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Marriage and Fertility, European Views

MARRIAGE AND FERTILITY, EUROPEAN VIEWS.

Prior to the nineteenth century, the image of the patriarchal family was a crucial component of both moral injunction (as in the Judeo-Christian fourth commandment to "honor thy father and mother") and political organization. Marriage was the keystone in the arch of social solidarities; it also signaled the creation of a new reproductive unit. For the individuals involved, marriage was at once a moment of social and personal transformation. To be married was an essential attribute of adult status. However the sexual bond at the core of these marriages was more problematic.

Judeo-Christian Tradition

Its inheritance of intertestamentary Judaism, more particularly from the radical fringes that had a fanatical devotion to self-abnegation and ritual purity, gave ancient Christianity a profoundly ambivalent attitude toward the body and sexuality. As Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians, it was better to marry than to burn with desire (1 Cor. 7:33). Marital sexual relations were given a grudging acceptance although it was made clear that holy activity was incompatible with them: "Do not refuse each other except by mutual consent, and then only for an agreed time, to leave yourselves free for prayer" (1 Cor. 7:5). This ambivalence towards sexuality was emphasized in Saint Paul's message to fathers: "He that giveth his daughter in marriage doeth well, but he that giveth her not doeth better" (1 Cor. 7:38). The Pauline ideology of sexual austerity was later confirmed within the newly established, fourth-century Church by such powerful prince-bishops as Ambrose of Milan, who was Augustine's patron and mentor. He observed, "Marriage is honourable but celibacy is more honourable; that which is good need not be avoided, but that which is better should be chosen."

Although the continuities with its original religious milieu are striking so, too, were the changesChristianity radically broke away from its Judaic and pagan inheritance in separating descent from reproduction. Christianity was from its beginnings a religion of revelation that believers joined by being reborn in Christ's grace. For Christians, therefore, expectations of salvation were not linked with lineage nor were the achievements of ancestors passed on to descendants. Because charisma was not transmitted, Christians were not enjoined to maintain the patriline as a religious task nor were they expected to continue the cult of the dead through physical or fictitious descendants. Its novel restrictions on the ancient practices of endogamy, adoption, and concubinage made it more difficult for the propertied classes in the Roman Empire to transfer property within the family over generations because it closed the option of creating tight, endogamous knots of restricted elementary families within which wealth could be secured in the face of demographic uncertainties.

The early modern European family system was related to the unique Christian emphasis on rebirth in Christ. This religious concept wrapped both family life and sexuality in the institutional structure of the Church. The central position of baptism in Christian society was driven by the logic of its theology that every Christian was born carnally and in sin but was then reborn spiritually in Christ's grace. Baptism was a second birth that provided a rite of entry into the Church and full citizenship in the secular world.

This holy relationship and the accompanying incest taboos found fertile soil north of the Alps where they were grafted onto Frankish kinship systems. Papal decretals, royal capitularies, episcopal statutes, canonical collections, penitentials, and sermons continuously reiterated the point that spiritual kinsmen/women were sexually off-limits to one another. In this way, the northwest European system of family formation decisively turned its back on inherited traditions of endogamy.

Puberty and Marriage

Historical demographers have provided further evidence that the early modern, northwestern European practice of deferred marriage among women was not common in earlier periods among Mediterranean populations in which few girls seem to have delayed marriage much beyond puberty. In ancient Mesopotamia, for example, teenaged girls were married to adult men in their thirties as was the case among the Jews whose intimate lives have been chronicled in the remnants of the Cairo genizah. One gains some appreciation of the rabbinical injunction to early marriage for women from the following extract from the Mesopotamian Talmud: "Concerning the man who loves his wife as himself, who honors her more than himself, who guides his sons and daughters in the right path, and arranges for them to be married around the period of puberty, of him it is written: Thou shalt know that thy tent is at peace. "

Among the Romansor at least the elitethere was a pronounced inequality in spousal marriage ages. Girls who had just reached menarche were frequently married to men in their mid-twenties. Similar findingsbased on Inquisition registers, Renaissance taxation records, marriage contracts from the Toulouse area, and fourteenth-century Macedonian documentshave all described a situation in which teenaged girls were married to men ten years their senior. Early ages at first marriage for women continued to be a characteristic of eastern Europe and many parts of the Mediterranean basin as late as 1900.

