Expert Answer:How did the effects of labor markets in and marria

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Economic History Review, 63, 1 (2010), pp. 1–33
Girl power: the European marriage
pattern and labour markets in the
North Sea region in the late medieval
and early modern period1
How good to be a woman, how much better to be a man!
Maidens and wenches, remember the lesson you’re about to hear
Don’t hurtle yourself into marriage far too soon.
The saying goes: ‘where is your spouse? Where’s your honour?’
But one who earns her board and clothes
Shouldn’t scurry to suffer a man’s rod . . .
Though wedlock I do not decry;
Unyoked is best! Happy the woman without a man.
Poem by Anna Bijns (1493–1575) on the benefits of celibacy and late marriage2
his article argues that the European Marriage Pattern (EMP) has played a
fundamental role in western Europe’s economic development. The EMP
emerged in north-western Europe in the late medieval period as a result of the
preaching of the Catholic Church promoting marriage based on consensus, the
rise of labour markets, and specific institutions concerning property transfers
between generations that encouraged wage labour by women. It resulted in a
demographic regime embedded in a highly commercial environment, in which
households interacted frequently with labour, capital, and commodity markets.We
also discuss possible long-term consequences for human capital formation and
institution building.
In 1505 Janne Heyndericx, aged 31, living in the Zeeland village of Kouwenkerke,
told a committee investigating the malpractices by the local magistrates the
following story:3 eight years earlier, she had promised to marry a young man,
Adriaen Jacopsz, and he had also promised to marry her. They slept together and
continued to do so without ever officially marrying as was required by the law of
the holy Church, postponing their wedding until a more mutually convenient time.
We would like to thank the participants of the Global Economic History (GEHN) workshop on ‘The rise,
organization and institutional framework of factor markets’ (Utrecht, 23–6 June 2005), and in particular Peter
Boomgaard, Bruce Campbell, Marcus Cerman, Ken Pomeranz, and Maarten Prak, and the referees of this
journal, for their comments on the first draft of this article.
Wilson, Women writers, p. 382.
On the malpractices concerning the levying of arbitrary fines on people living together who had not been
officially married by the church, see Bange and Weiler, ‘De problematiek’, pp. 399–400.
© Economic History Society 2009. Published by Blackwell Publishing, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main
Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
At that time she was still living with her mother and stepfather, who subsequently
refused to maintain her, so that she was forced to find employment elsewhere and
left to earn a wage. When she came to work in Kouwenkerke, she lived with
another young man by whom she had a child. Four or five years before, Adriaen
had tried to be released from his promise to marry her, although they were still in
regular contact and were sleeping together. She said she still wanted to marry him,
as although they had not been married in the eyes of the Church, as far as she was
concerned they were indeed married before God. Moreover, she reported that it
was his fault that she had gone so far (that is, had had a child with another man),
because he had kept her waiting for so long.4
This story of Janne is strikingly ‘modern’ and when seen in a global perspective,
Janne’s behaviour appears to be exceptional; such an informal ‘marriage’ occurring
in other parts of the world would have been difficult to imagine. This story is
typical of the marriage patterns that emerged from the North Sea area in the late
middle ages. One of the elements that make this story so ‘modern’ is that the
decision to marry was taken, not by parents or other members of an older
generation, but by the marriage partners themselves. As followers of the Catholic
Church, Janne and Adriaen promised to marry each other and considered their
promise equivalent to being married before God. Secondly, Janne’s mother and
stepfather decided that this ‘marriage before God’ should result in the formation
of a new household, so they refused to maintain Janne any longer, thus forcing her
to leave her parents’ household. The third strikingly modern aspect is the fact that
Janne was capable of leaving, as she was able to find employment as a wage-earner
elsewhere. Easy access to the labour market facilitated both parents and children
to adopt this kind of behaviour.
