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The Origins of Northwest European Guilt Culture

Ruth Benedict first made the distinction between “shame cultures” and “guilt cultures” (source). Pervasive feelings of guilt are part of a behavioral package that enabled Northwest Europeans to adapt to complex social environments where kinship is less important and where rules of correct behavior must be obeyed with a minimum of surveillance. Is this pervasive guilt relatively recent, going back only half a millennium? Or is it much older?

As societies grew larger and more complex, it became necessary to interact with people who were less closely related. This new social environment was made to work by extending to non-kin the sort of conduct (trust, empathy, desire to cooperate, etc.) previously reserved for kin.

To this end, language was manipulated: people would call each other “brother” and “sister” even when not from the same family. They also became more attuned to enforcement of correct behavior, either through external controls (shame) or through internal controls (guilt).

Shame is the primary means of behavioral control in most societies. If you are seen breaking a social rule, you will feel shame, and this feeling will be reinforced by what people say and do (gossiping, malicious looks, spitting, ostracism, etc.). Shame is much less effective if you break a rule without being seen or if you merely think about breaking a rule.

Guilt is more important in European societies, particularly those of Northwest European origin. It operates even when you act alone or merely think about breaking a rule. Behavior can thus be regulated in all possible situations with a minimum of surveillance.

The anthropologist Ruth Benedict describes how guilt differs from shame:

True shame cultures rely on external sanctions for good behavior, not, as true guilt cultures do, on an internalized conviction of sin. Shame is a reaction to other people’s criticism. A man is shamed either by being openly ridiculed and rejected or by fantasying to himself that he has been made ridiculous. In either case, it is a potent sanction. But it requires an audience or at least a man’s fantasy of an audience. Guilt does not. In a nation where honor means living up to one’s own picture of oneself, a man may suffer from guilt though no man knows of his misdeed and a man’s feeling of guilt may actually be relieved by confessing his sin. (Benedict, 1946, p. 223)

The high level of guilt in Western societies is often attributed to various traumatic events like the Holocaust, the assassination of JFK, the heritage of black slavery, the dispossession of the American Indian, and so on. Actually, a pervasive sense of guilt can be normal and even healthy. As Baumeister et al. (1994) explain:

Guilt serves various relationship-enhancing functions, including motivating people to treat partners well and avoid transgressions, minimizing inequities and enabling less powerful partners to get their way, and redistributing emotional distress.

Historically, guilt has proven to be a useful adaptation, being part of a larger behavioral package that has enabled Northwest Europeans to adapt to a social environment where kinship matters less and individualism matters more. This package is widely believed to have come together over the last thousand years, with increased reliance on guilt going back only half a millennium. The conventional view among historians may be summarized as follows:

11th century onward– Throughout Western Europe, states pacified social relations by imposing the death penalty for murder and other acts of personal violence. People no longer had to rely as much on kinsmen for protection of life and property.

14th century – The Black Death created a widespread labor shortage that increased labor mobility and led to the dissolution of feudalism. The rural population was no longer bound to the land in static communities of closely related individuals.

16th century onward– Most of Northwest Europe converted to Protestantism, which emphasized the individual’s relationship with God. Faith became interiorized, and behavior became regulated more through the workings of private conscience and less through acts of public worship. Guilt also assumed more importance because it could no longer be routinely purged through confession (Carroll, 1981).

16th century onward– The market economy expanded beyond the marketplace at the expense of domestic modes of production. Instead of growing their own food, making their own clothes, and manufacturing their own wares, families increasingly sold what they made and bought what they needed. The family ceased to be the main organizing principle of economic and social relations (Seccombe, 1992).

