Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Rise of Age Homogamy in 19th Century Western Europe

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Rise of Age Homogamy in 19th Century Western Europe

Article excerpt

In many parts of Western Europe the age at first marriage and the level of celibacy declined in the second half of the 19th century. This weakening of the European marriage pattern (EMP) can be interpreted as a "classic" response to the increase of the standard of living, but a more far-reaching interpretation is that the erosion of the EMP was part of a cultural shift characterized by the rise of a new, less instrumental and more egalitarian view on marriage and partner selection. The latter vision implies the increase of the preference for a same age marriage. We test this explanation by using a combined Belgian-Dutch data set of marriage certificates (N = 766,412). Our findings corroborate the "cultural shift thesis."

Key Words: love, marriage, social trends/social change, union formation.

From the 16th century onward marriage played a key role in the long-term population development of Europe. In contrast to the situation in other parts of the world, the European marriage pattern (EMP) was characterized by late marriage and a high proportion of persons never marrying. Various authors have also pointed to the relatively small age difference between spouses as another distinguishing feature of the EMP (Hajnal, 1969). The system helped to keep population in line with the economic resources. The key to this unique marriage pattern was the norm that it was necessary for a man to defer marriage until he could establish an independent livelihood adequate to support a family.

In many parts of Western Europe the age at marriage and the level of celibacy declined in the second half of the 19th century. The erosion of these characteristics of the EMP has been interpreted as a "classic" response of relaxation of strict marital norms induced by the increase of the standard of living, industrialization, and urbanization, processes that made old marriage patterns less useful. A more far-reaching interpretation, however, is that the erosion of the EMP was also the consequence of a cultural shift characterized by the rise of a new, less instrumental and more egalitarian view on marriage and partner selection (Coontz, 2005).

In theories about the development of the EMP, not much attention has been paid to age differences between spouses. Empirical studies on the evolution of age homogamy have been few in number, were based on limited data sets, and were largely descriptive (Berardo, Appel, & Berardo, 1993). Hardly any attempt so far has been made to outline the different mechanisms that might influence the level of age homogamy in a society, its relation with the other characteristics of the EMP, and the effect that the social and economic context had on the changes in the level of age homogamy. We believe that by incorporating age differences between spouses as a defining element in the EMP we can shed further light on the development of the EMP. Age differences between spouses had wide implications for the life of the couples concerned. Large age differences in favor of men were often seen as an indication of a patriarchal family system (Cain, 1993). Large age differences have also been described as an important element in an institutional system impeding conjugal intimacy (Barbieri & Hertrich, 2005). The study of the evolution of age differences thus provides important information about the quality of the interpersonal relationship between husband and wife.

In this paper we examine the evolution of age differences since early 1 9th century to study the shift toward a new marriage pattern. We make use of a large Belgian-Dutch data set (766,412 marriage certificates) that covers a very long time period (the 19th and early 20th centuries) and a wide variety of contexts: five Belgian cities, among which are the most advanced early industrial cities of the continent, one (Catholic) Belgian province containing both urban and rural areas, and 5 of the 1 1 Dutch provinces, Catholic and Protestant ones covering towns and villages. …

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