This brief story tells us much about the European marriage pattern (EMP) as
it emerged in the late middle ages and became characteristic for western European
society in the early modern period.The existing literature on this topic has focused
primarily on typical demographic aspects of this marriage pattern, such as the
average age of marriage, the share of the population that had never married, and
the effects of the EMP on fertility and resulting population growth. In this, the
literature has followed Hajnal’s seminal paper from 1965 in which he stressed
these ‘distinctive features’ of the EMP.5 Far less attention has been paid to the
underlying mechanisms that led to these outcomes, to the underlying causes of the
EMP, which can arguably be classed as mysteries of the demographic and social
history of the early modern period. The classic Hajnal paper does allude to these
underlying mechanisms. He mentions, for example, that ‘the conviction that
marriage should be decided upon only after the future spouses have got to know
each other well’ was to be regarded as ‘a relevant factor which distinguishes
modern Western populations from the majority of societies’.6 Hajnal points out
that unlike in many other societies where marriage consisted of an arrangement
Story taken from ibid., pp. 404–5. Of course Janne Heyndricx was not alone in her case of a consensual
marriage that went wrong. Similar examples exist for the Netherlands and for England and have been mentioned
by other historians. See the examples mentioned by Sheehan in ‘Formation and stability of marriage’. See also
Goldberg, Women, work, and life cycle, pp. 248–9, and several examples of similar cases in later times in Outhwaite,
Clandestine marriage in England, pp. 1–50.
Hajnal, ‘European marriage in perspective’, p. 101.
Ibid., p. 126.
© Economic History Society 2009
Economic History Review, 63, 1 (2010)
between the heads of households who exchanged a spouse with a wedding gift,
marriage in north-western Europe meant the establishment of a new household by
the spouses themselves, who therefore needed a conjugal fund. This ‘neo-locality’
meant that many were unable to marry because they could not afford this ‘investment’.7 In this paper we will attempt to develop these leads in order to explain the
mechanisms behind the story of Janne Heyndericx and Adriaen Jacopsz.8
Central to our argument is the consideration that a household is a cooperative
economic unit aimed at the fulfilment of the physical and emotional needs of its
members, and characterized by certain inequalities (that is, power imbalances)
between generations and sexes. It is based on implicit and explicit contracts
between household members, such as the marriage contract and the implicit
contracts that exist between different generations. The hypothesis at the core of
this article is that the EMP is characterized by power balances between husband
and wife and between parents and children, which differs from more common
forms of marriage and household formation. To be more precise: the most striking
feature of the EMP is that the traditional inequalities between the sexes and the
generations are caused by socioeconomic, ideological, and institutional factors.
The EMP in its purest form appears to be a rather ‘extreme’ case on the spectrum,
as women have a relatively large say in the marriage itself (as it is based on the
consent of both spouses)—especially when the women contributed to the income
of their households. In a nutshell, it is argued in this article that the particular
features of the EMP—late and non-universal marriage—are the result of its
relatively ‘democratic’ character.
Next, we will argue that the EMP was essentially an institutional adaptation to
a situation of rapidly expanding employment opportunities and relatively high
remuneration in the century or so after the Black Death (although the explanation
for its appearance is more complex, as we will try to show later on). In brief, it was
a reproductive strategy developed by both male and female wage-earners which
was embedded in a broader institutional framework in which market exchange and
trust in the functioning of markets was of fundamental importance. Not only did
wage income become a large part of the household income, but these households
also gained access to capital markets and to markets for consumer goods (a large
part of which they did not produce themselves, as their main income consisted of
wages). Simultaneously they developed new strategies for survival in the long term
and for enhancing their success and that of their children in the new market
environment. Among these strategies were increased investment in formal schooling, in training as apprentices or as servants in others’ households, and in social
capital to address issues of old age or single parenthood. The result was a society
in which between 30 and 60 per cent of the population were partly or completely
dependent on wage labour (by men, women, and children), in which markets
permeated all aspects of economic life, and in which small, conjugal households
became increasingly interwoven within a social infrastructure (of poor relief insti-
In his 1982 paper, these thoughts were specified in more detail. See Hajnal, ‘Two kinds’, pp. 454–5.
