Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Western European marriage pattern


The ‘Hajnal line’ marks the eastern limit of a longstanding pattern of late and non-universal marriage. The line in red is Hajnal's. The dark blue lines show areas of high nuptiality West of the Hajnal line. Source

In the 17th and 18th centuries, settlers emigrated from land-poor France to land-rich Canada. The result was a lower age of marriage. Young men and women no longer had to wait for their parents to hand over the family farm. Land was plentiful, and early family formation much easier.

This new social reality led to a new biological reality. From one generation to the next there was a steady contraction of the time between age of marriage and age of first birth. Married women—many as young as 15— were getting pregnant faster. The mean age of full reproductive maturity seems to have slowly fallen at a steady rate, apparently through the reproductive success of women who could better exploit the opportunities for early family formation (Milot et al., 2011).

But what about the homeland of these French settlers? Had that land-poor environment selected for a later onset of full reproductive maturity? That would seem to be a logical inference. Late and non-universal marriage was in fact the pattern throughout Europe west of a line stretching from Trieste to St. Petersburg:

By 1650, when village reconstitution studies become sufficiently numerous to render the generality of the pattern indubitable, the average age of women at first marriage was twenty-four or over, 7 to 20 per cent of women never married, and the incidence of childbirth out of wedlock was below 3 per cent. This marital pattern restricted fertility massively. A very considerable minority of women remained single and bore no children; those who married bore none for the first ten years of their fecund life-phase, on average. If they had their last child at the age of forty, their entire reproductive careers would span roughly fifteen years, a long time by modern standards but remarkably brief in a pre-transition context. Resulting fertility was less than half the rate that would have been achieved if all women between fifteen and fifty were married. (Seccombe, 1992, p. 184)

The ‘Western European marriage pattern’ was initially thought to have developed after the Black Death of the mid-14th century. But this belief has been challenged by a study of marriage between 1252 and 1478 in an English community:

The average age at first marriage in the Lincolnshire Fenland before the Black Death would be 24 years for the woman and 32 years for the man. The wife would die one year before her husband and the marriage would last for about 13 years. The couple could have six children, if their fertility was higher than average, of whom, judging by pedigrees, perhaps three would survive to become adults. After the Black Death the mean age would be 27 for the woman and 32 for the man. The husband would die three years before his wife and the marriage would last about 12 years. Again the couple could have six children, of whom perhaps three would survive to become adult. (Hallam, 1985, p. 66)

This pattern of late marriage may have been accentuated by the Black Death, but it was already present beforehand. Hallam (1985, p. 56) cites additional evidence for late marriage farther back in 9th-century France. On the estates of the Abbey of St Germain-des-Prés near Paris, about 16.3% of all adults were unmarried. In Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, the figure was 11.5%. Seccombe (1992, p. 94) cites a 9th-century survey of the Church of St Victor of Marseille, where both men and women appear to have married in their mid to late twenties.

Going even farther back, Seccombe (1992, p. 94) cites the Roman author Tacitus’ reference to Germanic women being “not hurried into marriage [and] as old and as full-grown as the men [who were] slow to mate.”

So when did the Western European marriage pattern begin? I suspect its origins lie in the late Neolithic of Western Europe, when farming communities had reached a saturation point. With farmland in short supply, young men and women had to wait their turn before they could marry and have children of their own. And some would never marry.

What happened to these never-married? They may have turned toward community service of one kind or another. If they couldn’t have children of their own, they would’ve invested their energies in helping others of their community—who were often their kinfolk. In this respect, the Catholic Church may have simply adopted and further developed a cultural pattern that was already present in Western Europe.

By the early Christian era, this pattern was clearly in evidence: monks and nuns dedicated their lives to creating centers of learning and, eventually, colleges and universities. They also founded hospices for the sick and injured. Much of what we now call the ‘welfare state’ has its origins in the work of these celibate men and women.

Together with the prohibition of cousin marriage, this pattern of lengthy and sometimes lifelong celibacy paved the way for a future of larger and more open societies where the State, and not one’s clan, would provide collective services. Of course, it wasn’t planned that way. Nothing is planned in cultural or biological evolution. Western Europe simply accumulated a mix of cultural traits that would later make possible the rise of ‘modern society.’

Did this marriage pattern shape the biology of Western Europeans through natural selection? Was there gene-culture co-evolution? This is likely with respect to the pace of sexual maturation. Keep in mind that the time between menarche and first birth was ten to twelve years on average. Nature abhors a vacuum, and there would have been a tendency to slow the pace of sexual maturation for both biological and psychological traits. Just as land-rich North America selected for successful pregnancy at younger ages, the reverse had probably happened in land-poor Europe.

References

Hallam, H.E. (1985). Age at first marriage and age at death in the Lincolnshire Fenland, 1252-1478, Population Studies, 39, 55-69.

