Debates on marriage patterns

What stimulated young unmarried women in Western Europe to work outside their parents’ households?


In North Africa and the Middle East the notion of ‘honor’ is till today very much depending on the extended family-ties and ideas on what is acceptable marital behavior. In fact, this is a pattern found until recently in many Mediterranean countries, including Spain and Italy. Although sexuality (of women) is central to those moral honor codes, the focus is even more on a specific aspect of it: on female virginity. But even though today they largely disappeared, even in other parts of Europe those honor codes related to sexuality have existed. The morning gift (Dutch: morgengave, German: Morgengabe) of Germanic tribes such as the Visigoths and Lombards, tells us exactly how important virginity was; this gift from husband to wife on the morning after they consummated marriage, but only if the wife had proven to be a virgin, existed of moveable wealth, slaves (men and women), horses, weapons, houses, furniture, cloths and landed wealth (Hughes 1978:269). And although it is never mentioned as a form of honor related violence, we see that the breaking of those moral codes must have had repercussions as well (Hughes 1978:291), although the honor aspect might have influenced a much smaller set of people (i.e. parents, husband, the woman herself, her children, but not so much the extended family). Morals regarding female sexuality are very likely to have an impact on the age at which women (are forced to) marry, to prevent them from loosing their virginity or giving birth to bastards (the most obvious sign of lost virginity and sexual activity outside marriage).


Sending out daughters who reached puberty to work in other, often unrelated, households, holds a risk of them being raped or having sexual intercourse of free will, but outside marriage (since non of the servants were married). This is a risk parents in societies where virginity is extremely important for the honor of the extended family will never take. In the Middle East, with a focus on Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to a lesser extend in Northern Africa, even the ‘believed’ breaking of moral codes concerning virginity and chastity leads till today to severe repercussions of family members who feel the family honor is at stake. Those repercussions range from the seclusion of women, forced exile, psychological and physical violence, cutting of hair and/or noses, mutilation by hydrochloric acid, setting fire to women using gasoline, driving them to suicide by hanging or taking in poison, to murdering them by stoning, with knifes or guns (it must be added that ‘honor related violence’ is by no means part of a Muslim tradition, although the moral codes surrounding marriage propagated in Islam might suggest so; we also find this tradition among Christians and Jews and the bible is much more explicit on adultery and repercussions (stoning) than the Quran, which does not mention this practice).


In Africa and the Middle East, the very fact that virginity is so important counts for the preference of early marriage for girls; the sooner they marry, the smaller the risk of extra-marital pregnancies. The practice of child-marriages, or teenage marriages, however, is not solely tied to ‘morals’. Early marriage is, in fact, not void of economic aspects having to do with marriage payments and/or division of (family-) property, or with political alliances. In societies were it is permitted to marry close family members, such as maternal or paternal cousins or the children of brothers or sisters (nieces), those endogamic marital strategies often serve to keep property in the family. Since the church restricted such marriages in North-Western Europe as early as the seventh century (Goody 1983) this might have had an important effect on marriage strategies and marriage payments in this part of Europe. Only among the rich and influential of Europe endogamous as well as child marriages continued to exist. Whereas virginity in Europe was also important, this did not withhold parents from sending their daughters out to work in other households. The question is whether, in a time women married late, with little or no contraceptives available, one would expect the effect of the life-cycle service to account for a rise in extramarital pregnancies resulting in child abandonment, infanticide, abortion and/or a considerable amount of bastards/illegitimate children. Were those aspects actually part of the societies where the EMP prevailed and if not, why? Evidence from our time reveals that girls up to the 70s were, for instance, locked away in Irish convents (the Magdalena asylums) at the suspicion of having a sexual relationship before marriage. And even in Western Europe it took the sexual revolution to get rid of the idea that sexuality was synonymous with marriage. So what gave Western European girls the incentive to go out to work in other peoples households?


Secondly, this question, apart from a moral approach, asks for an economic approach: was there something specific about the labor market that asked for a female workforce? As is proposed by Goldberg in van Zanden and De Moor (2009) the situation in England after the plague of 1348 produced ‘an influx of unmarried women into the towns’ to fill the labor shortage.



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