The European Marriage Pattern

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David Levine

The demographic keystone of the northwestern European system of family formation was the prolonged hiatus between puberty and marriage. Certain statistics provide a measure which distinguishes the creation of new families in northwestern Europe from that in other societies: Only a tiny minority of girls married as teenagers, and an even smaller number of all brides were mature women who married for the first time in their thirties. Perhaps one woman in ten never married. The identification and description of this particular pattern of family formation is among the great achievements of scholarship in historical demography. The marriage system is called "neo-Malthusian" advisedly. Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) theorized that population grows at a faster rate than its resources; if that growth is not checked in some way—disease, war, moral strictures—disintegration and poverty follow. Malthus stressed the prudential check as a factor of crucial importance. In Malthus's eighteenth-century England, the check was late marriage: women usually married for the first time when they were in their mid-twenties.

Much of the force of H. J. Hajnal's pioneering 1965 study came from his singular insight that northwestern Europe was different, although he reminded his readers that the idea was hardly novel. Indeed Malthus had made that idea one of the cornerstones of his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), which itself built on the arguments of previous commentators. Hajnal's achievement, though, was to subject the Malthusian rhetoric to systematic analysis using statistical information. In so doing he opened a doorway to new research and theorizing.

Historical demographers have provided evidence regarding the northwestern European practice of deferred marriage among women. Secondarily, the northwestern European family apparently lived in nuclear households without kin. Marriage was almost always the occasion for forming a new household. Family formation, therefore, was a double-sided process in which the new couple not only left their parents' residences but also founded their own household.

This system of family formation was quite unlike the systems that prevailed among Mediterranean, eastern European, or non-European populations. Few girls in these other populations seem to have delayed their marriages much beyond puberty, and residences often contained joint families composed of two or more married couples. The families sometimes extended horizontally, as when brothers lived in the same household, and sometimes they extended vertically, as when fathers and sons lived together under the same roof.

Hajnal noted that early ages at first marriage for women continued to be a characteristic of eastern Europe as late as 1900. Three-quarters of western European women were unmarried at age twenty-five, whereas east of a line running from Trieste to St. Petersburg three-quarters of the women were married by age twenty-five. Alan Macfarlane suggested that it is impossible to explain the differences between demographic zones in Europe before the nineteenth century by physical geography, by political boundaries, or by technology. Where the age at first marriage for women was high, the northwestern and central regions, that later age correlates with a low proclivity for living in complex, multiple-family households. In contrast, where the age at first marriage for women was early, the Mediterranean and eastern zones, the propensity was high for residential complexity.

Macfarlane thus rejected a materialist explanation of the relationship between family formation and household organization or modes of reproduction and modes of production. Instead, he concentrated on the role of broad cultural and ethnic regions that coincided with the spatial distribution of distinctive family systems. Macfarlane derived his explanation by grafting Hajnal's studies of household formation, which stressed an east-west division, onto Jean-Louis Flandrin's findings about a similar north-south line that split France in two. Macfarlane recognized that this tripartite cultural division seems to find a deep resonance in Peter Burke's 1978 sketch of the geography of popular cultural regions in early modern Europe. In the 1970s Peter Laslett, who pioneered work on household structure, suggested another partition. He added a fourth region comprising central Europe, where female marriage was late but household structure was complex rather than nuclear as in northwestern Europe.

These divisions in systems of domestic organization, Hajnal's two, Macfarlane's three, and Laslett's four, have clarified that the age at first marriage for women is the keystone in the arch of family formation strategies. They also ask another question: What happened to the young women who did not marry at puberty? Adolescent and young adult servants were common in the later-marrying northwestern and central regions but were uncommon in the Mediterranean and irrelevant in the east. The age at first marriage of women, therefore, not only had profound demographic implications but was also a pivot on which the reproduction of different cultural systems turned.

How did this distinctive family culture of nuclear households and deferred marriage take root in the northwestern corner of Europe? While research has uncovered much about the distribution and shape of this system of reproduction, its origins remain an unanswered question. Paradoxically, this key question cannot be answered with more statistical studies. Rather, its answer lies in the social-historical contexts of marriage and family formation and nonstatistical sources.


