Debates on marriage patterns

How are marriage patterns, marriage exchange and inheritance related?


Jack Goody draws in his book The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe (1983) a fairly elaborate picture of the changes the Catholic Church has been responsible for. Goody points out that the church, in documents with a similar content found all over Europe, was already around the year 600 AD trying to influence ‘heirship’ by banning certain practices that had until then been fairly common. The four most influential changes, that also influence marriage patterns, would have been:


  • men could not marry twice, except to the same woman, leaving men with barren wives without offspring and heirs;
  • adoption is no longer allowed, which prevented men without heirs to adopt one;
  • concubinage is forbidden, with which illegitimate children become bastards and could no longer be heirs;
  • marriages between family-members, in-laws and spiritual kin became forbidden. Dispensations had to be paid to the church if this rule was broken. (Goody 1983:84)


Goody also claims the church wanted to restrict ‘shifting children between domestic groups’ by discouraging wet-nursing (baby-farming), fostering (by nannies) and adoption. Although he does not link this restriction to heirship, it is very well possible that even this fifth measure might have served to influence heirship and political ties; in the Islamic world, for instance, it is well-known that milk-kinship served to forge socio-economical as well as political ties, just like spiritual kinship (Héritier-Auge 1994, Walentowitz 1995, Parkes 2005). Evidence suggests that similar practices might have prevailed in Europe, notably among the Celts of Ireland, where fosterage and milk-kinship formed important political ties for life (Parkes 2004). This suggests that child fosterage in combination with wet-nursing might provide grounds for the transfer of wealth among families as well, a reason well-fitting the above list.


The most influential of the restrictions might have been the fact that endogamy was no longer permitted. Whereas marriage has always been (and still is in many parts of the world) a way to form alliances and secure family-property, the Church effectively called this practice a halt, although some studies show that consanguinity still prevailed in very remote areas where it was difficult to find a non-related spouse (Rabino-Massa, Prost and Boëtsch, on Briançon, France 1550-1849, (2005)), or in royal families, where status was obviously inherited. Without the need to arrange a marriage with close kin, individual consent, another premises of church marriage, is much easier to adhere to.


All the ‘strategies of heirship’ provided the Church with the money needed to build churches, pay its clergy, and for the provision of charity (Goody 1983:97). This money was raised by the dispensations, but even more so by charitable gifts to the church, that often consisted of (part of) heritages. Since the number of possible heirs was effectively diminished by above mentioned rules, inheritances accounted for a substantial income. Beside the influence of the Catholic Church, historians also point at the Reformation as prominent in making the nuclear family the centre for self-fulfillment and sharing (Reher 1998) or the ‘protestant ethic’ as indispensable for the development of industrialization (Goldstone 1996), although the general ideas on marriage and family ideas did not differ that much to the Catholic ideals (Harrington 1995). Nevertheless religion might have had a substantial role in the change of marriage patterns that culminated in the EMP.   


The Catholic Church was, apart from the above mentioned influences on heirship, also responsible for another premise for the EMP. Already in the eleventh century, the Church formalized the need for consent of both spouses (and not necessarily their parents) at marriage, which formed an important basis for the EMP, considering the fact that forced marriages are often early marriages, for obvious reasons. With consent being so central, Lena Edlund and Nils-Petter Lägerlof argue that women can no longer be seen as ‘property’ at the ‘marriage market’. Instead the ‘bride owns herself’, which gives her room to bargain (Edlund and Lägerlof 2006:2). Although this idea fits well into the hypothesis of G.E. Howard (1904), put forth by Goody (1983), proposing a historic shift from enslaving mates, to paying for them (bride price), to a payment from husband to wife (dower), and in a next step to the decision of a woman to marry a man and bringing along her own property (dowry), in reality those different marriage payments often coincide and/or mingle with inheritance systems. And although quite a few articles hint at a shift from bride price to dowry (Goody 1983:240-61; Hughes 1985; Anderson 2007; Bell 1998:206-8), some argue that the dowry should not be seen as a marriage payment at all, but is a gift parents ‘endow’ their daughter with, whenever social and economic status differences are at stake, and parents want their daughters to ‘marry up’ (Duran Bell). A shift from bride price to dower would, in this light, seem much more probable and less encompassing than a shift from bride price to dowry, in which the exchanges practically reverse.


The dower in Europe, in contrast with the Islamic Mahr (also a marriage exchange from groom to bride, but standing apart from the one-eigth of the property he leaves his wife at death), is related to inheritance from the groom at the moment of death, rather than being a marriage payment provided at the time of marriage. This focus on future events, on the provision for widows at the time of marriage, tells us several things. On the one hand the provision accounts for a long-term view of marriage. Furthermore, it shows that a man (and not her family or his family) is held accountable for his wives’ social security, even after his own death. On the other hand, the payment is not necessarily handed over to the wife during her husband’s life, provided the gift is well documented. It is well possible that an initial payment made on the morning after the wedding, has been gradually replaced by a visit to a notary, who documented the gift, which would only have to be paid out at death. The dower, as such, has preliminary elements of a modern time prenuptial agreement and focuses on the inheritance and support of the woman in the case her husband dies, even more than on the property brought to the union. And although the disappearance of formal marriage exchanges has never received much attention, a shift from marriage exchanges to prenuptial agreements and marriage contracts is conceivable.


In North-Western Europe, the forming of a new household takes place at marriage, whereas the dissolving of old households usually takes place when all members of the household have died. The European marriage pattern has very clear implications for the (re)distribution of property; while extended households tend to split or merge, but rarely start from scratch or dissolve (and thus are for the greater part perpetual), the property that is needed to start a neolocal household is considerable, and its break down is likely to cause an immediate redistribution of property. Since every marriage counts for a new household to be set up and every death of a widow or widower puts an end to a household, those are regular and foreseen events that do not only count for a long-term preparation before marriage, but also for a reflection on inheritance.  


Apart from changing the strategies of heirship and compelling individual consent at marriage, the church also provided an alternative for the family-household in the form of convents. Kirshner and Molho affirm that girls that went to a convent were considered ‘dead’, while the convent received their families dowry at entering, emphasizing the importance of spiritual kinship (Kirshner and Molho 1978:409). Others pointed at the interesting exception convents formed to the rule of marriage. Hajnal remarks that a 100 per cent marriage rate would imply that even the insane, handicapped and blind eventually find a partner (Hajnal 1965). Hughes, in turn, describes the convent as a place to store daughters away that are not marriageable (Hughes 1978:290). A thesis from the Netherlands suggests that entering a convent might have been much less expensive for the families of noble women than to have them married. Not only was marriage more expensive; it also posed a threat to the family property that was likely to disperse by handing over large dowries (Koch 1994). By setting up (female) convents families were able to keep their property together. Land donated to the church was save from dispersal and could still be profitable to the family (Goody, speaking of England, calls those convents ‘hereditary monasteries’).



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