Milot, E., F.M. Mayer, D.H. Nussey, M. Boisvert, F. Pelletier, and D. Réale. (2011). Evidence for evolution in response to natural selection in a contemporary human population, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), early view

Seccombe, W. (1992). A Millennium of Family Change. Feudalism to Capitalism in Northwestern Europe, London: Verso.

16 comments:

hbd chick said...

"Together with the prohibition of cousin marriage, this pattern of lengthy and sometimes lifelong celibacy paved the way for a future of larger and more open societies where the State, and not one’s clan, would provide collective services. Of course, it wasn’t planned that way. Nothing is planned in cultural or biological evolution. Western Europe simply accumulated a mix of cultural traits that would later make possible the rise of ‘modern society.’"

yes, indeed. (^_^)

Anonymous said...

I suspect its origins lie in the late Neolithic of Western Europe, when farming communities had reached a saturation point. With farmland in short supply, young men and women had to wait their turn before they could marry and have children of their own.

But was Western Europe even particularly that saturated? Compared to any other area of Eurasia?

Density seems similar between Europe and Asia from 1500 just prior to the slowing of European population increase in the late 19th and early 20th century, if we take Wikipedia's population estimate as accurate, Europe hovers around 1/3 of Asia's population density and the bulk of Asia's population concentrated in South Asia and East Asia and South East Asia has around 2-3 times the land area. Increase seems to happen at the same rate.

And why would the Northern European frontier have reached saturation prior to the relatively Southern and Eastern areas with earlier agriculture? I'd guess if there was an answer, it would be a relatively maladapted agricultural system that was unusually dependent on animals which were more land hungry than crops. But I don't have high confidence this is the case.

Beyond Anon said...

Slightly off topic, but I wonder what the loss of all those men in Napoleon's wars did to France's national character.

Ie, did it change the ratio of males to females such that males now could choose?

I wonder if we can correlate the (loss of) vigor of any (Western) societies to the loss of males in wars?

I wonder if any group of leaders has had a long term plan of building up a surplus of males so that they could afford to lose many in war(s) while still remaining vigorous?

W.LindsayWheeler said...

The rise of the Modern State had nothing to do with Protestantism, Atheism, and Freemasonry? But all with biological events?

Balderdash.

Cultural evolution? There is no such thing. Culture was manipulated starting with the atheist Machaivelli. Revolution within the form. Not to mention the rise of the Kabbala in snyc with the Hermetic Tradition which morphed into Freemasonry. Culture does not evolve---Christendom was deconstructed by the Atheists, Protestants, Deists and Kabbalists. The Modern State arose from them and nowhere else.

Luke Lea said...

I'd like to see Bob Allen's comment on this. It's one of his specialties. I'll send him a link.

Sean said...

"there would have been a tendency to slow the pace of sexual maturation for both biological and psychological traits."

I don't quite get why. You've got to play to win. So why not get in the game early ?

Peter Frost said...

hbd chick,

I've heard a lot about your blog, but I've only just now gotten around to seeing it. Great work!

Anon,

The difference was 'primogeniture.' In Western Europe, farms were generally passed on to the eldest son. There was a strong reluctance to divide up the inheritance.

Of course, this begs the question. Why did primogeniture become so important in Western Europe? I have no answer.

Beyong Anon,

Not just the Napoleonic Wars. The last two world wars reaped a grim harvest of young able men. After WWII, there was a huge surplus of unmarried women in the Soviet Union.

Lindsay Wheeler,

You're mistaking effects for causes. The rise of open societies, where cultural restraints are looser, made it easier for people to be atheists, freethinkers, etc.

By the way, my mother's family were freemasons.

Sean,

Because you can't play unless you have land.

Chris Crawford said...

I have a problem with the hypothesis that European marriage patterns were set in ancient times by limitations on the supply of land. In Pounds, An Historical Geography of Europe, 450 BC - AD 1330, we find that conversion of forest land to farm land really took off after about 1100 CE. He notes that this conversion process kept pace with the increase in population. Moreover, crop yields steadily rose from Carolingian times. Thus, it would seem that a young man without an inheritance could set up a new farm in the forest, starting off with simple slash-and-burn, then expanding with the axe.

The European forest area did not reach its minimum until about 1300 CE. I would think, therefore, that land constraints were not a primary factor in inhibition of early marriage.

I'm also a bit uncomfortable with the hypothesis that these marriage patterns forced people into public service. While it's true that shipping unmarriageable women off to nunneries was common, the nunneries themselves performed little in the way of public service; they were less outgoing than the monasteries, attempting to protect the virginity of their residents through social isolation. Most of their labor, I believe, was devoted to manufacture of priestly vestments and other church support activities.

It is true that Christian society exalted celibacy over marriage. The attitude seemed to be that a devout Christian would maintain celibacy, but marriage was an acceptable route for the many who could not meet such a high standard. I recall reading Erasmus attacking this notion with the assertion that marriage was every bit as honorable as celibacy.

