Academic journal article Population

Dispensation from Banns. A Data Source for Historical Demography and Social History

Academic journal article Population

Dispensation from Banns. A Data Source for Historical Demography and Social History

Article excerpt

The marriage shall take place immediately, if it can; they shall have a licence; the formalities here are not very troublesome; the dean can do what he pleases; people are married before they have time to turn round. It is not as in France, where you must have banns, and publications, and delays, and all that fuss. (Victor Hugo, The Toilers of the Sea, 1866)

As soon as he caught Tess alone he assured her: "Don't let them tease you about the banns. A licence will be quieter for us, and I have decided on a licence without consulting you. So if you go to church on Sunday morning you will not hear your own name, if you wished to".

"I didn't wish to hear it, dearest", she said proudly.

(Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, 1891)

The study of marriage provides interesting data not only for historical demography (such as marriage rates and age at marriage), but also for social history, by providing new insights into endogamic practices, intergenerational social mobility and the geographical mobility of a society (Van Leeuwen and Maas, 2005; Oris, 2008). These questions are generally addressed through historical studies based on systematic searches of parish registers. However, despite the major potential of this source, most of these studies (in some cases highly detailed) are confined to the limited geographical areas covered by these local registers (Gautier and Henry, 1958; Snell, 2006; Bull, 2005; Manfredini, 2003; Van Bavel and Kok, 2009).

The aim of this short paper is to present another documentary source associated with Catholic marriage which, in places where such records still exist, offers scope for broader analysis at diocesan, i.e. regional, level. This offers clear advantages in terms of both the representativeness of samples and the cost of information processing and analysis. Our investigation concerns all registers of dispensations from banns granted by the bishop of each diocese.

This type of document was often solicited to hasten the procedure for celebrating a marriage. The serial nature of the register makes it possible to combine a diachronic study over a long period with a study covering a large geographical area. This intermediate method lies between micro approaches focusing on a locality or parish, and macro approaches based on sources where individuals were grouped into large statistical aggregates. The presentation of our source, which may potentially exist in all regions where the Catholic church has a presence, is based on documentation from the diocese of Girona in northwestern Catalonia, Spain (Figure 1). By examining the documentary collections of this diocese, we can observe the content and continuity of this data source, determine its representativeness and assess the reasons given for requesting a dispensation.

I. Publication of banns and dispensation

Banns are public notifications of an intended canonical marriage. They are announced during church services by the priests of all parishes in which the future spouses have resided since adolescence. Parishioners are thus able to reveal and denounce any impediment to the marriage of the couple in question. According to certain Spanish authors of treaties of canon law, the practice dates back to twelfth-century France and became widespread after the Council of the Lateran in 1213 (Carbonero, 1864). From that time on, before a marriage could be celebrated, the banns had to be proclaimed publicly three times, on three consecutive holy days, during mass in the parish church. These proclamations formed part of the general procedures used by parish priests to verify both the identity of the future spouses and the absence of bonds or situations liable to constitute an impediment to marriage under canon law. With the dispensation from banns (also called licence to marry - remissis monitionibus) this procedure was cancelled, with the dual effect of bringing forward the marriage date and limiting the risk that someone might thwart the intended union. …

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