Ancient concepts of family and household reflected the social realities of a slaveholding society that was also fundamentally sexist. Patriarchal dominance was characteristic of the immensely influential Aristotelian tradition, which envisaged a hierarchically ordered body whose highest form was an independent, property owning, adult male. The rise of Christian society brought changes in domestic life, but the break with antiquity was by no means complete in terms of the moral economy of patriarchy since, in the New Testament, the father of the house is the despot or absolute lord over the house. Paul, in particular, was outspoken in his misogyny. In combination with the demise of slavery, the Christian model of marriage created a social mutation of profound importance. Christianity broke away from its Judaic and pagan inheritance in separating descent from reproduction. As a religion of revelation, it linked salvation neither with lineage nor with ancestral achievements. 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. However, Christianity's negative view of human sexuality developed into a new set of taboos regarding marriage and incest.

In contrast with the decentralized organization of the ancient church, the Carolingian church embarked on a new ecclesiastical strategy that touched on every aspect of conduct, especially with regard to economic, family, and sexual relationships. The Carolingians' ambitious plans to remodel Christian society in the image of a secular monastery failed, but this model provided the inspiration for the Gregorian Reformation, which occurred in the eleventh century when the Carolingian Empire disintegrated and power slipped from the central monarchy into the hands of the territorial nobility. In feudal families, unlike in their Carolingian predecessors, primogeniture and the indivisibility of the patrimony became the keys to their lineage strategy.

Georges Duby has argued that the man responsible for a family's honor tried to preserve its prestige by exercising strict control over the marriages of the young men and women subject to his authority. He handed over the women quite willingly but allowed only some of the men to contract lawful marriages, thus forcing most of the knights to remain bachelors. Of particular importance in this process was the shift from horizontal to vertical modes of reckoning kinship. The male line was imagined to stretch back to reach a single progenitor. Kings and great feudal princes further tightened the bond of vassal friendship by using marriage to make alliances and to provide their most faithful followers with wives. Above all marriage was a way of striking out on one's own. Some knights, by taking a wife or receiving one at the hands of their lords, escaped from another man's house and founded their own. A new organization of family life was thus a major characteristic of the feudal revolution that turned the ruling class into small rival dynasties rooted in their estates and clinging to the memory of the male ancestors. In this political disintegration, mirrored in the sexual and dynastic tensions that circulated through the great houses, ecclesiastical reformers sought to enhance the social role of the church and make it the arbiter of legitimation. Elevating marriage into a sacramental status removed men and women from the sphere in which unions were free, unregulated, and disorderly. Marriage was seen as a remedy for sexual desire, bringing order, discipline, and peace.

While much attention inevitably devolves upon the marital alliances and strategies of the upper class, the post-Gregorian church's marriage policies had a significant resonance for the lower orders, too. In establishing the centrality of consent in a Christian marriage, the canon law of marriage made the marital union easy to create, endowed it with serious consequences, and made divorce difficult. This was exactly the opposite of the situations in Roman and barbarian law. The Christian desire to evangelize the servile population, drawing it into the cultural domain of the church, was founded on a remarkably democratic principle, that all men and women, whether free or servile, were morally responsible agents whose sins were an abomination in the sight of God.

The preeminent meaning of familia in the early Middle Ages did not refer to "family" in the twentieth-century sense but rather to the totality of the lord's dependents. It was in relation to the orderly maintenance of stable domestic government among his dependent population that a lord extended regulation beyond the immediate tenant to include the peasant family. However, it is important to note that surveillance was most likely not conducted on a daily basis but rather as a more generalized maintenance of frontiers and boundaries within the social formation. In 1967 Marc Bloch pointed out that the slave was like an ox in the stable, always under a master's orders, whereas the villein or serf was a worker who came on certain days and who left as soon as the job was finished.

Around the year 1000 the rural population in northwest Europe consisted mostly of peasant farmers who lived in nuclear families. A marriage joined two individuals, not their families, and created a conjugal family, not a family alliance. In northwest Europe, marriage was tied to household formation, which was in turn connected to the young couple's ability to find an available niche in the local economy. By no means a homogenous social group, these nuclear families differed among themselves in the amount of land to which they had access. Additionally, over the course of their lives their households changed according to the rhythms of their family cycles. It seems that, when a household had too many mouths, it brought in servants as extra hands. According to Hajnal's analysis of spatial variation in household formation systems, the northwestern European households characteristically included a large number of coresident servants.