Consensual Unions

The emergence of the discrete, single-family household was a landmark, which coincided with the Church's insistence on consensual unions. It separated the couple from its wider networks of clan and lineage thereby making the reproduction of families into an affair of two individuals although for most propertied peasants this was more a matter of ideology than everyday life. But because the vast majority of the peasantry was neither sufficiently well endowed with land nor likely to be subject to the same manorial controls, a treatment of the solid core of the customary tenants must be balanced with an even-handed consideration of those who were marginal, downwardly mobile, and often free.

There is little evidence to suggest that seignorial authorities arranged the peasantry's marriages or intervened in their family formations. If anything, in fact, the opposite appears closer to the mark. The peasantry may have been valued because of their ability to breed but the choice of partner seems to have usually been their own concern. The lord's concern was to make sure that extramanorial marriages did not deplete his landed estate by draining it of present and future labor power and revenue sources. In this way, the marital horizons for the customary tenantry were limited by the political framework of feudalism, which bore down with unequal pressure on sons and daughters, and much more heavily on the first-born than on younger siblings. It was not enough to discover an attractive match; it was also necessary to find a suitable match. Marriage negotiations involved a four-sided decision-making processtwo individuals and two sets of parentsin which no one player had veto-power: It was probably as difficult for a young woman to resist the imprecations of her parents as it was for a young man to sway his. If all these conditions were met, then courtship would lead to marriage; and marriage would lead to the creation of a new family unit.

Oddly the personal, sexual, and marital freedom of noninheriting younger siblings must have acted as a solvent on the restrictive powers of the older generation. Their sociability, seemingly characterized by flirtatious behavior and a casual attitude toward premarital sex and illegitimacy, was the concern of moralists and the fear of parents. The generational battle in the homes of the peasant patriarchs could not have been uninfluenced by this social milieusons and daughters had in their disposition over themselves a card of their own to play. Moreover this youthful card was enhanced by the Church's rules of consensual marriage, which sanctioned clandestine unions. Because a troth (promise) made a binding marriage in the eyes of the Church, the best-laid plans of a peasant patriarch could come unstuck if he was blind to the urges of his son or his daughter. This suggests that the culture of maypoles, youth guilds, dancing, festivals, games, and even the solemnities of the Church's ritual calendar all gave a measure of bargaining power to those who had reached puberty. It further suggests that parental power was not absolute, even if it was backed by the threat of disinheritance.

Having entered the marriage market and picked an appropriate partner, the courtship process slid into a familiar sequence of customary conventions.

After the hand fasting & makyng of the contracte, the church goyng & weddyng shulde not be deffered to long, lest the wicked sowe hys vngracious sede in the mene season. For in some places ther is such a maner, wel worthy to be rebuked, that at the hand fastynge there is made a great feast & superfluous bancket, & even the same night are the two hand fasted persones brought & layd together, yea certayne wekes afore they go to the church. (Howard, p. 349)

In cases where property was a paramount concern, marriage contracts were drawn up and earnest money was exchanged. These details were often recorded in the full publicity of the manor court. Occasionally eager peasant patriarchs enlisted the court's services while their children were still infants. But such instances are exceptionalthe Church forbade child marriage since it was considered impossible for a minor to give his/her informed consent.

Marriage Covenant

The couple's marriage covenant had several dimensionsfirst there was the settlement of material goods and landed property; second there was the public trothplight by which the couple announced their intentions; and third there was the wedding in the Church and the ring ceremony. In most cases, these three stages followed one another in an orderly succession. However there was no need for a settlement, a public trothplight, or a clerically sanctioned wedding. In terms of both the common law and the Church, a private agreement between the two partners was sufficient to constitute a legal, Christian marriage.

