Marry your cousin? No way, you’re probably thinking. But there was a time, however, when marrying close relatives was not just usual, it was also the norm, and more often than not, a desirable experience. Marrying a first cousin, or even an uncle, could mean keeping property and money within the family, and both the very rich and the very poor would leap at the opportunity.
Only with the passing of time has cousin marriage become unusual enough to be almost considered taboo. In my experience, in countries like the UK cousin-marriage are extremely rare (save for a particular social group which I will talk about later); in Spain, for whatever reasons, cousin marriages were rare but not all that unusual until my grandparents’ generation. Although I am not aware of being descended from a first-cousin marriage, I do know two of my grandfather’s first cousins married each other, and my great-grandfather’s sister married her own uncle.
Apart from any moral or even sexual feelings these kind of match-making may stir inside your mind, we must remember that once upon a time finding a life partner from within the same social group or social community who was not closely related could have been difficult to find. For instance, some of my Spanish great-grandmother’s ancestors came from a village of a few hundred people – although not necessarily close relatives, is it that surprising that some surnames keep repeating themselves generation after generation? My other great-grandmother (from Italy) has to sets of surnames in her family tree twice over, implying her parents were likely to be related (although my research have confirmed that they could not have been closer than third-cousins).
Some communities maintain this practice of cousin marriage, even in modern, Western societies. In the UK cousin-marriage is, as I already mentioned, extremely rare, but it accounted for 55% of all marriages within the Pakistani community in 2005. This practice has been maintained over the years, although it is likely to decrease as more information about possible risks affecting those couples’ progeny becomes available.
It is fair to say (as science has already proven) that a one-off cousin marriage has minimal chances of producing unhealthy offspring (as opposed to a non-related couple). This is true of the cases I know personally, although my grandfather’s cousins (those which I mentioned earlier, who married each other) had nine children, and while all six girls are healthy, all three sons died shortly after birth of certified illnesses; it is possible that they were inherently weaker, and thus their demise could have been prevented had their parents not been related.
The real risk is when cousin marriages or any other kind of related-partner unions, repeat themselves one generation after another. The same study in 2005 concluded that Pakistanis living in the UK are 13 times more likely to have offspring with genetic disorders. If a person with a type of gene that is likely to cause a genetic disorder (what is called a variant gene) marries someone with the same type of variant gene – something which of course increases the risk if partnering up with a relative- their offspring will likely inherit both genes and suffer some sort of handicap. This can range from skin diseases and extreme allergies, to trisomy-related disorders.
As a genealogist, I find cousin-marriage fascinating. Not only is finding the common root of two branches of the same family a thrilling adventure, but it also serves to show how an individual’s ancestry implodes, and changes from an apparent diamond-shaped tree to a strange-looking shape with inlets.
There are not many cousin-marriages within my family tree – I can only count one first-cousin marriage and one second-cousin marriage on my English side, but thanks to marriage records I know I am descended from couples who were in some way related, as they needed a Papal dispensation in order to wed. It would be a treat to find out how they were related ut that will have to wait until another time.
Interested in cousin marriages? This Wikipedia article lists “coupled cousins”.