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.
In one of the most effective parts of this book Macfarlane looks at the way the resources for a new household were gathered in. A couple had to have a separate house, minimal furnishings for it, a continuing economic resource, which meant both an economic slot and the means to exploit it, and some ready cash. From the study of marriage contracts from many social levels Dr Macfarlane can say categorically that it was particularly in the matter of cash, but also to a lesser degree in furnishings, that the girl was expected to make provision. Girls had to have a ‘portion’, partly earned and saved by themselves, partly an endowment by parents, and the same word attached to both parts. The bride’s parents might have to save for many years for her portion. The need for the bride in all ranks save gentry to earn, and for her parents to save, were reasons for her late marriage. The need for the man to have the techniques of earning and the place in the economy had the same effect on him. Wrigley and Schofield have suggested that the greater opportunities for marriage after 1750 were a delayed reflection of an improvement in real wages over time. But even if we could be sure that what has been labelled as wages really was wages, and that a substantial part of the rewards of work came in this form, the delay which they chart of about a generation between the movements of the wage indicators and the response in marriage has led many to find a more convincing explanation of the upturn in marriage in new economic opportunities, particularly the greater demand for regular labour. One of the authors has recently modified the hypothesis, and partly met this opinion. But now Macfarlane offers an intelligible link between one generation’s experience of earnings and the marriage prospects of the next. ‘The fact that portions were accumulated over a period of years, ten to twenty on the part of parents, five to ten for the children’, would explain the time lag. ‘One bumper harvest or a sudden upturn in wages would not immediately convert itself into earlier marriage,’ but a widening gap between accepted needs and earnings would promote it.
This stress on the economics of family life carries on from work already done by Macfarlane on the diary of Ralph Josselin, where he has been able to calculate the cost of children. To this he now adds a repertoire of comments, from the 17th century on, about the burden of children to their parents, the physiological burden on the mother and the financial burden on the couple. In some societies children are seen as wealth, but in England, he claims, they were seen as expense. The cost was not spread to wider kin, nor was it reciprocal: no obligation of children to support their parents was built into law.
It is difficult to be sure how unusual this system was. In no society have three-year-olds been a benefit in other than emotional terms. Even the most industrialised society did not extract a full return for a child’s keep in terms of labour before the age of twelve or so, except for the early stage of the uncontrolled factory system. What was characteristic about England, Macfarlane stresses, and it is a valuable point, was the availability of forms of investment other than human beings, and an economy so monetised that it was easy to be aware of what everything, including parenthood, cost. Elsewhere in Europe these features might be blurred, and outside Europe in many areas polygamy, with widely-spaced childbearing for mothers, reduced the loss of maternal earning power. In many societies ancestor worship provided a non-economic drive for human replication.
Dr Macfarlane has collected a fine bunch of curmudgeonly statements on the disadvantages of having children, but he ignores the fact that these remarks, culled from diaries and letters, are socially selected. Writing was the preserve of the better-off, for even if the labouring population had the skill, and very few women had, it could not afford the means. In Early Modern England, as today, those who gained their living by other than manual work had an increasing income through their lives, and opportunity to save. The flow of wealth in landed, professional and merchant society was from the old to the young, because the old did not need it to go the other way. It was not so among those who worked for a wage. In fact, the essays edited by Jane Lewis as Labour and Love give clear examples of children of the working class supporting their parents. All Dr Macfarlane has established is that the better-off received little revenue from their children once the children were grown up. The thesis might have been wider if he had deployed the enormous wealth of information about the common folk of East Colne which for many years he has been making available for computer use, but their voices are not used to enrich the argument.
An even greater selectivity informs his chapter on the purpose of marriage. If marriage was the crucial decision of the two partners, both might be expected to have views on its function. But after a preliminary comment from Aphra Behn we are off on a purely male itinerary. Man after man records his need of companionship. Women are necessary because ‘man cannot live without their company.’ ‘When we are succourless they comfort us; being melancholy they cheer us ... and being swallowed up by the gulf licentiousness, the heavens have created them to help to redeem us from that hellish furnace.’ And so on. ‘I must have a wife or be ruined,’ remarks an 18th-century man unable to cope with the servant problem. Even Dr Johnson, who ought to have known better, explains how a man is ‘less able to supply himself with domestic comfort’ – as if, before the invention of the tea bag, men had to head for marriage to secure a pot of tea.