Why, then, did publicity surround each and every one of the three stages? First marriage was a rite of passagefrom dependency to adulthood in the eyes of the couple's family and the wider community; second publicity sanctioned the match and was a means of granting approval to it; third publicity eliminated hidden impediments to a successful marriage, such as previous agreements and duplicitous scheming, by bringing the agreement into full view; fourth publicity and approval gave the match both legal and moral standing before the law and the Church; fifth publicity legitimated all subsequent children of their union; and sixth publicity and communal approval enabled the servile population to enlist the Church on their side in the event that seignorial authorities tried to thwart their choice of marriage partners.

It is stretching matters to suggest that peasant marriages were characterized by "rough equality" (Power, p 75). The peasants' marital economy was a "partnership in which each person contribute[d] a specialized skill that complements the other" (Hanawalt, p. 17). These women were expected to do a double day of labor and were without independent civil rights within the peasant community. It was, for all intents and purposes, impossible for women to act in the public sphere. If this was a "partnership," then it was an unequal one. The expectation of "partnership" played a significant role in joining together men and women of roughly similar ages. And, most likely, this expectation was a crucial ingredient in making consent on the part of the prospective husband and wife something more than lip service. Bad as it was, gendered inequality in feudal society was still an improvement for women compared to the earlier situation in pre-Christian antiquity when monogamy was uncommon, adultery was frequent, and divorce was routine. Furthermore for the unfree, marital breakup was subject to the impulse of the spouses' masters, while the servile population surrendered humiliating payments for "wife-rent" to their lords.

Later Marriage

Prior to the advent of parish registers in the sixteenth century, very little is known about ages at first marriage for either men or women. Surveying the published statistical evidence from fifty-four studies, Michael Flinn describes an early modern northwestern, Europe family system in which the average age at first marriage for women fluctuated around twenty-five. Flinn does not provide measurements to assess the spread of the distribution around this midpoint, but other studies have determined the standard deviation to be about six years meaning that about two-thirds of all northwest European women married for the first time between twenty-two and twenty-eight. A few teenaged brides were counterbalanced, as it were, by a similar number of women who married in their thirties. Perhaps one woman in ten never married. In the demographer's jargon, that tenth woman was permanently celibate. This unique marriage strategy was vitally important for two reasons: First it provided a "safety valve"or margin for errorin the ongoing adjustment between population and resources that characterized the reproduction of generations and social formations; and second it meant that the role of women was less dependent and vulnerable insofar as they were marrying as young adults, not older children.

The Demographic Revolution of the eighteenth century produced a declining age at first marriage for women and a tremendous drop in the number who were "permanently celibate." In the preindustrial, demo-economic system of reproduction, about three-fifths of all families were likely to have had an inheriting son while another fifth would have had an inheriting daughter. Thus about one-fifth of all niches in the landed economy became vacant in each generation. In the seventeenth century, infrequent, late marriage was connected with low levels of illegitimacy whereas in the post-1750 period, frequent, early marriage was associated with skyrocketing levels of illegitimacy and bridal pregnancy. The demographic implications of cottage industrialization were as much the result of more frequent marriages, by more people, as of earlier and more fertile ones. In addition rural industrialization permitted married couples to stay together, while previously marriages were fragmentedand wives and children desertedbecause the plebeian family's economic base was weak and subject to cyclical strains. Industrialization permitted cottagers, who formed the backbone of many handicraft industries, to move into new zones of economic and social freedom, which translated into stabilization of their marriages.

There were other effects that resulted from independent shifts in the mortality schedule; not the least being the changing configuration of the age-pyramid, which rapidly broadened at its base. Better chances of child survival combined with the diminishing chance of marital breakup to swell the lower age groups at the end of the eighteenth century. Generations followed one another more quickly. This factor played no small role in contributing to the maintenance of high fertility rates.

Domesticity versus Men's Work

The family production unit's reliance on its own labor power merely served to expose it, nakedly, when the terms of trade swung violently against it after the mid-nineteenth century. Simple, repetitive tasks by which women and children had contributed significantly to the domestic economy of the peasant household inexorably declined in the face of competition from, first, specialized producers and, next, factory-based manufacturering. One of the most significant additions to the domestic economy was provided by spinningan activity of women and children; the mechanization of spinning in the last decade of the eighteenth century effectively demolished this cottage industry at the moment when population growth was creating increasing stress on the income of the semi-proletarian households. The birth pangs of industrial society sent shock waves into the very core of the cottagers' lives; the family work unit was inexorably superseded.