This point was already made by Smith in 1979: ‘The search for the European marriage pattern as a ‘statistical’
artefact is intriguing, but it would be unfortunate if, in being so preoccupied with actual ages . . . we failed to
detect the wider social structural features that sustained it. Without this, any means of understanding the precise
determinants of this unique arrangement will be thwarted’ (Smith, ‘Some reflections’, pp. 101–2).
© Economic History Society 2009
Economic History Review, 63, 1 (2010)
tutions) which sustained their reproduction.9 This society emerged in the late
middle ages in the North Sea area—in England and the Low Countries in
particular—and it was, we claim, the long-term dynamism of this structure which
helps to explain the long-term success of this region in the world economy of the
early modern period.10
The special characteristics and the importance of the EMP are evident when it
is compared with situations elsewhere in the world. The more general features of
the EMP will be clarified on the basis of comparisons with marriage practices east
of Hajnal’s line, between Trieste and St Petersburg,11 and in particular with China,
whenever appropriate.12 By doing so we hope to complement the current great
divergence debate with a new approach to explaining the differences in economic
growth between east and west, although we do realize that we cannot do more than
briefly touch upon some of the aspects of this complex issue in this article. A
comparison between marriage practices in southern and eastern Europe and in the
North Sea may shed light on the reasons why the North Sea area took the lead in
economic development. According to Hajnal, Herlihy, and Reher, there is considerable variety in marriage practices within Europe, and we use their broad geographical subdivisions as our starting point.13
The EMP emerged in north-western Europe because of a combination of three
socio-economic and ideological factors: first, the stress on consensus instead of
parental authority for the formation of a marriage; second, the position of women
in the transfer of property between husband and wife and between parents and
children; and third, the accessibility to, and size of, the labour market.
Consensus versus Parental Authority/Neolocality versus Patrilocal Households
The story of Janne Heyndericx illustrates how marriage among wage earners in the
late middle ages was to a large extent based on consensus between the two spouses,
a factor already mentioned by Hajnal as distinctive of Europe. This idea is clearly
Kussmaul, Servants in husbandry, p. 26, estimates that in the 15–24 age group, 60% of the population were
It is possible to distinguish a core area—Flanders, the coastal provinces of the Netherlands, and the eastern
counties of England—where we find the features of the system most clearly, and a ‘larger’ North Sea area,
including the inland provinces of the Netherlands, Belgium, northern France, and the rest of England, where
socioeconomic conditions were often different and the system can not always be found in its ‘pure’ form.
We follow the line that Hajnal used as a way to divide the marriage patterns of Europe. Within the part east
of this line, we compare two of the four sectors that have been described by Laslett in his overview of family and
household as a work group and kin group in traditional Europe: we consider north-western Europe, where we
concentrate on the Low Countries and England, and the Mediterranean, where Italy receives most of our
attention (for source-related reasons). See Laslett, ‘Family and household’; Wall, ‘Owning real property’; Poos,
‘Pre-history’, pp. 228–38.
The scope of this article is insufficient to treat the differences with China in full. We refer to the following
recent works that could complement our article, at least on the issue of marriage and the position of women in
China: Ebrey, Women and the family; Gates, ‘Footloose in Fujan’; Birge, ‘Women and Confucianism’; Bernhardt,
Women and property in China; Zurndorfer, ed., Chinese women; Goody, Oriental, the ancient and the primitive,
pp. 21–112.
Hajnal, ‘Two kinds’; Reher, ‘Family ties’; Herlihy, Medieval households.
