Wills, widows, & lines of descent

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach pre-teens about ancient civilizations. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.


I've been working on a novella that relies pretty heavily on inheritance rules. I thought they were pretty unusual at first, but the more I dug into how different societies handle inheritance the more I realized that there's been a lot more variation than I thought there was. Still, there are surprisingly few unique systems.

Quick Facts

  • Inheritance laws in 1800s Britain were unusual for the time because they didn't require people to pass their property to their children or spouse.
  • Aztec women left less land but more items to their designated heirs, who were usually daughters and grandsons.
  • Matrilineal inheritance patterns are more common in nomadic cultures, particularly ones where women can also be fighters.
  • Inheritance by the last born child ("ultimogeniture") is significantly less common than by the firstborn child, but makes sense when the youngest was the one still at home taking care of the parents and didn't have a chance to marry and get established.
  • Younger brothers "inheriting" (read: expecting to marry) their older brother's widow has been common in various parts of Africa and the Middle East.

Heavenly Tables

Charlemagne's will gave most of his treasury to the Church. Only about 1/12 of his wealth went to his children and grandchildren. Another twelfth portion went to paupers, and the remaining twelfth went to the servants in his palace. He even directed his books to be sold, with the proceeds going to paupers. The main exception is two specific tables, one of which was sent to Rome, and the other Ravenna.

Dual Lines

During Japan's Kamakura period, mothers and fathers not only held property independently of each other, they transmitted it individually down separate lines of descent. They chose their heirs separately, too. Some women adopted heirs to continue their line; heirs could be female. Widows even sometimes chose to disinherit sons their husbands had designated as their heirs.

English Rights

Although we often think of the Early Medieval era as being decidedly patriarchal, women in 10th century England could own property and dispose of it however they wanted. Daughters could inherit property, including manorial rights and tenancies... even if they had a brother.

Driven to Sea

In early Polynesia, agriculture was so important that social power revolved around birth order because it informed inheritance rights and land access. This may have been a driving force behind the colonization of Oceania, as talented youths sought other opportunities at sea.

The protagonist of my microfiction story Sea Prince takes an unusual approach to his inheritance. If you haven't seen it already, check it out!


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