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9-08-2015, 14:58

The life cycle: marriage

The most obvious solution for the problems of extramarital pregnancy or unmarried young adults sauntering around or starting drunken brawls was marriage, but marriage was not to be entered into lightly. The choice of a spouse often determined one’s social and fi nancial situation, as well as one’s personal well-being and happiness, so this decision was far too important to leave up to the young people themselves. Family, friends, and neighbors played a role in fi nding an appropriate spouse and bringing the marriage to realization. Particularly among the upper classes, there were often complicated marriage strategies to cement family alliances and expand family holdings. On the other end of the economic spectrum, communities and cities in some parts of Europe refused to give marriage permits to people who were poor. They worried that poor households would need public support, and saw marriage as a privilege open only to those who could afford it. This local restriction of marriage permits became state law in the early nineteenth century in many parts of central Europe, and lasted until after World War I. Marriage was the clearest mark of social adulthood for both women and men. Craft guilds often required that masters be married, and participation in the governing body of villages or cities was limited to married men. Thus poor men who were refused marriage permits were also excluded from guild mastership and village decision-making. Marriage gave many women authority over dependent members of the household, including not only children but servants, slaves, and in craft households even apprentices and journeymen. Despite an emphasis on the individual among some thinkers, most fi fteenth- and sixteenth-century theorists still conceptualized society as a collection of households, with a marital pair at the core of each household. There are numerous examples of children and parents who fought bitterly over the choice of a spouse, but in the vast majority of marriages, the aims of the people involved and their parents, kin, and community were largely the same: the best husband was the one who could provide security, honor, and status, and the best wife one who was capable of running a household and assisting her husband in his work. Therefore even people who were the most free to choose their own spouses, such as widows and widowers or people whose parents had died, were motivated more by what we would regard as pragmatic concerns than romantic love. This is not to say that their choice was unemotional, but that the need for economic security, the desire for social prestige, and the hope for children were as important emotions as sexual passion. The love and attraction a person felt for a possible spouse could be based on any combination of these, with intense romantic desire often viewed as more likely to be disruptive than supportive of a marriage. Marriage manuals, which became a common genre in the sixteenth century, reinforced these ideas; Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish authors agreed that the ideal wife was obedient, chaste, cheerful, thrifty, pious, and largely silent, while the ideal husband was responsible, fi rm, and honorable. Spouses did not live up to the ideals set for them all the time, of course, and people regarded it as important to stipulate many legal and fi nancial arrangements with a marriage contract. Marriage contracts were not limited to the wealthy, but by the