Because households in northwestern Europe were nuclear, youthful marriage on the Mediterranean model (the creation of joint households) was not an option. Why did peasant men marry women who were well past puberty, often in their mid-twenties? Why did they not marry teenagers, as in Mediterranean Europe? The answers require consideration of the socially constructed characteristics of a good wife and the role and responsibilities of a housewife. The deeper expectation was that a peasant woman would be more than a breeder. It may have been the case that a married woman's fecundity was her most valuable asset, but it is a different matter to suggest that her fecundity was more valuable than the labor she might contribute to the maintenance of the household or the property she brought into the marriage. From an early time a majority of the population was either landless or free from seigneurial control. Among this group, subsistence rather than feudal modes of patriarchy was the main impediment to the marital freedom of young women and men.


Scholars working on English feudal documents, called manorial court rolls, of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries denote an age at first marriage for women that was as much as a decade after puberty. The revisionists further suggest that the post–Black Death (after 1348) age at first marriage for women was a continuation of an earlier system of marriage and family formation whose essential outline is detectable in the populations surveyed in the manorial court rolls. The social world of marriage that the revisionists espouse is a "low-pressure" demographic regime that continued for centuries and that has been identified in demographic studies of parish registers. This low-pressure demographic regime was the same one that Malthus associated with the prudential check that he believed was the primary method of population control in his society. Indeed, he took that regime's existence for granted, never asking how or why it came into being.

A parochial system of vital registration began in the Renaissance. From this point forward the statistical record is reasonably complete and quite irrefutable in its conclusions regarding age at first marriage for women. Surviving parish registers from early modern northwestern Europe have been analyzed according to a method known as family reconstitution to provide a large database. Michael Flinn analyzed fifty-four village studies describing age at first marriage for women. They showed that the average fluctuated around twenty-five. The standard deviation in this sample was about six years, which means that about two-thirds of all northwest European women married for the first time between twenty-two and twenty-eight.

In the sixteenth century it was widely understood that an appropriate age at first marriage was well beyond puberty. In the "hometowns" of Reformation Germany, craft guilds limited access to marriage among their apprentices and journeymen and also linked marriage to acquisition of the skills and material resources that a master controlled. Young men's personal freedoms were formally regulated, and their energies were displaced into youth groups, Wanderjahre, and male sociability centered on the alehouse. Matriarchs kept respectable females under domestic surveillance. These practices were not peculiar to Germany or small towns, however. It is evident from the 1563 English "Statute of Artificers" that similar concerns were part of the Elizabethan state formation initiative:

Until a man grows unto the age of 24 years, he (for the most part though not always) is wild, without judgement, and not of sufficient experience to govern himself, nor (many times) grown unto the full or perfect knowledge of the art or occupation that he professes, and therefore has more need still to remain under government, as a servant and learner, than to become a ruler, as a master or instructor.

Some take wives and before they are 24 years of age, have three or four children, which often they leave to the parish where they dwell to be kept, and others fall to chopping, changing, and making of many unadvised bargains and more than they are able to encompass, so that by one means or another they do utterly undo themselves, in such wise that most of them do hardly recover the same while they live. Of all and which things many mischiefs and inconveniences do rise, grow, and daily increase in the common wealth, which might be easily avoided by binding young apprentices until their ages of 24 years.

Access to marriage was thus a part of an interconnected ensemble of social relations in which life-cycle stage, political entitlement, and material resources were poised in a fine balance.