Women and children were doubly marginalized from the world of work. Gendered roles and age-stratified activities replaced the mutuality of the cottage. The ideology of domesticity provided the key entry-point for the new culture of bread-winning respectability.

Not only does it (i.e., agricultural labour) almost unsex a woman in dress, gait, manners, character, making her rough coarse, clumsy and masculine; but it generates a further very pregnant mischief by infitting or indisposing her for a woman's proper duties at home.

This quotation from the "Report on the Employment of Children, Young Persons and Women in Agriculture" (1867), a British document, resonates in the reader's ears. At the heart of the writers' concerns is a worry that the supposed "natural" character of rural, proletarian women was threatened by "masculine" work. Such women would not only be "unsexed" but also socially deranged since they would be indisposed to "a woman's proper duties at home." Powerful as this prescription might have been, it was essentially beside the point because such working women had never conformed to bourgeois expectations nor did they give "femininity" more importance than family subsistence needs, which were always their primary focus.

In contrast to the rough-and-ready morality of the field and street, female mentalities were reeducated to make the cozy hearth a proper home. Work was reclassified as a masculine endeavor; masculinity was tested in the labor process and judged by the harmony of domestic discipline and its respectable independence. Propriety was to be the moral property of women who were reformulated as model wives and mothers. The vice of the bad home, and the virtue of the good home, could be just as easily translated to descriptions of the good and bad wife: one was chaotic, promiscuous, unsettled, sensual, dirty, and unhealthy; the other was orderly, modest, stable, rational, clean, and well. And what was true of the wife in her home determined the family also.

In French towns of Lille, Mulhouse, Rouen, and Saint Chamondas in the English coal-mining region of County Durhamthe proliferation of proletarians disturbed social policy makers. Nineteenth-century social reformers regarded the menacing features of urban, industrial society to reside in a realm of human behavior removed from the public theaters in which working-class challenges to the status quo usually took place. Malthusian social policy has ever since been based on the understanding that the disorderly family was the problem while the ordered married family was the solution to the population question. The personal was politicized. The workingclass family's profligacyits population powerwas thus the outer/public face of its inner/private lack of control.

Reduction in Family Size

The organization of national social systems of education and welfare during the last decades of the nineteenth century combined with the spread of public health measures, which radically changed children's chances of survival, to provide the historical context in which the ongoing revolution in the family was keynoted by the decline in fertility. The average English woman marrying in the 1860s had 6.16 children; her daughters, marrying in the 1890s, had an average of 4.13 children; her granddaughters, marrying in the 1920s, had on average 2.31 children. The decline of marital fertility was both an innovation and an adjustment; it not only responded to macrolevel changes in social organization but also represented one of the primary ways in which individual men and women acted to make their own history. Not only were the numbers of children dropping dramaticallyand almost all of these children surviving infancybut the period of the family cycle devoted to child-raising was likewise abridged. The very nature of married life changed in response to these demographic innovations.

Some demographers have explained this phenomenon in terms of a shift from "quantity to quality" in relation to the time, energy, and resources devoted to each individual child; but something else was at work. A Manchester woman's 1945 observation weaves together several threads into something like a whole cloth: "People wish to have a small family on account of public opinion which has now hardened into custom. It is customaryand has been so during the last twenty-five years or soto have two children and no more if you can avoid it. A family of five or six children loses in prestige and, some think, in respectability. It is on behalf of their children that parents feel this most keenly" (Mass-Observation, pp. 7475). She captures, first the temporality of change ("During the past twenty-five years or so"namely, since the end of World War I); second the reconstruction of mentalities that have "now hardened into custom"; third the interpenetration of the public and the private, neatly encapsulated by the use of those notoriously elastic terms "public opinion" and "respectability"; fourth "on behalf of their children" joins the sentimentalization of childhood together with the exigencies of human-capital formation; and fifth that it is both "parents"the respectable husband and his Malthusian wifewho decide together to control their fertility within marriage.