Lastly, the increased role of public service surely played a role in the development of the modern state, but there are many other causal factors that, IMO, were of greater importance, such as the high cost of firearms encouraging centralization of power.

Ben10 said...

off topic Peter, but regarding your theory of sexual selection in europe...and the lack of the expected sexual dimorphism, i found a report in a french archeological magazine about frankish graves (3rd-7th century) and skeletons analysis that mention an almost unbelievable dimorphism bewteen males and females.

Sean said...

Even very young men might get opportunities for illicit impregnation of other (resource-rich) men's wives. Even if only one in a hundred manage it that would have an effect over the generations. What is the advantage in retarding maturity? If that were done the youngest men would not be capable of taking advantage of those opportunities when they present themselves. Even 15 year old 'men' must have succeeded in cuckolding wealthy men occasionally.

Anonymous said...

The difference was 'primogeniture.' In Western Europe, farms were generally passed on to the eldest son. There was a strong reluctance to divide up the inheritance.

Thanks for your response. Though my understanding was that the current historical status quo was partial inheritance rather than primogeniture for the Germanic tribes (and Celtic societies), i.e. "in the late Neolithic of Western Europe" (although possibly there was a primogeniture stage for which we have no evidence). This is an interesting idea otherwise.

Peter Frost said...

Chris, Anon,

You're right on primogeniture. It appears to have been solely of feudal origin, at least according to G.C. Brodrick (1871-72) The Law and Custom of Primogeniture.

So the Western European Marriage Pattern cannot go back farther than the Dark Ages. It is probably a result of two historical trends: a) rising population pressures on farmland from the early Middle Ages onward and b) the shift toward primogeniture by post-Roman kingdoms.

Chris,

What about the role of nuns in establishing hospices and the first hospitals? And what about universities and colleges? Weren't they too monastic institutions?

Before the 19th century, the State was largely concerned with defense. Social welfare services were dispensed by the Church. Perhaps this is more obvious to me living in Quebec, where universities, schools, colleges, hospitals, and asylums were largely owned and run by the Catholic Church until the early 1960s.

Ben10,

Could you provide a reference?

Sean,

"Sneaky fucking" is a very high risk strategy where paternal investment is high. Until recent times, the law implicitly recognized the right of a man to kill his wife's lover. Even today, juries are reluctant to convict in such situations.

Ben10 said...

first go here:
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/issue/racf_0220-6617_1985_num_24_2

then read:
Revue archéologique du Centre de la France. Tome 24, fascicule 2, 1985
NOTES and DOCUMENTS
"Les Mérovingiens de Sublaines (Indre-et-Loire) : Complément à l'étude anthropologique / The Merovingians of Sublaines (Indre-et-Loire) : Complement to the anthropological study. G. Cordier"

Open the pdf, page 247-255
Page 247:
"....nous rappellerons...quelques données relatives aux crânes tirées de l'étude du Dr. R. riquet (Tabl. 1 à 3). Les figures 13 et 14 illustrent le dimorphisme sexuel
d'une « ampleur presque anormale » noté par ce dernier..."

So, apparently, figures 13 and 14 are an example of the 'almost abnormal' dimorphism observed by Dr. Riquet. I am no anthropologist and can't judge these figures but maybe you can.
The reference for Dr Riquet's article is in 'Gallia':
Cordier G., RiQuet R. et Brabant H. — Le site archéologique
du dolmen de Villaine à Sublaines (Indre-et-Loire) - II, Cimetière
mérovingien. Gallia, XXXII, 1974 : 163-221.

Beyond Anon said...

Beyong Anon,

Not just the Napoleonic Wars. The last two world wars reaped a grim harvest of young able men. After WWII, there was a huge surplus of unmarried women in the Soviet Union.


It is notable that one country is said to have a high ratio of males to females.

Chris Crawford said...

What about the role of nuns in establishing hospices and the first hospitals? And what about universities and colleges? Weren't they too monastic institutions?

Hmm... I'll have to check this, but my shoot-from-the-hip recollection is that the role of nuns in hospices and hospitals was minimal until the Reformation. I'm not sure where I'll find some information on this, but now that you've piqued my curiosity, I'll poke around to see what I can find; if I find anything definitive one way or the other, I'll post it here.

I do know that the first European universities were established as training facilities for clergy. This was primarily because in the early Middle Ages, the only reason to read was for religious purposes, and so only clerics could read. This was the basis for our use of the word 'legit'; by reading, a person could prove his status as a cleric, thereby placing him under Church jurisdiction, which was considerably more lenient than secular law.

When Erasmus attended the University of Paris in the late 15th century, it was the leading educational institution in Europe, and was attended mostly, but not entirely, by clerics. Some nobility also attended. So even that late, universities were not so much a public service as a Church function. This is not to deny the public service carried out by the universities, merely to place that service in perspective.

Greying Wanderer said...

"But was Western Europe even particularly that saturated? Compared to any other area of Eurasia?"

Late marriage as alternative to female infanticide?