People who deviated from these rules were identified and punished for their transgressions to prevent beggar-marriages based on nothing more than the fleeting attraction of two people. This, too, was the subject of legal attention. In 1589 an English statute prohibited the erection of cottages with less than four acres of attached land, which spoke directly to the patriarchal concern that feckless, landless youths would take serious matters of family formation into their own hands. Ministers of the state church alerted poor-law authorities whenever they were approached to perform marriages between such youths, and in a number of instances, the couples were forcibly separated. In a great many cases such marriages were prevented as the forces of patriarchal discipline closed ranks against the star-crossed lovers. If the young woman was pregnant, she was disowned and severely punished. Underlying these disciplinary actions was a pre-Malthusian sense that marriage was not only a noble estate but a socially responsible one not to be entered into lightly. These unspoken assumptions orchestrated the surveillance of marriage and family formation and remained unspoken because they were considered natural and right.

Parish register studies or family reconstitutions have revealed oscillations in the ages at which women first married. In England, for example, women's age at first marriage fell from an early eighteenth-century high point of over twenty-five to an early nineteenth-century low point of under twenty-three, coincidental with the expansionary phase of the first industrial revolution. The later period never experienced a preponderance of teenaged brides even though illegitimacy rates skyrocketed and bridal pregnancies became very common. The long hiatus between puberty and marriage, the central characteristic of the northwestern European family system, was not seriously challenged.


During the twentieth century researchers relegated explicit statistical comparisons to a secondary role and inquired into the motivations for behaving in the manner identified. In postfamine Ireland, for example, the decision to marry was the result of a complex interplay between the wider family network and socioeconomic opportunities related to the operation of the family holding, the provision of security, and the need for support in old age. Thus in postfamine Ireland the rising number of people who never married included those who controlled households and were tied down by obligations and also their siblings, who would have renounced their claims upon marriage. Each subgroup, for its own reasons, was more likely to remain permanently celibate. In balancing all the various aspects of their social stations, their decisions concerned whether or not they wanted to marry instead of whether or not they could afford marriage.

Understanding the social actors' own reasons is of crucial importance, and one person's reasons were not necessarily the same as another's. Hardly an earth-shaking concept, it does, however, demonstrate that the northwestern European marriage system deserves further study. Such a revisionist approach complements Hajnal's original strategy rather than subverting it.

In an original approach, Wally Seccombe in 1992 developed a scenario in which marriages among landholding peasants were negotiated freely by the four sides in the exchange, that is, the couple acting in their own interests and for their own reasons and the two sets of parents, who were trying to cement intrafamily alliances as matchmakers. In Seccombe's account each actor had a veto over the choices of others. This double veto dovetailed with the clerical concern that couples freely enter into marriages. Seccombe's scenario is perhaps less compelling in accounting for the marriage strategies of the landless sectors of the population, for whom parental agreement was of emotional but not economic importance, and, even in the heyday of feudalism the population included a substantial landless component. In the sixteenth century these landless people significantly outnumbered landholding peasants, and during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the ratio rose yet again.

Expanding economic opportunities made it possible for landless people, who had to live by their wits and by their labor, to contemplate early marriage, whereas stagnation left them on the outside looking in. External contingencies were in this way incorporated into the internal dynamics of family formation. The preindustrial epoch experienced a labor surplus, and wageworkers usually married later and married older women than did peasants. During the industrial revolution these proletarians frequently were able to found independent households much earlier than their forebears had. For this reason above all others, a few generations of northwestern Europeans reinterpreted the prudential check during the first industrial revolution. At exactly this time women's age at first marriage fell to the lowest level recorded in English family reconstitution studies. Was it merely coincidental, then, that in 1798 Malthus published his famous Essay extolling the restraint inherent in the prudential check and bemoaning its recent weakening?

The marriages of the landless represented a degree zero of the system's deep-rooted cultural hold. The landless were essentially free agents who conformed to the practices of deferred marriage and nuclear household formation, but the system left room for interpretation. Social change led the landless proletarians to reinterpret deferred marriage and nuclear household formation without abandoning the cultural heritage of family life. The changes are statistically interesting, yet the landless proletarians did not marry at puberty or form extended, multiple-family households. This corollary reemphasizes Malthus's original arithmetic argument that small changes, when aggregated over a long period of time, can have massive structural implications.