This is to be deplored not simply as a display of tunnel vision. In looking at why women would wish for marriage, we would be forced to look at the changing position of the adult woman over time. Marriage was the only way for them to any sort of status; increasingly, it became the only way to a likelihood of economic security. In his recent valuable book Annals of the Labouring Poor Keith Snell has looked at the decline of women’s wages compared to men’s in the 18th century, and at the still more serious restrictions in their economic opportunities. It became rare for a girl to be apprenticed except in textile and clothing trades, even before the 19th-century middle-class tenet came to dominate that it was potentially improper and always unsuitable for women to be employed outside a domestic setting. For all that slave-owners knew that slave girls earned their keep earlier than did boys, the wage structure was slanted against women and increasingly they became confined to jobs of low status and mean reward. The choice for a woman was marriage with a man who might beat her, the stress and danger of child-bearing, long hours of work both domestic and in the economy, as against a life of low status and earnings which would not leave her with reserves for old age. The lack of writing skill and the absence of the two basic needs of a good diarist, leisure and a sense of self-importance, mean that we have few first-hand accounts of the decision-making process from the female side, and the historian ought to have set out what the choice was.
Implicit in Macfarlane’s position is that the marital decision was one made by the male with the certainty that a grateful female would acquiesce. The popular success of some of Jane Austen’s proposal scenes may suggest otherwise. On a wider scale, we have Dr Gillis covering the process of courtship and marriage, time and time again revealing the partners acting freely and independently. He has a vast and well-used repertoire of minor anecdotes, and has grouped his material skilfully in periodisation, to let us see changing interpretations of the conventions of marriage. It is a regret to me that though he claims ‘Britain’ as his field, he means by this England and Wales only.
Gillis is interesting on the stages by which the young adult came to courtship in the 16th and 17th centuries. He claims that late marriage did not have to put severe strains on sexuality, for these young people lived much of their early adult life in single-sex groups. Courtship was a specific and relatively late episode in life (a fact for which there is also support in Scottish material), and often did not quickly result in successful union. Gillis also stresses the stages of the marriage process. Formal betrothal was the initial public stage, perhaps preceded by the exchange of love tokens or other indications of intent. Betrothal meant public promises, often in an alehouse or on other open unconsecrated premises. A further stage was the celebration of the marriage, a social as well as a personal event. This was dependent on money, and on the certainty of a home: so a delay between the stages was normal. But many couples considered that the betrothal was the crucial step, and were bedded before the formal marriage.
Those who could not afford a big celebration, and those in difficulties over parental consent or local hostility to the formation of new households among the impecunious, could choose instead an ‘irregular’ or ‘clandestine’ marriage, by which vows could be exchanged and evidence of respectable status attained. Even after Hardwicke’s Act tightened up the marriage outlets, private or small-scale weddings could be had by licence, and the fragmentation of rural society led many to choose this route, so stressing the private rather than the social aspect of marriage. In fact, some rural marriage practices which survived into recent times required a steady nerve and a resilient physique in the principals. There were communities where cohabitation replaced marriage, as it does for many today. Gillis also explores the method of popular divorce by wife sale, and shows how it developed a recognised ritual.
Dr Gillis gives sympathetic attention to the stresses placed by economic uncertainties on couples not yet married but under agreement. The petitions to the Foundling Society are a moving source material on frustrated marriage intentions among those who moved to London and did not find the streets lined with gold. But are these representative, and are their ‘facts’ the whole truth? The Foundling Society required evidence that the ‘deserted’ woman would, if relieved of her child, be able to achieve respectable employment. Usually this meant domestic service. The petitions project the image of the passive, deserted woman: but the great bulk of Dr Gillis’s other material shows, by contrast, that women were not passive.
Marriage, like all important institutions, has been adjustable. In the Mid-Victorian age it took on a new form. There had been pressure on the range of work available for women since the mid-18th century. Even within agriculture it was rare for women and men to work together except during harvest. The dominant idea was not that of the working family but that of the male as the family earner. Men’s employment was seen as important, partly because of the alternative need to provide by poor relief. Work was increasingly rationalised to exploit muscle power which only men would have. Any situation in which the woman was a major source of family income became labelled, even by Engels, who had more of a bourgeois mentality than he cared to recognise, as unnatural. By the late 19th century children had been got out of the labour market by compulsory education and women were expected to stay at home and keep house. They had to care for children and carry through the strenuous programme which established cleanliness and hence respectability. Outside work for men involved long hours and cut them off from their families: all that was expected from them at home was to consume food and hand over the bulk of a pay packet with regularity. Only if a man was unable to perform this last function, for reasons to do with lack of earning power or with an undue sympathy for alcohol, did it become ‘respectable’ for a wife to try to earn by work outside the house.
