Primogeniture has two closely related meanings: (1) a principle of seniority and authority whereby siblings are ranked according to their ages, with the eldest coming first; and (2) a principle of inheritance, in which the firstborn child receives all or his parents' most significant and valuable property upon their death. In most cases, the rules have been applied primarily or exclusively to males. But even where this is the case, the rule has often been interpreted flexibly. The Crown of England, for instance, has passed to the eldest daughter when a male heir was not available, as was the case with Elizabeth II in 1953.
Primogeniture as a principle of seniority exists in a wide range of societies where it forms an important element of social organization and cosmology. The Maori people of New Zealand, like many Polynesians, believed that human beings were descended from the gods and partook in divine potency (mana). The eldest clans and lineages, being closer to the gods, bore a higher degree of sacredness than junior lines. The chief of a group was always the most capable—and ideally the eldest—male of the eldest family line (Goldman 1970). Similar assumptions about the internal relationship between hierarchy and sacredness pervade Indian society, taking social expression in the caste system, the joint family, and marriage arrangements. The joint family of northern India, in its most mature and idealized form, consists of an elderly man and wife, their sons and daughters-in-law and grandchildren. The large family shares a single house, cooks at the same hearth, worships at a common altar, and works the same fields. Every male in the household holds an equal share in the estate until it is formally and legally dissolved. However, the senior male is the ultimate authority, a role that passes upon his death to the eldest son (Kolenda 1968).
Primogeniture in the second sense—as the eldest child's exclusive right to inherit his father's property—provides a means for keeping an estate unified. It tends to be found in agricultural societies where a person's status and economic prosperity is tied to ownership of land. In medieval Western Europe, the land-owning aristocracy developed practices and laws meant to prevent the splitting of estates and the titles and privileges that went with them. The lord of a manor would typically pass down his undivided lands, titles, and rights over peasants to his eldest son. Usually the younger sons received support from their families, allowing them to pursue careers in the military, church, or state bureaucracy. Daughters received a dowry upon their marriage in lieu of any rights over their father's estate (Goody 1983). Over time, many landholding peasants also adopted forms of primogeniture, although they appear to have often exercised the rule flexibly. One of the best known local adaptations is the stem family of rural Ireland in which the head of the household and his wife shared their home with one married son (usually the eldest) and his descendents. Other sons were expected to move away upon marriage (Arensberg and Kimball 1968).
Primogeniture is the most common inheritance rule used to maintain undivided property, but there are others. Parts of England prior to 1925 and Germany during the Nazi period had laws of ultimogeniture, where property passed to the youngest son. Other even rarer variations serving the same end include seniorate and juniorate rules where property passes to the eldest or youngest member of an extended family; and secundogeniture, tertiogeniture (and so forth), where property is reserved for the second or succeeding sons.
The primogeniture system came under attack from several quarters in the Western world in the latter part of the eighteenth century in part because of a growing resistance against the privileges of the landed aristocracy and a desire to release land into the open market. It was first abolished in New England and then all of the United States following the American Revolution. The French Revolution brought the system to a halt in France, and the Napoleonic Code, which specified minimal amounts of estates to be given to each child, prevented its resurrection. In England, laws were modified first to allow life tenants to mortgage or sell their lands. In 1925, the British Parliament abolished primogeniture as the governing rule in the absence of a valid will (Rheinstein and Glendon 1994–2002). It was and is still possible in many places for parents to reserve most or all of an estate for an eldest child in their will. Many countries have enacted estate taxes meant to encourage parents to share their property among their descendents (as well as a means of securing government revenues). Various countries, however, have at times amended or created new laws meant to discourage or prevent the partitioning of farms as part of public policies aimed at maintaining a viable rural economy.
Arensberg, C. M., and Kimball, S. T. (1968). Family and Community in Ireland, 2nd edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Goldman, I. (1970). Ancient Polynesian Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Goody, J. (1983). The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Kolenda, P. (1968). "Region, Caste, and Family Structure: A Comparative Study of the Indian 'Joint' Family." In Structure and Change in Indian Society, ed. M. Yinger and S. Cohn. Chicago: Aldine.
Rheinstein, M., and Glendon, M. A. (1994–2002). "Inheritance." Britannica 2002 Deluxe Edition CD-ROM. Britannica.com Inc.
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