While an increase in residential complexity accompanied massive urbanization in the nineteenth century, the larger social ambition to found nuclear-family households at marriage was essentially unchallenged. Urban-industrial proletarians were likely to live in consensual, common-law unions only because they were unwilling or unable to pay the various taxes on marriage demanded by the church and the state. Those consensual, common-law unions mirrored the nuclear households formed by their more respectable contemporaries in all essential statistical parameters. The only exception was that many new urban industrial centers had such serious housing problems that sometimes single men and women or poor young couples were forced to spend some time as lodgers in the households of established families. But as soon as they could afford to, these youngsters conformed to the cultural type and established their own nuclear-family households.

Rural and urban differences also resulted from sex-specific migration processes. Capital cities filled with female domestic servants, while mining towns and heavy industrial towns had a huge surplus of young males. Overseas emigration left some regions with an overabundance of females. Between and within local social systems a fair bit of heterogeneity developed in the ways the so-called Hajnal-Laslett rules were incorporated into daily life. Some subgroups clustered around earlier marriages, some were more likely than others to defer marriage longer, others lived in more residentially complex domestic units.

The Hajnal-Laslett thesis has also been fruitfully explored by those who study marginal regions, places that were arrayed along the borders between one system and another. Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Spain, for example, exhibited the widest range of marriage patterns in western Europe. Demographic and economic variables did not efface the strong cultural differences between Spanish regions. In areas of partible inheritance, marriage was earlier and more universal. Impartible inheritance was associated with later marriage and male out-migration, which left the remaining females in the parlous situation of outnumbering their potential mates.

North-cental Italy was a stronghold of sharecropping, which during the Renaissance was associated with its own peculiarities of family formation in the hinterland of Florence. At the beginning of the twentieth century when the death rate was plummeting, survival of extra mouths and extra hands put new pressures on the traditional system of social reproduction. For centuries sharecroppers had lived in multiple-family households, but their children's marriages were now connected with other avenues of employment. Some continued as sharecroppers, others became agricultural proletarians, others worked in the factories that were attracted to the large pools of available labor, and still others emigrated to Florence, Bologna, Milan, or overseas. Each of these new subgroups had its own reasons for embarking on family formation. Within each of these sociological categories were familial factors that made marriage more or less likely, but in contrast to their Renaissance forebears, the north-central Italians of 1900 married long after puberty.

The Italian case is interesting because the documentary record traces its evolution over a half-millennium. The censuslike enumerations, such as the fifteenth-century Florentine catàsto or land registry, show that age at first marriage for women was the mid-teens, which was about ten years earlier than in the northwestern European parish register populations. Tuscan men were on average ten years older than their brides. In the cities this difference was more marked than in the countryside, but the essential ten-year gap was still evident along with the link between the female age at first marriage and puberty. Among the Florentine upper crust, grooms were often in their middle thirties, and they married nubile girls who had just reached puberty. The identified difference between rural and urban populations stemmed from the fact that male sharecroppers seem to have married earlier than other peasants and townsmen, but their wives were still likely to have been pubescent teenagers.

Seeing matters in this long-term perspective, Richard Smith in 1981 raised questions about the Renaissance system. Was it "Mediterranean" or "medieval" in the sense that early female marriage ages and residential complexity were responses to the conjuncture occasioned by the Black Death, which hit the Tuscan population savagely and repeatedly? If the Renaissance family system described in the Florentine catàsto was "medieval," why was it so different from the English response that Smith and his revisionist colleagues inferred from their analysis of the fourteenth-century poll tax registers?


Hajnal and Laslett developed the basic parameters of the northwestern European marriage system in the 1960s. Apparently the system's hegemony stood uncontested for the best part of a millennium and this deeply entrenched system of marriage and household formation was very supple. It bent but did not break during the nineteenth-century urbanization and industrialization. Twentieth-century scholarsip, however, notes profound structural changes. Marriage and reproduction were no longer tightly conjoined. Marriages were broken by divorce, and in some places more than half of all children were not living with their biological parents, even when both were still alive. Furthermore, the definition of "family" was stretched so far that a twentieth-century sociologist in England counted 126 different patterns. The ideological carapace of family life proved extremely durable, but close inspection has revealed profound redefinitions taking place as the patriarchal powers of fathers, subjected to legal challenge, disintegrated.

See also other articles in this section and the sectionThe Family and Age Groups (volume 4).


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