SOURCE 6 An Austrian marriage law regulates spousal relations

In addition to marriage contracts, local, territorial, and national law codes all regulated aspects of married life, including fi nancial matters and spousal relations. This is a section from the Law Code of the territory of Salzburg, Austria from 1526. It is to be accepted that both spouses have married themselves together from the time of the consummation of their marriage, body to body and goods to goods … The husband shall not spend away the dowry or other goods of his wife unnecessarily with gambling or other useless frivolous pastimes, wasting and squandering it. Whoever does this is guilty of sending his wife into poverty. His wife, in order to secure her legacy and other goods she has brought to the marriage, may get an order requiring him to pledge and hold in trust for her some of his property. In the same way he is to act in a suitable manner in other things that pertain to their living together and act appropriately toward her. If there is no cause or she is not guilty of anything, he is not to hit her too hard, push her, throw her or carry out any other abuse. For her part, the wife should obey her husband in modesty and honorable fear, and be true and obedient to him. She should not provoke him with word or deed to disagreement or displeasure, through which he might be moved to strike her or punish her in unseemly ways. Also, without his knowledge and agreement she is not to do business [with any household goods] except those which she has brought to the marriage; if she does it will not be legally binding … The fi rst and foremost heirs are the children who inherit from their parents. If a father and mother leave behind legitimate children out of their bodies, one or more sons or daughters, then these children inherit all paternal and maternal goods, landed property and movables, equally with each other … Women who do not have husbands, whether they are young or old, shall have a guardian and advisor in all matters of consequence and property, such as the selling of or other legal matters regarding landed property. Otherwise these transactions are not binding. In matters which do not involve court actions and in other matters of little account they are not to be burdened with guardians against their will. (From Franz V. Spechtler and Rudolf Uminsky, eds., Die Salzburger Landesordnung von 1526, Göppinger Arbeiten zur Germanistik, Nr. 305 [Göppingen: Kümmerle, 1981], pp. 119, 154, 197. Trans. Merry Wiesner-Hanks.) sixteenth century in some parts of Europe quite ordinary people, including servants and artisans, had marriage contracts drawn up before they wed. Contracts were especially important in second and third marriages, as they had to stipulate how any inheritance might be divided among all of the children. Only after all parties had signed the contract (often including the parents of both spouses, if they were still living) could the actual marriage ceremony proceed. Weddings varied throughout Europe, but they generally involved some sort of religious ritual, followed by as expensive a feast as the family could afford. Just as marriage ceremonies varied according to region, so did marriage patterns. The most dramatic difference was between the area of northern and western Europe, including the British Isles, Scandinavia, France, Germany, and much of Italy and Spain, and eastern and southern Europe. In most of northwestern Europe, historians have identifi ed a marriage pattern unique in the world, with couples waiting until their mid- or late twenties to marry, long beyond the age of sexual maturity, and then immediately setting up an independent household. (Demographers term this a nuclear , neolocal household structure.) Husbands were likely to be only two or three years older than their wives at fi rst marriage, and though households often contained servants, they rarely contained more than one family member who was not part of the nuclear family. In most of the rest of the world, including southern Europe, most of eastern Europe, and a few parts of northwestern Europe, such as Ireland, marriage was between teenagers who lived with one set of parents for a long time, or between a man in his late twenties or thirties and a much younger woman, with households again containing several generations. (Demographers term this a complex family household, and make further distinctions between extended family households with one conjugal unit plus one or more other kin, and multiple family households with two or more kinrelated family units.) There were regional and class variations from these patterns – in southern Italy and southern Spain nuclear families were more common than complex, which was also true among agricultural wage laborers in Hungary and Romania – but in the almost fi fty years since the demographer John Hajnal fi rst identifi ed these two family patterns, most research has supported his division. 4 Historians are not sure exactly why this pattern developed, and its consequences are easier to trace than its causes: fewer total pregnancies per woman, though not necessarily fewer surviving children; a greater level of economic independence for newlyweds, who had often spent long periods as servants or workers in other households saving money and learning skills; more people who never married at all. In southern and eastern Europe most of the unmarried population lived in convents or monasteries, but in northwestern Europe this group was far too large for that, even before the Protestant Reformation led to the closing of most monastic institutions. Demographers estimate that 10–15 percent of the northwestern European population never married in the early modern period, and that in some places in some eras this fi gure may have been as high as 25 percent. This may be one reason that most laws restricting unmarried people come from northern Europe, and the continuity in this pattern indicates that these laws were never very effective. One of the key ideas of the Protestant Reformation was the denial of the value of celibacy and championing of married life as a spiritually preferable state. One might thus expect religion to have had a major effect on marriage patterns, but this is very diffi cult to document, in large part because all the areas of Europe that became Protestant lie within northwestern Europe. There were a number of theoretical differences. Protestant marriage regulations stressed the importance of parental consent more than Catholic ones, and allowed the possibility of divorce with remarriage for adultery or impotence, and in some areas also for refusal to have sexual relations, very serious physical abuse, abandonment, or incurable diseases such as leprosy. Orthodox law in eastern Europe allowed divorce for adultery or the taking of religious vows. The numbers of people of any Christian denomination who actually used the courts to escape an unpleasant marriage were very small, however, and apparently everywhere smaller than the number of couples who informally divorced by simply moving apart from one another. In parts of Europe where this has been studied, women more often used the courts to attempt to form a marriage, i.e. in breach of promise cases, or to renew a marriage in which their spouse had deserted them, than to end one. The impossibility of divorce in Catholic areas was mitigated somewhat by the possibility of annulment and by institutions which took in abused or deserted wives; similar institutions were not found in Protestant areas. Jewish law allowed divorce (termed get ) for a number of reasons, including incompatibility; in theory the agreement of both spouses was needed, and the economic division of the assets was to be based on each spouse’s behavior. Muslim law allowed a man to divorce his wife at any time, though he was required to continue supporting her; wives seeking divorce – and this emerges more in actual court records than in theoretical law codes – gave up their right to this support. Muslim law also allowed a man to have up to four wives, but polygamy was relatively uncommon in the Ottoman Empire. Place of residence and social class had a larger impact than religion on marital patterns. Throughout Europe, rural residents married earlier than urban ones, and were more likely to live in complex households of several generations or married brothers and their families living together. They also remarried faster and more often. Women from the upper classes married earlier than those from the lower, and the age difference between spouses was greater for upper-class women. Women who had migrated in search of employment married later than those who had remained at home, and married someone closer to their own age. Along with signifi cant differences, there were also similarities in marriage patterns throughout Europe. Women of all classes and religions were expected to bring a dowry to their marriage, which might consist of some clothing and household items (usually including the marriage bed and bedding) for poor women, or vast amounts of cash, goods, or property for wealthy ones; in eastern Europe the dowry might even include serfs or slaves. The size of the dowry varied by geographic area and across time as well as by social class. In fi fteenth- and sixteenth-century Florence, for example, the dowry required for a middle- or upper-class woman to marry grew staggeringly large, and families placed many of their daughters in convents instead of trying to fi nd husbands for them, because convent entrance cost much less than a dowry. The dowry substituted in most parts of Europe for a daughter’s share of the family inheritance, and increasingly did not include any land, which kept land within the patrilineal lineage. Laws regarding a woman’s control of her dowry varied throughout Europe, but in general a husband had the use, but not the ownership, of it during his wife’s lifetime, though of course if he invested it unwisely this distinction did not make much difference. During the late medieval period, women appear to have been able freely to bequeath their dowries to whomever they chose, but in many parts of Europe this right was restricted during the sixteenth century to prevent them from deeding property to persons other than the male heirs.

 

 

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