Academic journal article Population

Permanent Celibacy and Late Marriage in the Netherlands, 1890-1960

Academic journal article Population

Permanent Celibacy and Late Marriage in the Netherlands, 1890-1960

Article excerpt

A high incidence of permanent celibacy is recognized as one of the two distinguishing features of the Western European Marriage Pattern (WEMP). Surprisingly, it has never received as much attention as the other feature, a high age at first marriage. It is often assumed that the proportions single rise sharply in populations with relatively high ages at marriage simply because persons who delay the decision to marry run a higher risk of remaining unmarried. In this view universal marriage is synonymous with early marriage. A superficial comparison of aggregate data supports this interpretation. Several studies, however, have shown that closer scrutiny produces a different conclusion. The proportion who never marry is not always related to the level of the ages at marriage, and the two may evolve separately [7, 32].

The lack of attention to celibacy is especially surprising when we bear in mind the suggestion by some authors that changes in the proportion of women who never marry may have had more impact on fertility changes than fluctuations in female ages at marriage [33]. This "autonomous" role of permanent celibacy points to a factor not systematically discussed by Hajnal and his followers: the desirability of marriage. Historical studies seldom question the intention to marry. Human actors are all portrayed as individuals who want to marry as soon as possible. Yet for certain groups of men and women, in certain historical contexts, marriage was less desirable than the single state. Unfortunately, insufficient is known about the reasons why persons abstained altogether from marriage.

This lack of knowledge results partly from the sources used. Most research on the permanently single is based on the census. Typically, these studies show how the never-married are concentrated in particular occupations and places of residence, and draw inferences retrospectively about the reasons for their celibacy. The use of census data, however, has obvious pitfalls, the most serious being that the life histories of several cohorts are subsumed in a single average that is difficult to analyse. A few indepth studies of celibacy in the Netherlands do exist, but they tend to concentrate on women, particularly in cities [8, 17, 30]. Very little is known about the life courses of single men.

For these reasons this article addresses the issue of permanent celibacy from a life-course perspective by analysing a cohort of Dutch men and women born in the period 1890-1909. Our aim is to identify at least some of the background factors and life-course experiences that have influenced the outcome of permanent celibacy. Running through our analysis is the question: to what extent do the determinants of celibacy differ from those of late marriage?

Before analysing the individual data, we first examine the origins of ideas about marriage restriction, the questions asked, and the alternative answers offered recently. The background to the cohort analysis is a description of Dutch nuptiality in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including regional and social differences. We then present our dataset and discuss the ages at marriage and the percentages single among the subgroups of our cohort. Next, we present a multivariate analysis of the probability of high age at marriage and permanent celibacy, by simultaneously considering local conditions, family background and personal characteristics of the cohort members. A concluding section discusses our results. Do they contribute to our knowledge of nuptiality patterns in general, and if so, what are the specific lessons of the Dutch example?

I. The nuptiality valve

When discussing historical changes in nuptiality, two authors are the obvious starting points: Thomas Malthus and John Hajnal. When Malthus pointed to the contrast between two kinds of demographic regimes in 1798, nuptiality was a key variable to explain the differences. In "the less civilized parts of the world and in the past" population continued to grow until it was stopped by the so-called "positive checks" (poverty, disease, famine, and war). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.