The Medieval Church and Western European Marriage Patterns

It has been over 50 years now since John Hajnal first pointed out the existence of a “European Marriage Pattern” (EMP). Who’d have thought that behavior most often associated with modern societies – late age at first marriage, neolocality (the formation of a separate household at marriage), and large proportions of never-married persons – could be traced back as far as the medieval period for significant parts of western Europe? The prevalence and determinants of this pattern have fascinated family and household historians for decades; however, the EMP never attracted much attention outside these fields.

Until recently.

In the past decade, the European Marriage Pattern has been the subject of a surprising number of studies by social scientists, many of whom argue that it holds the key to understanding early economic growth and development in northwest Europe. The European Marriage Pattern, it is argued, made it possible for population to adjust (via marriage) to economic conditions, for young people to invest more in their human capital (since marriage occurred late), and bolstered female autonomy. In most of these new papers, the EMP is treated as a largely cultural phenomenon that played a causal role in the European divergence. Sheilagh Ogilvie and I have argued extensively against this view here and here, pointing out that the EMP could just as easily be associated with poverty (in fact, a new paper by Judith Bennett makes this case for thirteenth-century England), that there were many places that had the EMP and no early growth (German-speaking central Europe, including territories east of the Elbe under serfdom), and that family and marriage patterns are much more likely to be outcomes of institutional arrangements rather than determinants of them. Or at the very least there is a larger institutional interdependence at work, of the sort I’ve mentioned before. As Sheilagh and I noted in our papers, the places that had the EMP and experienced early growth and development also had many other institutions conducive to growth.

But that isn’t what I want to talk about in this post. Instead, I want to think about a different aspect of this newer literature on marriage patterns – one that we didn’t have enough space to discuss in detail in the JEH papers. And that is the notion that the western European marriage pattern was a cultural phenomenon ultimately resulting from Church decree. There are different versions of this view. One holds that the twelfth-century changes in canon law requiring the recognition of “clandestine” marriages led to greater autonomy in marriage choice for partners, and especially for women, which over time translated into greater female agency in European societies. Another, newer literature (including this much discussed book by Joseph Henrich) pushes the critical Church intervention back several centuries to the decrees on consanguinity (forbidding people from marrying close relatives), which, it is argued, further hastened the process of undermining kin networks and created the basis for more individualistic behavior and the establishment of the more inclusive formal institutions that came to characterize pre-modern western Europe.

This newer work raises an interesting question: how plausible is it that the medieval Church was able to use the canon law to effect large-scale social and cultural change throughout European territories? The arguments put forth so far rely primarily on prescriptive evidence from laws and decrees and broad statistical correlations with phenomena that may have followed from these legal innovations. But there is no concrete evidence that they actually did or what the precise mechanisms for change might have been if they had.

In thinking about these questions, I am reminded of a different book, one that made a great impression on me when I read it several years ago: Law, Marriage and Society in the Later Middle Ages: Arguments About Marriage in Five Courts by the legal historian Charles Donahue. This is an incredibly detailed, meticulously researched, and carefully argued study. In examining the inner workings of medieval litigation over marriage, Donahue sheds light not only on the ways that Church decree was enforced in European localities, but the web of institutional connections through which law, marriage, kinship, property, inheritance, lordship and many other aspects of ordinary life in the medieval period were interwoven. The book is mainly about the twelfth-century law permitting clandestine marriage, but it covers a lot of ground in the process. I can’t do justice to its rich empirical findings in a blog post, but I want to draw attention to certain aspects of this research that are relevant to the questions raised in the new social science literature on marriage patterns, as well as to points I’ve made in earlier posts.

The Importance of Mechanisms. Donahue examines the way canon law – in particular the law upholding clandestine marriage – was implemented in local courts. Was it actually enforced? Was it enforced uniformly from place to place? What kind of impact did it have? I argued in my last post that to really understand institutional arrangements, their effects, and how they varied from place to place, we have to get deep into the machinery at the local level. Donahue’s study does that by looking at litigation records related to canon law stipulations about clandestine marriage in five different court systems: three in England – Canterbury, York, and Ely; one in France – Paris; and one in Belgium – Cambrai. The archival records show us what kinds of cases appeared in these courts, who brought them, what the judgements were, and trends (in litigation) over time. The findings are utterly fascinating and serve as an important reminder about the diversity of institutional arrangements that existed (and still exists) in this area we so casually refer to as “Europe”.

