Academic journal article Population

Seasonality of Marriages, Past and Present

Academic journal article Population

Seasonality of Marriages, Past and Present

Article excerpt

Be it births, deaths or marriages, most demographic phenomena have seasonal patterns of variation. While rarely studied from sociological viewpoint, these patterns are of enormous interest for understanding a society, its organization and its rites. "The timing of marriages reflects the rhythms of our collective life, and their transformations" (Besnard, 1989). This is perfectly illustrated by Jean Bourgeois' study of marriage seasonality, published 70 years ago. His paper provides a valuable record of the society of his time,(1) a point to which we will return shortly. But this immersion in the past, and the historical depth it offers also arouse our curiosity. How has the distribution of marriages changed in the intervening years? What does it say about marriage trends, and the very institution of marriage itself? How would this study of seasonality be approached today?

The marriage referred to in Jean Bourgeois' article is of quite another time, when marriage was such an evident choice that the possibility of an alternative was never considered. Admittedly, between the industrial revolution which saw certain fringes of the working classes prefer consensual unions, and the decline of marriage first observed at the end of the post-war boom years, the period studied by Bourgeois (1927-1938) was a golden age for the institution of marriage. The religious dimension of marriage is even more striking. Readers today might get the impression that only religious marriage existed, Christian marriage to be more specific, the disconnection between the civil and religious components of marriage being absent from the analysis.® The variability of the religious dimension is addressed only indirectly, via the study of regional disparities. To account for these disparities, Jean Bourgeois surmises, for example, that "observance of Lent does not have, or perhaps no longer has, the religious importance that we tend to attribute to it" (p. 689). Religious precepts are referred to as "legislation": Lent, the months of the Virgin Mary (May and August) and Advent, periods when weddings are, in principle, prohibited, largely shaped the seasonal pattern of marriages at that time. Economic factors also seem to be at play: the corn and grape harvesting months were not favourable for marriage. In this respect, Bourgeois' article also tells us about the context of France, a country that was much more rural and agricultural than today.

These various factors advanced by Bourgeois to explain marriage seasonality are equally valid for explaining the seasonality of births (Dupâquier, 1976; Houdaille, 1985): conceptions were fewer during religious festivals and in times of penitence, and likewise in periods of intense farm labour. The correlation between seasonality of marriages and births is thus explained by factors common to both, but it may also be the consequence of a dual effect. In the absence of effective contraception, the timing of marriage - which preceded cohabitation and first sexual intercourse at that time - could influence the seasonality of first births (de Saboulin, 1978); conversely, in a context where extra-marital births were condemned, a pregnancy could precipitate marriage (Lutinier, 1987). Bourgeois does not mention this phenomenon, perhaps because such social facts were still taboo in his day. This might also explain why the religious rules he mentions were often ignored; marriage during closed periods was actually quite frequent.

The study of seasonality is always a good entry point for describing, and above all understanding, demographic phenomena and their patterns. Analysis of the current seasonality of marriages shows that seasonal variations are still large, but that the pattern is radically different today. Alongside a steep decline in the annual number of marriages (from 365,000 on average over the period 1946-1953 to 248,000 for the period 2006-2013), which clearly illustrates the changing place of marriage in society, the annual distribution of weddings reveals a different set of changes (Figure 1). …

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