This conventional view is not wholly false. From the 11th century to the 20th, the individual became more and more important in Northwest Europe while kinship became less and less so. Meanwhile, the same region broke away from Catholicism to create a more individualistic and guilt-based version of Christianity. Of course, we are left with the question as to why these changes happened more readily there than elsewhere. Moreover, if we go back to the beginning of the past millennium, we still see a tendency towards greater individualism and looser kinship ties. The market economy was already replacing kinship as the main organizing principle of society:

Recent work on thirteenth century manorial documents has uncovered a very extensive land market from at least the middle of the thirteenth century. There is rapidly accumulating evidence of the buying and selling of pieces of land by non-kin; the idea that land passed down in the family is now increasingly regarded as a fiction. Whether in Suffolk, Huntingdonshire, the Eastern Midlands, Berkshire or elsewhere, the evidence suggests that the supposedly free and the unfree were buying and selling land.

[…] It appears probable that in many areas of England in the period before the Black Death up to half of the adult population were primarily hired laborers. It was not parents and children who formed the basic unit of production, but parents with or without hired labor. This was only made possible by the widespread use of money. The work of Kosminsky and Postan has shown that commutation of labor services for cash was widespread by the middle of the twelfth century. Cash penetrated almost every relationship; selling, mortgaging and lending are apparent in many of the documents. Most objects, from labor to rights in all kinds of property, were marketable and had a price. Production was often for exchange rather than for use. (Macfarlane, 1978a)

Individualism was strong even within the nuclear family:

Probably from Anglo-Saxon times – and certainly from the thirteenth century – children had no automatic rights in a parent’s property. A child could be disinherited; there is no ‘family property’, nemo est heres viventis (no one is the heir of a living person). Maitland documents this in detail, showing that from at least the thirteenth century parents could leave their property to whom they liked – and by gift, sale or will disinherit all their children if they so wished. (Macfarlane, 2012)

This was before the Black Death and thus barely fits into the conventional timeline of the origins of individualism. Does the picture change if we go further back in time?

Anglo-Saxon times and earlier

Family structures

Further back, before the last thousand years, the evidence becomes sparser. Nonetheless, we still see signs of weaker kinship ties and greater individualism in Northwest Europe:

Most family systems take as their basic premise that the group is more important than the individual. This is both caused by and reflected in their way of conceiving how people are related to each other, how kinship is passed on or what anthropologists call ‘descent’. The majority of societies are what is known as ‘unilineal’, that is, they trace their ancestors or descendants through one gender alone, usually male, but sometimes female. This allows them to form into ‘descent groups’ of relatives. This is the case, for instance, in most of China, India and Africa and it was the breakdown of these larger ‘corporate’ groups that Weber thought marked out the West.

In contrast, if we inspect our own thoughts about the family, we will probably find that they show that, unusually, we operate in what is known as an ‘ego-focused’ cognatic system. This is a way of tracing relatives simultaneously through the male and female lines and of taking as the point of departure the individual who is tracing the relatives. This is part of a European-wide system (with a few variations). What is most striking, is that in England, as in much of Europe, this system of reckoning kin has remained practically unchanged since at least the seventh century. […]

Such a system already predisposes a society towards flexibility, networks and the concept of the individual as more important than the group. Indeed, there are no groups, just ego-centred networks of people. Each individual’s kin (except brothers or sisters) is different. This is a central underpinning of an individualistic way of looking at the world. Already, by the Anglo-Saxon period, the movement away from strong family blocks, Weber’s de-familization of society, had begun to occur.(Macfarlane, 1992, pp. 173-174; see also hbd* chick here and here)

The antiquity of these flexible family structures is supported by the antiquity of a related phenomenon: the Western European marriage pattern. West of a line running from Trieste to St. Petersburg, marriage has long had the following characteristics:

– relatively late marriage for men and women

– many people who never marry

– neolocality (children leave the family household to form new households)

– high circulation of non-kin among different households (typically young people sent out as servants) (Hajnal, 1965; ICA, 2013).

