to the fasting.1

The essence of the carnival is a praise of folly and it are three days of the year when the normal world is turned upside down. Power over the city or town is symbolically handed over to the prince of the carnival and his Council of Eleven. The council and the prince are cultural mediators of the festivities, creating a connection between the everyday world of the sane and the world of the insane. The Council of Eleven is steeped in symbolism. Their bicorne hats are inspired on the hats worn by jesters and symbolise the foolishness that is central to carnival. Their formal suits are a reminder of the worldly connection of the council who are thus mediating between the two worlds. Every member of the council and the prince wear a chain that symbolises their unity. The regalia of the prince, his sceptre, feathers and other distinguishing features, are an expression of his symbolic power of the three days of folly. The council and the prince are the cultural mediators of the carnival, as it is their task to organise the carnival and bring folly to the otherwise so serious world.

Limburger Carnaval parade in Hoensbroek 2010 (Photo: Evelien Prevos).

Carnaval parade in Hoensbroek 2010 (Photo: Evelien Prevos).

The most recognisable aspect of carnival in most cultures around the world are the costumes worn by the revellers. They replace their identity in real life for a temporary identity, usually signifying a connection with the bizarre world of insane. The costume is a ‘mask’ behind which one can hide their normal identity so that carnival can be celebrated without shame. Although revellers hide their personal identity behind the ‘mask’, it is in fact an expression of their individuality. People take great care choosing their temporary identity and some express themselves in very individual creations.

The temporary loss of personal identity is an expression of a longing to a pre-modern time. Celebrations have a strong collectivist character – to properly celebrate carnival requires a critical mass of people. This is why my most recent experience with carnival in Mebourne was not very satisfying, compared to my home where regular life stands still for several days.

This shows a paradox in carnival. One the one hand we celebrate our individuality through costumes and on the other hand we seek for collectivist experiences. In contemporary society, personal identity is a product of individual development. We can, to a certain extent, choose our identity. This is, however, a fairly recent development. Our identities used to be determined by tradition and heritage. Although we can never fully relinquish our tradition and heritage, we now have great freedom in defining ourselves.

During carnival the idea of a fixed identity is implicitly criticised and our post-modern concept of individually created identities taken to the extreme with the ‘mask’ as a symbol of the fluidity of our identity.

During the the three days of carnival, many towns organise strange activities that are totally deprived of meaning. One such example is the annual Kowrenne (running of the cows) in Hoensbroek. This is a game whereby people run underneath home made models of cows. There is no reason for this activity, nor does it contain any symbolism to something outside the activity itself. These activities are an expression of the collective identity of the people that organise them and therefore have a very strong local character.

Carnival is an expression of Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, the playing man, providing resistance against the individualist aspects of contemporary life by organising a collective experience. The absurdity of carnival is an ode to absurdity, with the fools as the central symbol, mediated by the Council of Eleven. In carnival, people refer back to a time when, as Michel Foucault argues, when sanity and insanity where not opposites, but were complimentary. The absurdity of life is, according to Albert Camus, located in the confrontation between the irrationality of reality and our longing for clarity. In carnival, this confrontation is resolved by giving priority to the irrational. Carnival is thus a purification ritual as a catharsis for the pressures of contemporary life. Even though carnival has, in most regions, lost its connection with religion, it plays an important function in contemporary society.

Expressions of absurdity are not limited to places where carnival is formally celebrated. Many sports events, dance parties and pop festivals show similar aspects. This shows that, as Barbara Ehrenreich beautifully outlined in her book Collective Joy, that we have a deep need for ritualistic moments where we can express the absurdity of life and relieve our selves from having to create our own identity. Carnival shows that we should not take life to seriously and that reason and insanity are not mutually exclusive extremes, but aspects we need to fully embrace in order to be fully human.

Drawings by René Feijten.

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  1. This is an abridged translation of a Dutch essay written for the eZine Cultuurwetenschappen

Adelaide Magic Convention

Cards from mouth

Fun with cards.

The two and a half day gathering of magicians and magic enthusiasts at the Adelaide Magic Convention started with a Close-Up show. It quickly became clear that this would be a weekend of card tricks, more card tricks and even some more card tricks.