Life in this domestic ghetto threw together mothers and children in an alliance which, at least for the girls, was life-long. The children had their share of tasks. Reading a book was, for a girl, equivalent to idling if there was anything still needing work, and there always was. The inter-generation support among females is a major theme in Jane Lewis’s collection of essays. Girls seem to have accepted without resentment their obligation to help with the endless tasks of housework for the home, but resented working for their brothers. Working-class families did not offer them much in expectation of careers, but an article by Diana Copelman shows that at least in teaching there were many married women employed in the late 19th century. It was only in the inter-war period that bans were placed on their continuing in employment after marriage. In general, it was this period which embodied social prejudice in legislation – another example of this was the cohabitation rule. The slightly enhanced level of unskilled wages, and the reduction of alcohol consumption, pushed more of the unskilled working class into sharing the role-segregated pattern of the middle-class ethos, and they were aided in this by the determination of the Trade Union element within the Labour Party not to allow economic equality to accompany the vote.
It was very difficult for a woman to support a family by herself, but the sex separation gave her enormous family power. It was women who kept the family economy solvent, by complex and sometimes dishonest strategies, who obtained and distributed food, who found the first jobs for the teenage children, who provided the ethic by which the family lived. It was therefore natural that, as Jane Lewis shows, working-class women viewed with suspicion the early steps by which the welfare state was inaugurated. Compulsory education had destroyed such of the old family economy as had survived industrialisation. In the early 20th century, in an atmosphere of nagging criticism of their standards of child care by middle-class women who had no idea of their work load, many working-class women were hostile to the availability of school meals, and detested visits of inspection by voluntary workers or the school attendance officer. It was difficult enough to keep a family fed without gratuitous advice and ‘protective’ legislation.
The obvious question raised by the separation of roles is which sex lost most. The man was the income source, and this income could be deflected. He was part of a working community with its own rituals, friendships and status. But he was cut off from the concerns of his family. His children might offer him respect, but not necessarily affection or support, and his pattern of life kept him out of theirs. The woman had to endure endless work and worry, often unnecessary ill health, but she had the support and loyalty of the young, and usually of her own mother too.
Other problems are raised by this group of books. Where, if anywhere, does romantic love come in to the story of marriage? Lawrence Stone has asserted that it was a dangerous delusion introduced and fostered only by literature. Gillis sees it as playing an important role in courtship from early on, but as hedged about by rituals which were necessary since marriage not only created a personal bond but also altered the structure of the social world of kin, peers and community. Managing over a dozen index references to the topic, Macfarlane associates it closely only with Western marriage, seeing it as a necessary part of the system of personal choice. Choice means that some will be frustrated. Love, mostly frustrated, is the mainspring of poetry. A nuisance factor in plans for family aggrandisement, love figures in the papers of those who would be upwardly mobile, such as the Pastons. Love reciprocated is a vital element in letter-writing from Dorothy Osborne onwards. It is difficult to see the concept as artificial.
The power Macfarlane gives to Western marriage is not only social but economic. He holds that it makes possible the development of market capitalism. Marriage controlled by the need for savings is part of the ethic of accumulation. Inevitably we have an examination of the views of Marx and Weber. Macfarlane differs from them in seeing Western marriage as a cause, not a result, of capitalism: but like them he thinks that capitalism arrives with a bang in the 16th century, not observing the world of Medieval high finance. He might pay less attention to these well-worn dogmas, and, as an anthropologist, more to the fact that different societies have had and still have different goals. Those which aim at military power and a warrior élite, or at display and gifts, will have a different interest in accumulation from that of Western Europe. We should accept for societies what Enlightenment historians postulated for individuals – a diversity of ends. But what both Gillis’s and Macfarlane’s books stress is the long history of the peculiar system of Western marriage. If Gillis lays his emphasis on the variation at different times within it, and Macfarlane on the continuity, this can be seen as a practical demonstration of the existence of free choice within a determined system.