This pattern used to be attributed to the effects of the Black Death, but recent historical work has challenged this view, as in this study of marriage between 1252 and 1478 in an English community:

The average age at first marriage in the Lincolnshire Fenland before the Black Death would be 24 years for the woman and 32 years for the man. The wife would die one year before her husband and the marriage would last for about 13 years. The couple could have six children, if their fertility was higher than average, of whom, judging by pedigrees, perhaps three would survive to become adults. After the Black Death the mean age would be 27 for the woman and 32 for the man. The husband would die three years before his wife and the marriage would last about 12 years. Again the couple could have six children, of whom perhaps three would survive to become adult. (Hallam, 1985, p. 66)

Hallam (1985, p. 56) also points to evidence of late marriage in 9th-century France. On the estates of the Abbey of St Germain-des-Prés near Paris, about 16.3% of all adults were unmarried. In Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, the figure was 11.5%. Seccombe (1992, p. 94) cites a 9th-century survey of the Church of St Victor of Marseille, where both men and women appear to have married in their mid to late twenties. Going even farther back, Seccombe (1992, p. 94) cites the description by Tacitus (56-117) of Germanic women being “not hurried into marriage [and] as old and as full-grown as the men [who were] slow to mate.”


In Anglo-Saxon England, guilt already existed as a major means of behavioral control. The English abbot Aelfric of Eynsham (955-1010) described it as a special kind of shame where the witnesses to the wrongful act are divine entities or spirits of the dead:

He who cannot because of shame confess his faults to one man, then it must shame him before the heaven-dwellers and the earth-dwellers and the hell-dwellers, and the shame for him will be endless. (Bedingfield, 2002, p. 80)

This argument comes up repeatedly in Anglo-Saxon literature, where it forms a ‘penitential motif’:

The motif runs: it is better to be shamed for one’s sins before one man (the confessor) in this life than to be shamed before God and before all angels and before all men and before all devils at the Last Judgement. (Godden, 1973)

Guilt thus played a major role in English culture at least as far back as Anglo-Saxon times. Furthermore, it seems to have been indigenous:

One particularly interesting fact that emerges is the peculiarly Anglo-Saxon character of the motif. Not only did it circulate widely in Old English writings but the only two Latin works in which I have been able to find it were written by Anglo-Saxons — Alcuin and Boniface. Moreover an important element of the motif, the notion of three hosts present at the Last Judgement, is itself characteristic of Anglo-Saxon writers: the usual representation of the Last Judgement in continental works (as in Alcuin’s letter) has the angels and all mankind present, and sometimes the devil as prosecutor, but not the whole host of devils, whereas the concept of the three hosts, as in Boniface’s homily, is very common in Old English writings generally. (Godden, 1973)

Frantzen (1983) argues that the penitential tradition first developed in Anglo-Saxon England and then was exported to the continent in the 8th century. It is thus inaccurate to see this guilt culture as something that Christianity introduced into Northwest Europe. Instead, an indigenous guilt culture seems to have modified the historical development of Western Catholic Christianity, eventually giving rise to Protestantism.

A possibly earlier witness to Anglo-Saxon guilt is the epic poem The Song of Beowulf. The hero’s “dark thoughts” come from private fears of having broken some rule, as opposed to shame over a publicly known wrongdoing:

That was sorrow to the good man’s soul, greatest of griefs to the heart. The wise man thought that, breaking established law, he had bitterly angered God, the Lord everlasting. His breast was troubled within by dark thoughts, as was not his wont. The Song of Beowulf, 90

With Beowulf, we are entering the transition between paganism and Christianity. Indeed, a pagan underlay is already visible in the above quote by Aelfric. Why should Christians worry about their wrongdoings being witnessed by “hell-dwellers”? The word ‘hell’ seems to be used in the old pagan sense (abode of the dead) rather than in the newer Christian sense (place of damnation).


Clearly, the last thousand years have seen Northwest Europeans become increasingly individualistic and guilt-driven. Nonetheless, this behavioral trajectory began long before the timeline of the last millennium. In fact, it seems to have begun before the dawn of history. It looks as though Northwest Europeans had already become pre-adapted to conditions that would arise much later. They would thus be better able to exploit the potential of later social environments, in particular the market economy. This raises questions of how and why. How did Northwest Europeans initially make the transition to more complex social relations? Why did they adopt a mode of socialization that was so different from that of other complex societies? And why the greater reliance on guilt as a means of regulating behavior?

To be continued.