Magicians have a love-hate relationship with cards; well I have anyway. There are often complaints about the amount of card tricks during conventions and magic meetings, but everybody always gravitates back to them. Playing cards are the piano in the orchestra of magical props. A deck of cards is a piano with 52 keys that can be used to achieve every single effect in the arsenal of the modern conjurer. No other prop is so versatile. However, a lot of card magic is pretty boring because the performer forgets to place the props and the adventures they have into any context. Never ask a magician how magic is performed, but make sure to ask why those four aces keep assembling.

The day ended early because the lecture by Laurie Kelly lecture was cancelled and I decided to have an early night in preparation of the big day on Saturday. The day began with the close-up competition. My personal favourite was Simon Taylor’s session. He was able to place his material in a suitable context, creating interest and also showing some good skill. The main reason I like his work is because we share an interest into adding an intellectual perspective to magic without losing sight of the entertainment aspect.

The first lecture for the day was by American Geoff Williams. I was delighted by his presentation and am working on incorporating some of his ideas in my close-up work. He is, as he puts it himself, no great inventor of magic but works on improvements of known routines. I like his offbeat style, calling a trick I Hate David Copperfield, is a great way to attract attention to what is basically a reworked classic that performed many years ago. Unfortunately, however, he was not able to delight at his performance in the Gala Show later that night.

In the afternoon there were six performers battling it out in the stage competition. Joel Howlett presented his wholesome manipulation act. He ignores the trend towards Derren Brown, David Blaine and Chris Angel type material and follows in the footsteps of Cardini and Fred Kaps. Magicians appreciate this type of material because they respect the amount of skill involved. Almost every magician has at some stage practised front- and back-palming cards, but not many (including myself) have the guts to perform this type of material because it is so hard.

Magicians work extremely hard to hide half of their performance from the audience. Some of the most demanding actions take place while the attention of the spectator is diverted away from the action. However, some really good magic can be performed that barely requires any complicated sleight of hand. One of my favourite card routines I perform at the moment is a souped-up version of the 21-Card Trick. This classic is the first card trick that many people learn and magicians usually loathe as not being deceptive enough. But, the amended version I use requires almost no sleight of hand and get greats reactions when I perform it. Why spend time learning  second dealing, Faro shuffles and other complicated stuff when people can be amazed by the simplest tricks, using nothing but a good script.

I also met an anthropology student with an interest in theatrical magic. We discussed the possibility of writing an ethnology of magic world. To an outsider, a meeting of magicians sounds like a very strange thing indeed. Magicians have their own rituals (initiations and the broken wand ceremony springs to mind) and their own rules of behaviour, specially regarding secrecy.

Second lecture for the day was by English children’s entertainer Terry Herbert. He first showed his well known children’s act, for which a small group of kids was invited. After his performance he talked about his ideas on entertaining children. It was great to hear somebody with decades of experience talk.

I bought his DVD on performing magic for children under five. It is quite difficult to do this because to a child under the age of five everything is magic. Their minds have not yet been conditioned to know that certain things are impossible. A simple game of peekaboo is a magical event for a baby. Most illusions created by magicians are cognitive illusions, i.e. the brain gets tricked into assigning wrong causal relationships to what the eye perceives. But, the brain needs to be trained first to understand what normal causal relationships are and that takes a few years.

Magic without tricks

Magic without tricks

Day two ended with a Gala Dinner with performances from four magicians. The two highlights of the Gala Dinner were a Belgian contact juggler who creates visual magic with with perspex balls and Raymond Crow’s famous hand shadows show. It became apparent to me that both in performances magic is created without using deception. This is interesting to note because as I wrote above, magicians hide most of the effort that is required to create illusions, while in these two cases, all the effort is shown in full view.

Geoff Williams spoke in his lecture about the fact that magicians are basically liars. Ricky Jay was recently interviewed about lying and mentions Jerry Andrus, a magician who never lied in his performances. When he said: “I will place this card in the middle of the deck” than this was always a true statement. In almost all magic, lying is a regular occurrence. But when creating magic without deception there is no need to lie and no need to hide most of the work required to create the magic.