Fertility control was possible without the active involvement of both husbands and wivesthe widespread prevalence of abortion stands in testimony to the studied indifference of many menbut the sentimentalization of the family made it more likely that methods of control would come within the parameters of conjugal agreement. Because most of the decline in marital fertility was the product of two ancient practicescoitus interruptus and abstinenceit is clearly important to pay close attention to the changing temper of communication between husbands and wives. Cultural forces, especially the "regendering" of the marital union, both narrowed the scope of the marital union and intensified its internal dynamics. The texture of the intimate relationship within marriage was not just important in its own right but also of crucial significance in reconstructing attitudes to the quality of married life, particularly in relation to the importance of parenting. In contrast to older images that emphasized the importance of work and kinship alliance, modern marriage was portrayed as the romantic union of two individuals. The modern family of "mom, dad, and the kids" was based on the idea that romance was not inimical to marriage and the experience of childhood was massively reimagined by this transition to privacy, domesticity, and, above all, child-centeredness.

New Status to Wedding

Indeed in the course of modernizationroughly coinciding with urbanization, industrialization, and the rise of the modern state, that is, from about 1750, and with increasing intensity after 1870there was a gradual elevation in the importance of the wedding. In the earlier social formations, the wedding was the final stage in a marriage process by which two people pledged themselves to one another in the full view of family, friends, and community. The rise of mass society had the curious effect of denying publicity to the marriage while creating a need for it. In the urban world, the newly independent couple re-created the big wedding that had characterized village life. "Stag parties," "hen parties," and "showers" became common and, among an increasingly secular population, the church wedding became an important festivity in the course of the twentieth century. Most women were profoundly influenced by this invented custom that has had a powerful impact on popular consciousness. Mass mediamagazines and, above all, moviesglorified the white wedding to make it into a social ideal, not only a right of passage but also a statement of social and individual respectability. This respectability was, of course, deeply gendered as those women who became "brides" were decked out in a glossy, flowing white satin dress and veiled in lace; their outward appearance emphasized purity and innocence upon entering the married state.

Different Family Arrangements

Yet just as the image of the white wedding was at its zenith, in the third quarter of the twentieth century, other forces were at work redefining the culture of marriage. The modern sentimental marriage is, in the early twenty-first century, widely perceived to be in crisis. Since the late-twentieth century, society seems to be in the process of making a different social system in a global world, one whose ripples can be felt in the most personal organization of private experience. In the world past, pluralism was the product of uncontrollable demography abetted by the rigidity of social hierarchies; in the world of the early-twenty-first century, by way of contrast, familial pluralism appears to be the product of centrifugal forces of individualism that castigate the traditional marriage as being both repressive and antisocial.

If, as Jean-Louis Flandrin suggests, the early modern state pivoted on the "government of families," and if, as Jacques Donzelot relates, the modern state practices "government through the family," then it can be argued that in the early twenty-first century the evolution is towards another configurationgovernment without the married family. The language of the sentimental family, as well as the invented custom of public weddings, has been borrowed indiscriminately by people whose private lives were cloaked in this time-honored disguise. Even though the majority of both males and females regard the nuclear family as the sentimental site for parenting, one in four births takes place out of wedlock. Single-parent households (usually headed by women) have become so prevalent that as many as 50 percent of children may live apart from their fathers at some time in their lives. More marriages are terminated by divorce than by death. A sociological discussion estimated that there are as many as 200 different "family" arrangements recognized by Americans and Europeans. (Bernardes, p. 192195). In the early twenty-first century, American religious and political leaders are also grappling with demands for same-sex marriage, yet another indication of the transformation of the institution. Indeed the debate itself, which has raised issues of inheritance, parenting, care for the sick and dying, immigration and citizenship, romance, love, and the desire for weddings as rites of passage and public events, reveals the contradictory definitions of marriage and the many purposes that this institution continues to fulfill.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, then, the loss of prescriptive unanimity is thus a matter of fact. Those who mourn that loss cannot forget the sentimental family; yet the cost exacted by modern memory is that socially nostalgic conservatives have mistaken the image of the sentimental family for the continuity and contradictions of past realities.

See also Childhood and Child Rearing ; Demography ; Family ; Gay Studies ; Love, Western Notions of .

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David Levine

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