Understanding Your ...

Ancestors in the Records:
Parish Records: Using German Parish Marriage Records

By Leslie Albrecht Huber
(This article first appeared in The Palatine Immigrant)

Family historians tracing their German roots know the importance of parish records which contain birth, marriage, death, and sometimes other information. Each type of record can offer unique and valuable information about our ancestors. Kenneth Smith in his classic book, German Church Books: Beyond the Basics, makes this claim: “For the sheer amount of data they offer marriage records are arguably the most important church book records.[1]” Whether or not you agree with this statement, parish marriage records are certainly a basic and vital source for German research.

There’s more to using and understanding marriage records than pulling out the names and dates. A knowledge of marriage customs and controls in history as well as demographic trends concerning where, when, and who your ancestors married can help you focus your search more effectively and make the records more meaningful. Then, knowledge about how records were kept and what kind of information they contain can help you extract and utilize all the information in the records.

Marriage Customs and Controls in History

Marriage is an ancient institution that existed long before parish records. By the sixteenth century, the time period from which the earliest parish records survive, certain customs and controls influenced marriage patterns. These continued to fluctuate as social and economic conditions changed.

Religious Influences.The state church, usually the Lutheran or Catholic Church, exerted efforts to ensure that people began their families by solemnizing their marriages in the church. Laws in both Lutheran and Catholic states required the participation of a priest (to consecrate or at least witness the marriage) in order for the relationship to be binding.[2]

Yet, churches found it difficult to stamp out earlier beliefs and practices. In traditional peasant societies, communities had viewed exchanging personal vows, living together, and having children as valid ways to consummate a marriage.[3] Since the law required couples to marry in the church, most did take this step – eventually. But, many entered into a relationship previous to the church ceremony. In general, communities continued to do little to discourage premarital sex or even illegitimate children – particularly if the partner was a genuine marriage prospect. [4] And, in fact many illegitimate children were born into stable family units, even if the parents weren’t formerly married. [5] In this way, often the earliest document created for a newly formed ancestral family will be located in the birth records – not the marriage records.

Civil Influences. Other factors besides religion shaped marriages as well. Throughout the 1600s and 1700s in many parts of Germany, much of the population had only partial control over the decision to marry. Serfdom persisted in many of the German states throughout the eighteenth century and beyond. Prussia, for example, didn’t end servitude until the October Edict of 1807. [6] Some states lagged even further behind. Peasants living in these conditions weren’t free to marry as they pleased, but had to gain permission from their feudal masters or landlords. [7] Young people working as apprentices faced similar limitations.

Around the beginning of the nineteenth century, state governments got involved with the marriage decision. Concerned by the rapid population growth, many states passed laws creating restrictions and making marriage more difficult. The hope was that these laws would decrease marriage and thus slow the population growth. By the 1860s, many rulers recognized that the legal restrictions were ineffective. The laws had brought increases in illegitimacy but did little to slow birth rates. Most of the barriers were removed. [8]

Trends and Patterns in Marriage

Locating a marriage record becomes easier when you have an understanding of some of the trends and patterns that occurred in marriages. Particularly an understanding of where marriages generally occurred, who our ancestors tended to marry, and when (or at what age) they married helps focus searches in parish records.

Where Our Ancestors Married. Most marriages took place in the bride’s parish. If you are unsure of the bride’s origins, keep in mind that she probably didn’t live far from the village or villages in which you know your family lived. Many Western European peasants, including young servants and landless workers, moved frequently – but rarely further than a few villages away. [9] In most cases, our ancestors married people from their own or neighboring villages. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the marriage was actually performed in this hometown though – but rather in the church serving that town since people from several towns often attended one church.

Many young people met their future spouses while working as a farmhand or maidservant on another farm. Particularly for members of the rural laborer class, sending young people away to work was a common practice. These young workers often moved from farm to farm around once a year. Length of service varied but often lasted from about the middle of the person’s teens until his or her mid to late twenties, when he or she married and began an independent household. [10] Occasionally marriages took place in a town in which the couple was working instead of a hometown.

Who Our Ancestors Married. Our German ancestors tended to marry people similar to themselves, both with regards to religion and social class. Particularly the more well-off classes such as the clergy, the landed aristocracy, and the business elite carefully considered marriage partners, taking into account the benefit the union could bestow on the family. Thus, they almost never chose spouses from among the peasant class.[11] Even within the peasant class, people tended to marry into families with similar economic and social positions in the community.[12]

And, although marriages between people of different faiths did take place, they were the exception. Because religion held such an important position in our ancestors’ lives, and because it was so strictly regulated by ecclesiastical and civil authorities, marrying someone of a different faith had ramifications that lasted throughout a person’s life. Yet, when a marriage record appears to be “missing,” the hypothesis that the ancestor married in a church of a different faith is worth testing – particularly in areas with some level of religious diversity.[13]

When Our Ancestors Married. Although of course people married at a wide range of ages, the age at first marriage was generally in the late twenties. [14] Although the exact averages varied across time and places, this general pattern held true for hundreds of years. Women in the late 1700s, for example, on average married at 26.9 years. [15] One hundred years later in 1860, the average age for a first marriage in Prussia had only gone up one year. [16] Keep these average ages in mind when tracing further back to find your ancestor’s birth record – but don’t limit your search for the birth record to the year range fitting these ages.