The last day started with a church service. This is the first convention I have attended where a Church Service was on offer on Sunday morning. None of the attendants I spoke to took up the offer so I wonder how many people attended. Those who have read more of my blog know my a-religious stance. But come to think of it, there are very close links to magic and religion and anthropologists still have a hard time distinguishing one from he other. Magic and religion share the same origins – nevertheless I gave the church service a miss.

Magic without tricks

Magic without tricks

My last session for this convention was the Paul O’Neill lecture about the marketing of magic. When he started to explain in detail how to create a website, I left the room and made my way to the airport to catch our flight back to Melbourne.

In an earlier Twitter post I wrote that the convention was not so inspiring. Well, maybe not from a magical technical point of view, but I guess the above post shows that magic never fails to inspire. To share some of the wonders I experienced when watching Raymond Crow, here is a Youtube video of his hand shadows.

Magic and Philosophy

Magic in the seventies - not yet aware of magic philosophy.For as long as I can remember, performing magic has been a part of my life. To be more precise, I am an occasional conjurer and use sleight-of-hand and other forms of deception to feign being a real magician. I started adding magic to my life as a schoolboy in the Netherlands, devouring books from the local library and collecting magic sets from the toy shop, attempting to amaze friends and family.

When I started a degree in philosophy, I became disillusioned with magic as an art form. I was no longer able to see the meaning of conjuring beyond the trickery and clichés employed by magicians. Much of magic has a “look at me” aspect and can be an egocentric performance art, without not much intellectual depth.

It was only years later that I realised that my interest in philosophy was strongly related to my interest in magic and that magic is an inherently philosophical performance art. Some of the books on the history of magic I read years earlier describe the connection between magic tricks and divination and other esoteric practices. I began to realise that the ancient shaman, the tribal philosopher, was also a conjurer, a master of sleight-of-hand.

Magic Philosophy

Both the magician and the philosopher have arisen from the same archetypical and historical figure of the shaman. The anthropological record shows that shamans use technical and psychological principles, similar to those used by contemporary stage magicians, to aid their spiritual work.1

I became interested in philosophy as a teenager by reading books about the history of magic that refer to the shamanistic origins of the craft. Snowballing my way through literature, I eventually stranded at philosophy itself—although somewhere along the way the connection between magic and philosophy was lost. My journey has gone full circle, and I am back at studying magic tricks, and this part of my website is dedicated to the quaint performance art.


  1. Collier, D. (1944). Conjuring among the Kiowa. Primitive Man, 17(3/4), 45–49. Hurt, W. R., & Howard, J. H. (1952). A Dakota conjuring ceremony. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 8(3), 286–296. 

Post Mortem: The Importance of Funerals

Paleolithic burial in sleeping position.

Palaeolithic burial in sleeping position. Source: Journal of Cosmology.

Dealing with death through funerals is one of the oldest signs of human culture, some anthropologists even define the onset of culture by the fact whether the dead were buried or not.

Our fascination with and fear of death relates directly to our ability to think about the future. We are the only animal that seems to have the ability to ponder life and conclude that there is only one certainty: we will all die. That insight creates a whole lot of existential anxiety, which is the defining factor of the human condition. This anxiety is mitigated by developing vehicles for meaning, such as religion.

Funerals are an amazing ritual. It is our way to pay respect to the memory of the deceased and their family. It is also a form of catharsis for the emotions that have built up since the death occurred. The announcement of somebody’s death is surreal. The funeral brings reality to the death, helping to anchor the irreversibility into our psyche.

Funerals make us ponder our own mortality and provoke good intentions that we should make the most of the time available to us. The funeral ritual is the end of one life, but provides new beginnings for al those who attend.

Christian funeral rites are, however, unsatisfying. The empty promise of eternal life and the hope that we will meet the deceased again after we have fallen to the same fate lead us astray. The promise of a life after death diverts our focus from life itself to the afterlife. One could argue that it doesn’t really matter and it is better to believe, it is better to play it safe, just in case religion is true. Religion is founded on metaphysical sky-hooks—there is no justification for the idea of life after death, besides our existential anxiety.

I choose to accept that there is no metaphysical foundation. My philosophy is not based on a sky-hook, but a metaphysical hot-air balloon, floating over the cultural landscape. Accepting that there is no certainty, no absolute truth is a very liberating experience. It forces one to choose life over death!