Cousin Marriages

Would you ever consider marrying your cousin? Your answer to this question likely speaks volumes as to your pre-conceived cultural notions about marriage within a close family circle. To be clear, when speaking about cousin marriage, I’ll be referring to marriage between two people who share a set of grandparents (or a grandparent, although strictly speaking this would make them “half-first cousins”).

Since I was young I have felt a strange fascination about cousins who marry cousins. Not that I or any of my cousins are married to each other, or that we have encountered any close examples in our family tree – you’d have to go to my grandfather’s maternal family to find a case of a first-cousin marriage.

First-cousin marriages are not that common these days, but they are far from being the rarity that many might suppose. In certain societies (Pakistan and Bangladesh being some of the cases used most often as an example) cousin marriage is not just tolerated, but it is often encouraged, at least passively if not actively. The reason for this is not religious, but has more todo with the notion of family and social group: the argument goes that a member of your own family is likely to be more protective of oneself and one’s family, as there is not just an emotional bond but also a blood tie. This situation has come to prominence in recent years when Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities based in other countries, notably the UK, faced media attention when it was revealed that a significant number of marriages between Pakistanis or Bangladeshis in the UK are between first cousins.

Before turning our attention to other, closer examples, let’s talk briefly about the impact of such unions on their offspring’s health. There is, I believe, a strong misconception that the child of a first-cousin couple will inevitably end up suffering some kind of physical or mental issue. And this is not necessarily the case – in fact, it’s actually not that frequent at all. Like most things in life, you have to consider first-cousin marriage with moderation. If two cousins (who share a set of grandparents but who are otherwise not related and there is no form of intermarriage in their immediate ancestry) have a child, that child has about 93% chances of being physically and psychologically healthy. When you compare that number with the 96% of chances of having a healthy baby born to a couple who share no common ancestors, the difference is actually not that big. It’s only when you repeat this type of unions over and over, generation after generation, that the risk becomes exponentially higher.

Perhaps the most famous case in history is Charles II – himself not the product of a cousin marriage, but the son of an uncle-daughter union. The tragic thing about Charles, who was born severely handicapped and whose health was always hampered by an indescribable amount of afflictions, is that his father was also the son of a first-cousin marriage. Not just that, but Charles’s mother was herself the result of an uncle-niece marriage, and so on and so forth. Such was the degree of inbreeding in Charles’s family, that instead of being descended from the Catholic Kings Ferdinand and Isabella (Charles’s great-great-great-grandparents ) through one line, he was their descendant through  ten different lines. In other words, instead of having 32 great-great-great-grandparents, he only had 10.

But let us come back down to more mundane examples. A single case of cousin marriage is, as I said, not that likely to have a huge impact on their offspring’s health – although this is of course quite possible, and that’s why anyone considering marrying their cousin should seek the proper medical counselling! Cousin marriages were much more frequent in the past than they are now, at least in economically developed countries.

But why then would anyone marry their cousin? If we discard the most obvious answer (“Because they wanted to”), we must contemplate other, less evident factors. In the first place, there was the matter of knowing their partner and their family, much as those who defend cousin marriage in Pakistan still do today – there is a feeling of community within the family that is carried on to the next generation. Then there is the matter of property: by marrying within the family you avoid any property from going to another branch of the family or the family land being divided among many descendants. Of course, we must think of the limitation of marriageable spouses: if your ancestors lived in a small village, or even in a big city where they were socially isolated, then they may well have decided to look within their family tree for spousal material. People before travelled much less than we do today, and marrying a person who was born in a different region (much less in a different country) was quite rare. This inevitably led to a smaller market of prospective partners, and this unions between relatives came about.

But not all marriages between close relatives need to be stigmatised against, or even have to imply a blood tie. Although not strictly cousin marriages, unions between two brothers who married two sisters were very common yesteryear. My own English great-great-grandparents married in 1876, only to be followed by the marriage of his sister and her brother a few years after. Similarly, in 1776 my ancestor’s sister Elizabeth Allen married her second cousin John Allen, and four years later Elizabeth’s brother Richard Allen married John’s sister (and, obviously, Richard’s second cousin) Mary Allen. This means that not only were their respective children first double cousins, but they were also third  double cousins!

But it was not only in England that our ancestors turned to the family tree as a marriage market: my Spanish ancestors also include some fairly unusual unions. In 1762 my ancestor Antonia Dogando married her first husband Alonso Quinteiro; five years later she remarried, to a man called Domingo Martínez, by whom she had a daughter called Justa. Curiously, a generation later Justa married a José Benito Meijón, whose mother was the sister of Alonso – Antonia’s first husband and therefore Justa’s mother’s nephew-by-(first)-marriage.

Unions in the past could be just as complex as they are in the present. When researching your own ancestry, remember to think “outside the box” and try to think who your forebears may have married, and why – were they neighbours, or cousins of some close relatives? Did they share a bond, whether blood or otherwise, before marrying?