© Economic History Society 2009
Economic History Review, 63, 1 (2010)
so fundamental to the EMP that the chronology can to some extent be derived
from the emergence of this doctrine. In the early middle ages, marriage was,
according to Biller, basically ‘a lay and secular matter, whose essentials were the
handling over of a girl, by her father, to the groom, the exchanging of gifts, and
perhaps the girl’s deduction in domum, her ‘being brought into the house’ of the
groom or his family’. This changed when the Church slowly took over and
‘established a near exclusive competence over marriage in most regions of Latin
Christendom’.14 This gradual change was also symbolized by a change in the
location of the marriage ceremony, from the house of the family of the groom to
the church.15 At the same time, the Church was responsible for defining marriage,
whether it was based on mutual consent or on copula carnalis (physical union), an
idea that dates back to St Augustine. It is significant that the north and the south
had different views on this. Paris, representing the north, emphasized consent and
Bologna, representing the south, focused on consummation. Scholars at the time
were aware that this represented contrasting regional customs.16 Around 1140,
Gratian established that according to canon law the bonds of marriage were
determined by mutual consent and not by the consummation of marriage, because
‘where there is to be union of bodies there ought to be union of spirits’.17 Gratian
and his followers frequently pointed to evidence that marriages arranged against
the wishes of the partners usually brought about bad results.18 Gratian’s work
formed the basis for further theological discussions19 and eventually led to the
inclusion of the doctrine in the decrials of Gregory IX (1234).20 Thus, boys and
girls of a legally marriageable age (14 years for boys, 12 years for girls) were
permitted to perform the sacrament of marriage themselves. Marriages were made
by God (which was also Janne’s conviction); a priest only proclaimed his will for
a couple after the fact. But this doctrine also led to the problem of secret
marriages—marriages that occurred privately without witnesses and disconnected
from any public institution—which was one of the reasons why it came under
attack during the Reformation.21
Although it has been shown that the doctrine was not well received among the
aristocracy, it did reach the rest of the people via conciliar and episcopal legislation
and sermons.22 On the basis of an analysis of English pastoral manuals that were
increasingly used after the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 to instruct local
pastors on their guidance of the laity, Murray concluded that the doctrine of
consensual marriage had spread widely and quickly to the parish level by the
Biller, Measure of multitude, p. 22.
Ibid., and see also Berman, Law and revolution, on the papal revolution.
Biller, Measure of multitude, pp. 53–4.
Noonan, ‘Power to choose’, p. 425; for a more detailed description of how this marriage theory, based on
consensus, came into being within the Catholic Church, see the chapter on ‘Choice of marriage partner in the
middle ages: development and mode of application of a theory of marriage’, in Sheehan, Marriage, family, and law,
pp. 91–117.
Noonan, ‘Power to choose’, p. 434.
Ozment, When fathers ruled, p. 26, and Sheehan, ‘Choice of marriage partner’, in Sheehan, Marriage, family,
and law, pp. 91–117.
Brundage, Law, sex, and Christian society, pp. 332–3; see also the discussion in Smith, ‘Geographical diversity’,
pp. 18–21.
Ozment, When fathers ruled, pp. 25–7.
Sheehan, ‘Marriage theory and practice’.
© Economic History Society 2009
Economic History Review, 63, 1 (2010)
middle of the fifteenth century.23 The problems that resulted from the application
of the new doctrine—such as bigamy and clandestine marriages—were increasingly dealt with in the manuals during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries,
when the new marriage practices had been widely and successfully disseminated.24
The fact that both the man’s and his future wife’s consent was necessary for
marriage meant that it was a contract between ‘equals’ since neither one could
impose consensus upon the other partner. This means that in principle the bargaining position of women in such a marriage pattern is relatively strong: a woman
could (try to) select the kind of husband that suited her. In the more romantic
interpretation of the EMP, marriage was based on the love between the two
partners, which must have had a strong equalizing effect also—assuming that love
presupposes a certain degree of equality between the partners. This equalizing
effect was also visible in the way in which partners dealt with their property.25
As a result, one would expect inequality within marriage to be more common
in marriage systems in which the consent of the wife is not required. In China,
for example, marriage was a contract not between two individuals, but between
two families. Eastman cites Mencius who states that ‘marriage is a bond between
two surnames’, a family matter, by the family, for the family.26 Chinese girls often
met their husbands for the first time on their wedding day, even though they were
groomed for marriage from their birth. The marriage partners were chosen by
their families, through a matchmaker …
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