Man and Wife

Rosalind Mitchison

  • Marriage and Love in England: Modes of Reproduction 1300-1840 by Alan Macfarlane
    Blackwell, 380 pp, £19.50, January 1986, ISBN 0 631 13992 3
  • For Better, For Worse: British Marriages 1600 to the Present by John Gillis
    Oxford, 417 pp, £19.50, February 1986, ISBN 0 19 503614 X
  • Labour and Love: Women’s Experience of Home and Family 1850-1940 edited by Jane Lewis
    Blackwell, 274 pp, £25.00, February 1986, ISBN 0 631 13957 5

Marriage is still, despite evasive strategies by some of the young, the central decision of most people’s lives, and of the three events which structure population, the only one completely under human control. The control is not exclusively that of the leading participants: who is free to marry whom, for example, is defined by law. But for the most part the Western European marriage has been the result of a deliberate choice by two people.

Recent work has brought marriage to the fore for historians, since it has been shown to have been the main instrument of demographic change for England. When E.A. Wrigley and R.S. Schofield produced their big book in 1981, The Population History of England 1541-1871, summing up ten years of research by the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, they reversed the existing emphasis on reduction in mortality as the key to population growth, and argued for marriage instead. In the 18th century people started to marry earlier, and more of them married. These two changes accounted for most of the surge in population growth after 1750. Before then, permanent or temporary celibacy for a large part of the sexually mature population held numbers in check.

Alan Macfarlane’s book is an important exploration of the effect on the institution itself of this use of marriage as a demographic control. He calls the control the Malthusian marriage system, not because Malthus understood that it was working, but because, at least up to the half century in which he was born, it was the main part of the preventive check on population growth which he advocated. Malthus, Macfarlane claims, saw the delayed access to marriage and the confining of sexual experience to marriage as linked to the acquisitive ethic of market capitalism. I am not sure that the link was as clear to Malthus as it is to Macfarlane, for the early political economists took for granted the workings of private enterprise, and saw the desire to obtain the necessities and comforts of life as an essential part of human nature. Macfarlane’s anthropological experience of other cultures, and his knowledge of the different life-styles and aims of different historical groups, furnish his mind with classifications which were not available to Malthus. In particular, he argues that the Western pattern of family and economy makes the individual, not the family group, the unit of production and consumption, and so enshrines the interest of the individual as the basis for decision-making. A quick glance in any supermarket would force some qualification. The money of the family may be raised by one or more individuals, but it is spent on behalf of the family as a whole. Such income as gets to the hands of the housewife has for long been regarded by her, even if not by the law, as a family resource.

It was John Hajnal in the 1960s who first alerted historians to the features of the marriage system prevailing for many centuries in Northern and Western Europe: late marriage and a sizeable proportion of permanent celibacy. The phrase ‘the Hajnal marriage pattern’ has passed into general use. But as Wrigley and Schofield have shown, there were national variations within it: France, for instance, had relatively young marriage, and high fertility and mortality. Macfarlane ties the English system to what he calls ‘individualism’, the low level of restrictions on the actions of men from kin, overlords or the local community. Many have doubts about the uniqueness of this, and indeed Macfarlane seems now to have retreated from the emphasis in his earlier book, The Origins of English Individualism. In the 14th-century French village of Montaillou, as analysed by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, the aspirations and opportunities of people seem very similar to those in England. In such a society marriage is based on the assumption of the capacity to finance and sustain a separate household. It requires adult earning power and also savings. The burden of supporting the household is reduced by the fact that total family size is likely to be small. Children will be born into a family unit capable of caring for and sustaining them. Though the decision to marry has room for parental influence, local conventions and religious guidance, it is basically that of the two partners. In this, Christian Europe differs from many other societies, where marriage may be compulsory, the partners designated from birth, or the range of permissible links so narrow as to leave no real decision. Most people in Europe seem to have married within their social order, but the habit of leaving home as an adolescent for service or apprenticeship meant that marriage was usually undertaken out with one’s native settlement.

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