De Moor T. and van Zanden J.L. (2005) Marrige and labour in Northwestern Europe 1300-1800

De Moor, Tine and van Zanden Jan Luiten (2005) “Girlpower. The European Marriage Pattern and labour markets in the North Sea region in the late medieval and early modern period” in The Rise, Organozation, and Institutional Framework of Factor Markets,, 25p.


The European Marriage Pattern (EMP) was one of the most striking features of the Western European society in the Early Modern Period (late marriage, high number of single women). The authors concentrate on the “underlying structure or mechanism” that led to the EMP (p.2).

In the 9th century, the Catholic Church adopted the principle of mutual consent as the basis of marriage (p.3). Spouses were even permitted to perform the sacrament themselves and if need be in secret. The parents had officially lost any authority upon their children’s marital life. Despites resistance among the aristocracy, by the 15th century, the doctrine of consensual marriage was widespread.

The fact that conjugal affection (love) was likely to be greater in consensual marriages than in forced ones meant that women had a relatively stronger bargaining position in the family (p.4).

EMP appeared earlier in Northwestern Europe. The authors explain this fact by the tendency of English and Dutch newly married couples to set up a new household distinct from their parents’. As a result, the parents lost control upon their offspring (p.5). As people typically married older then 18 years old, the new couples had the opportunity to live on their own, whereas in situations where arranged marriage dominated, couples typically married very young (early teen) would thus remain in the household of the groom’s parents. The fact that the spouses in the EMP were typically the same age reinforced the equality between sexes within marriage (p.6).

In Southern Europe, women had to be married to inherit and their share of the inheritance was not certain. As a result, they had to strong incentive to marry as it was both necessary and a security. On the other hand, Northern women could afford to wait. Moreover, the strict dowry system of Southern Europe encouraged parents to marry their daughters young as the younger girls were more valuable on the marriage market and thus required a lesser dowry (p.7). Finally, as women were not sure to inherit from their husbands after their death, they had little incentive to work and contribute to the long-term fortune of the household.

The post-Black Death labour shortage resulted in a strong increase in wages particularly for women. This situation enabled girls to leave their parents unwed to find employment away from home, thus decreasing parental authority (p.8). Unlike Nortwestern Europe, in the Mediterranean area employment opportunities were seized by migrant men rather than women, so female wages (and thus autonomy) were less affected by the Black Death (p.9)

“Even after marriage and the setting up of a new household, wage labour remained a very important (…) source of income. So not only did the booming labour market induce men and women to change their marriage pattern, but the changed marriage pattern in its turn resulted in an increased dependence on wage labour. This cumulative process (…) explains, in our view, the very high levels of proletarianization that can be found in the North Sea region in the 15th and 16th centuries” (p.10).

The ability for girls to choose their husband also meant that they usually settled next to their home or workplace instead of being sent away to the house of their husband. Thus they could retain a significant level of social capital, which would once more increase their bargaining position in their couple (p.11).

By the 16th century, people still married young (early 20s) but as the economic conditions worsened in the following century, women married in their mid 20s and men in their late 20s on average in the North Sea region. Indeed, due to mutual affection and the absence of parental oversight, fertility was high, so marrying was an expensive endeavour requiring a large initial investment that took longer to gather due to the crisis (p.12).

The need to find a spouse by themselves and to leave the parental household for work led to a clear relaxation of the family’s reputation imperative and of the rules regarding pre-marital virginity. Another consequence was the rise of single women as the system of arranged marriages which guarantied one to find a husband had disappeared (p.13).

The EMP could only emerge in a thriving and efficient market economy as the wage workers depended on a solid labour market to find employment and efficient goods and services markets to buy their subsistence. Unsurprisingly, the late Middle Ages are precisely the period when these markets started functioning correctly (p.14).

In Southern Europe where wage labour was rarer, children would only leave their parents to marry and create a new producing household, while in the North children would leave their parents early, before marriage to become apprentices or servants (p.14).

Unlike other societies, in NW Europe, high fertility was not the only way for women to enhance their status, in particular they could acquire wealth through wage labour. As a result, human capital (both for male and female workers) was particularly valuable; formal and professional educations were thus very important. NW enjoyed vey high levels of literacy (p.15).

Children did not share their parents’ household any more and invested heavily in their children’s education. To sustain themselves in old age people could not rely on their children any more, so many invested during their work life and could enjoy a rent during their old age. Savings replaced inter-generational income transfers, once more indicating the existence of a trusted capital market (p.16). Alternatively, old people had to rely on the poor relief institutions whose development was particularly noticeable in the Netherlands and England maybe as a “by-product of the demographic system” (p.17).

By the mid-16th century, rapidly declining wages pushed women back under their father’s and husband’s authority (p.18). Religious leaders emphasized the importance of an official wedding (p.19). Only in England was the Medieval freedom not too weakened by the return of the patriarchy (p.20).

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