Institutional Variation at the Local Level (within Europe, within the EMP zone). It turns out that Church law could be interpreted and enforced in vastly different ways, depending on the underlying institutional framework of the locality the rule was imposed upon. Donahue finds that the kinds of cases that came before the courts in England significantly differed from the kind that came before the Parisian and Wallonian courts. In the English courts, the cases were predominantly brought by individuals seeking an outcome for themselves (to uphold marriage vows they had made secretly, for instance – de presenti marriages), where in the French and Belgian courts the cases were largely prosecutorial, or “office”,  cases to enforce a betrothal negotiated by parents – de futuro espousals – or to force the solemnization of a marriage. In the French cases, partners to clandestine marriages were punished with automatic excommunication; in England this was not the case. In the French and Franco-Belgian cases, the canon law was frequently used  to litigate divorce, where separation litigation was not much in evidence in the English cases. Interestingly, Donohue’s findings suggest significant variation among the English courts and between the Parisian courts and those at Cambrai, though he notes that Canterbury, Ely, and York were much more like one another than any one of them was like Paris or Cambrai and vice-versa.

Institutional Multistrandedness. In considering the reasons for this variation, Donahue raises important questions about marriage – its social and economic meaning in different places at different times and “how people married” in specific localities. Marriage in the past was often inextricable from property considerations, and, as a result, there were many stakeholders in a couple’s marriage: parents, landlords, the state (whatever that entity might have been at the time), the Church. The configuration of these influences varied from society to society. Naturally, questions about property and inheritance loom large, as there were substantial differences between England and the Franco-Belgian societies, and these are probably related to the differences in the ways people married. But the answers are neither obvious not straightforward. One can see how primogeniture in principle could have given rise to the English outcome (eg, less intervention in the marriages of the non-inheriting children) and partible inheritance to the continental outcomes (greater intervention in children’s marriages, full stop). But as Donahue notes, property institutions are themselves complex and both primogeniture and partible systems can give rise to a number of possible outcomes, depending on other aspects of the institutional system. And one of the larger, more interesting questions arising from the evidence of these five courts – and which Donahue himself explicitly raises – is why legal institutions were so different across European territories. (And it’s not as simple as common versus civil law, as the variation observed across continental systems makes clear.)

Donahue’s research indicates that any law or mandate emanating from above had a complicated interaction with local institutions on the ground, resulting in significantly different outcomes from place to place. This is consistent with what we know, more generally, about the larger political economy of this period. After all, the inability of the Church to impose its will uniformly across European territories gave rise to some of history’s most spectacular conflicts. (The challenges were similar for any pre-modern imperial regime; governing across vast heterogeneous territories inevitably involved compromise at the local level and variation in outcomes.) Nor is there is anything in Donahue’s study to make one think that this would have been significantly different several centuries earlier. In fact, one comes away from this study with the overwhelming impression that formal institutions at the local level were remarkably sophisticated and stable. If kin networks were prominent and widespread before the laws of consanguinity were issued then it seems likely that kin networks existed alongside an already well-established set of formal institutional practices for regulating conflicts over marriage, as well as over other contracts, property, including inheritance, and many related issues. The cultural part of this story, which is much higher profile in these newer studies, is not so easily distinguished from the political economic one.

Finally, there is an irony here, in these newer works on kinship, which will not be lost on historians of the family. It was Peter Laslett, co-founder of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure and an expert in political theory and philosophy, whose research into family and marriage patterns was inspired by his reading of Robert Filmer’s Patriarca. Many of Filmer’s political arguments rested on the assumption that the primary unit of social organization in the past was the large patriarchal family and extended kin group. Laslett wondered whether Filmer’s assumptions about kinship in the past had any basis in fact, and helped to launch a decades-long research program to investigate the question – the research program that led to the discovery of the EMP itself. The empirical picture that emerged from local studies across Europe indicated that no, this long and widely held view of kinship in the past was not accurate – at least not for Europe in the late medieval or early modern periods.  The claims in this new literature push these ideas about family and kinship back much further, to a time for which sources on household formation practices are much fewer and further between. It is therefore even more important that, in our enthusiasm for new approaches to thorny old problems, we take care not to lose sight of Laslett’s original question: “Was this actually true?”


  • Tracy Dennison

    I am Professor of Social Science History at the California Institute of Technology. I am interested primarily in the character and role of institutions in premodern societies, and how they affected the decisions ordinary people made in their everyday lives. To date, my work has focused on the role of entities like states, landlords, communities, and households in central and Eastern Europe before 1900. My current research project examines the relationship between state capacity and the rise and decline of serfdom in Europe, in particular the cases of Prussia and Russia.

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