Research Themes - Marriage Patterns

The European Marriage Pattern (EMP)


The European Marriage Pattern has first been described by Hajnal in 1965. Although Hajnal did not give any details on how he thought this European Marriage Pattern had come into existence, he mentioned three features as being central to this pattern: the first being a high age at marriage for both men and women, the second being ‘neolocality’ and the third a very large number of singles that never married at all. Hajnal’s article has been cited over and over again. His ideas have been criticized, abused (fora on the internet promoting Hajnal’s EMP combined with figures on urbanization and industrialization into a debate on race, trying to proof ‘germanic’ supremacy), as well as refined, by adding some more features. 


Features of the EMP


A) A high age at marriage for both men and women


The first feature is a high age at marriage for both men and women: the mean age at first marriage for women is over 23 and the mean age of men  is over 26 (Hajnal 1982: 452). In his article ‘European Marriage Patterns in perspective’, Hajnal gives but two features of the EMP (Hajnal 1965: 101):


  1. a high age at marriage
  2. a high proportion of people who never marry at all


His article, however, explores those features thoroughly, raising many questions for further research.

Peter Laslett adds to this feature the high age of mothers during child-birth (Laslett 1977: 13). Such a high age at childbirth, however, can be seen as a direct consequence of the high age at marriage.


B) A small age gap between spouses


A small age gap between spouses is actually not a feature John Hajnal (1965) mentioned as a specific feature of the European Marriage Pattern. However, Hajnal hinted at the large age gap between spouses as found in non-EMP areas. It was Peter Laslett who added the spousal age gap to the list of features of the EMP: ‘The age gap between spouses. In the West the number of years separating husband and wife has always been relatively few, with relatively high proportion of wives older than their husbands, and marriage tending towards the companionate.’ (Laslett 1977:13) See also the project of Sarah Carmichael.


C) Neolocality and nuclear households


John Hajnal mentions this feature, but phrases it as follows: ‘After marriage a couple are in charge of their household (the husband is head of household)’ (Hajnal 1982: 452). Peter Laslett adds the term 'nuclear' (Laslett 1977: 13) and uses it as the basis for his own hypothesis on nuclear hardship:


‘The phrase ‘nuclear hardship’ or ‘nuclear-family hardship’ has become fairly common in recent discussion of the historical functions of kinship and the family. The concept refers in general to difficulties imposed upon individuals when social rules require them to live in nuclear families. Among such rules, indeed lying at the very basis of the nuclear-family system, are neo-local marriage practices which lay it down that every person when marrying has to leave the parental household and join in the formation of a new household.’ (Laslett 1988:153).


D) Monogamy, exogamy, and free will at marriage


Although both features are taken for granted in the European context, since they have been in place for a long time, even before one could speak of the European Marriage Pattern, they are definitely paramount to the European Marriage Pattern. All three features have in fact been reinforced by the Catholic Church (Goody 1983).


E) Large numbers of singles


This feature was first formulated and explored by John Hajnal in his article ‘European Marriage Patterns in perspective’ (1965) as one of the two most important elements of the EMP. Hajnal sees the universality of marriage as a feature of non-European Marriage Patterns. In his first article on the EMP Hajnal defines this feature as: ‘a high proportion of people who never marry at all’ (Hajnal 1965: 101).


F) Presence of non-kin within households


John Hajnal states that, in EMP areas, young people often circulate between households as servants (Hajnal 1982: 452). Peter Laslett sees the ‘presence as fully recognized members in a significant proportion of households of persons not belonging to the immediate family or even to the kin’ as an element of the EMP, but does not draw any conclusions regarding EMP household formation. Furthermore he defines those non-kin household members foremost as servants, and sees the life-cycle service as a peculiarity in the individual life cycle.’ (Laslett 1977: 13) In our research we go one step further and describe non-kin inclusive family households as a specific category.


Origins of change in marriage patterns


How do marriage pattern change? If a European Marriage Pattern came into existence (we assume it has not always been present and gradually spread over Europe, starting somewhere between 1400 and 1650 (Hajnal 1965: 122)), then what triggered such a transition? Suggestions hint at the role of religion, (Germanic) law, the Black Death (Hanawalt 1986), urbanization and pastoralization (Voigtländer and Voth 2009: 251-2), a growing demand of female labour power as well as financial and labour market dependency (De Moor and van Zanden 2010), the role of different forms of agriculture, or a breakdown of ties with the extended family household. Goody, for instance, has demonstrated the considerable influence sixth century church reforms have had on family ties; banning endogamy as well as polygamy (prohibiting men to have concubines), forbidding remarriage, adoption as well as wet-nursing, thus delimiting the possible number of heirs and simultaneously stimulating ‘spiritual kinship’ in an attempt to accumulate church funds (Goody 1983:42-75). Goody also emphasized the importance of a transition from labor intensive hoe agriculture (Africa) as compared to less labor intensive plough agriculture (Europe and Asia) causing different marital preferences, specifically in the form of polygamy in Africa and monogamy in Europe and Asia (Goody 1977).


Relation between honor and marriage patterns


Honor is an element that is often put forth to explain the difference between social relationships in North Western Europe and Mediterranean societies (cf. Schneider 1971; Reher 1998; Viazzo 2003). But a concept such as honor, and more specifically honor that is based on female sexuality, also has to be seen in the context of kinship/family ties. Is it possible to see a decline in the importance of, for instance, ‘honor’ as an indicator of the decline of the importance of family ties? Is the strength of family ties proportional to a system in which ‘forced marriages’ as well as ‘marital payments’ are paramount? And if so, what triggered a shift from the notion of marriage as a family affair, to the notion of marriage as a private affair? What developments, considering the fact that they seemed to have disappeared almost without upheaval, caused bridal payments to have disappeared completely from North Western European territory? The dichotomy between ‘honor based, hierarchical, patriarchic, collectivistic societies, where marital payments and forced marriages prevail till modern times, and where marriage is almost universal’ versus ‘shame based, egalitarian, individualistic societies, without marital payments, free will at marriage as well as free partner choice, and a high percentage of people that will never marry at all’ has generated quite some output from anthropologists (cf. Bossen 1988; Nagengast 1997; Kagitçibasi 1997; Akpinar 2033). Historians, however, have never seriously considered what triggered such developments in Europe in the first place, provided the difference evolved and was not present from the start. We think a research into the mentioned aspects might greatly contribute to an insight in changing marriage patterns.

Our research


Our research therefore considers all the different aspects of the European Marriage Pattern and the ways in which it contrasts with other Marriage Patterns around the world. Furthermore we study the spread of marriage patterns by using genealogical data in an innovative way. Research into genealogy, provided the data contains sufficient details, might present the possibility to follow certain aspects of marriage patterns throughout time and regions. Such a research might for instance give us a clue whether marital age was foremost influenced by generations (from mother to daughter) or following a pattern of regional difference (migrants incorporating regional patterns). For this part of the research we work in close cooperation with Corry Gellatly, who collected a large number of Gedcom files.




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> Introduction page Research Theme

> Marriage Patterns

> The European Marriage Pattern (EMP)

> Household formation patterns throughout Europe

> Non-kin inclusive family households

> Nuclear hardship, nuclear benefits?