The reasons for these late ages at first marriage were usually financial. Young people had to find some way to establish themselves independently – a process that took time. Children of landowning peasants sometimes waited until their parents retired and they received their inheritance. Yet, children of landowning farmers, particularly women, generally married earlier than the children of landless laborers.[17] This second group spent these extra years working on other farms, carefully saving their resources in preparation of beginning their own households.[18]

In addition, a large percentage of people in German society never married. For example, at the end of the nineteenth century, around eight percent of German males never married. These rates varied across regions from five percent in the eastern Prussian provinces to sixteen percent in southern Bavaria. Female rates generally ran slightly higher. [19]

Second and Subsequent Marriage

Many of our German ancestors married a second time – and some even married a third time or more. Divorce, although it existed even among peasants, was rare.[20] However, life expectancies were short – only 26.5 for males and 28.7 for females in Prussia in 1816. [21] Death claimed many relatively young adults, leaving the surviving spouses as single parents.

In the harsh and demanding environment of peasant life, remaining a single parent for a long amount of time generally wasn’t a feasible option. One parent couldn’t fulfill the responsibilities of caring for children and providing for a family. This meant that young widows or widowers nearly always remarried – and remarried rather soon. In Western Europe on average, fifty to seventy-five percent of widowers who remarried did so in the first year after the death of their spouse. Women generally stayed widows a little longer – an average of two years in many areas. Younger people with fewer children, not surprisingly, remarried more quickly and more often than others. [22]

Because of these trends, always begin your search for a second marriage immediately after the death of the first spouse. If you don’t find a second marriage after the death of a young spouse, consider the possibility that the surviving spouse may have remarried in a different location (particularly men who likely married in the bride’s hometown).

Background of Record Keeping

Parishes have recorded marriages for hundreds of years. Many Lutheran churches began keeping records as early as 1540, with the earliest surviving records being kept in Nürnberg. Catholic churches tended to start their record keeping a few years later. Of course, many parish marriage records have not survived. The Thirty Years’ War (which lasted from 1618 until 1648) destroyed many of the early records. Subsequent wars, fires, and a wide range of other events further destroyed and damaged records. Yet, large numbers of records, particularly from the 1700s and beyond have been preserved.[23]

Most of our ancestors will be found in the records of the state church. The Treaty of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years’ War recognized only three religions –Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed. This did not equate to religious freedom even for these three groups though, as most rulers still chose one religion for their subjects to follow. In the Mecklenburg duchies for example, ninety-nine percent of the people were Lutheran.[24] Diversity did exist in some areas. In the district around Heidelberg, for example, fifty-three percent of the people were Reformed, twenty-four percent were Catholic, twenty-two percent were Lutheran, and one percent were Jewish.[25] Many other smaller religious groups, such as Jews, Huguenots, Mennonites, Amish, Quakers, and others functioned and generally kept their own records. Their prevalence varies between states and over time.

The content and format of marriage records vary greatly. Catholic records were normally kept in Latin until the early nineteenth century, while Lutheran and Reformed records were kept in German. Some records were kept in organized tables while others were written out, with entries ranging from a couple of lines to long paragraphs. Some marriage records contain an abundance of information while others contain little detail.

Contents of Marriage Records

Despite the differences, many marriage records do have some of the same basic types of information. Some of these are described below. Almost all marriage records include the first few items such as the names of the bride and the groom, the date of marriage, information about earlier marriages (if relevant), and witnesses. Many records contain the next few items including the town of residence of the groom (and the bride if it’s different than the town in which they married), and at least the father of the bride. Some pastors wrote down more. In general, more recent marriage records contain more complete information.

Name of the Bride and Groom. The most basic piece of information is the name of the bride and groom. For the bride, the surname given is usually her maiden name. In the case of a second or subsequent marriage, it may be the name of her previous spouse.

Date of the Marriage. The date of marriage isn’t always as straight-forward as you might think. Sometimes, other dates are also included such as the date of the engagement and/or the marriage banns - three dates on which the marriage intentions were announced (see the section below for more information about these).

Information about Earlier Marriages. Especially for brides, details of a previous marriage (if it existed) are usually included. Often this will be one word, like widow, widower, or single farm maid (meaning it’s a first marriage). Sometimes though, you may find much more. Some records list the names of the previous spouses and occasionally even the death dates and places of these people.

Witnesses. Many marriage records contain the names of a witness or witnesses. Pay attention to these people as they were sometimes family members. The record may or may not indicate their relationship to the bride or the groom.

Place of Residence. Sometimes the most important piece of information you’ll find in a marriage record is the hometown of those getting married - particularly the groom. Since marriages usually took place in the bride’s hometown, she was often from within the parish (although perhaps a different village). The groom, however, is more likely to be from a nearby parish. You can use the name of the hometown to trace the family back another generation. If no town is given (and other surrounding records show that the pastor was recording town names), the person is probably from that parish.

Parents of the Bride and Groom. Pastors commonly included the father of the bride (unless she was a widow, in which case the recorder usually included the name of her first husband). Some pastors wrote down the fathers of both the bride and groom, and less often they recorded the names of all four parents. For grooms marring a second or subsequent time, pastors usually didn’t give the father’s name. They likely included the term “widower” – but may have left off even this piece of information. The entry might also provide other important details about the bride and groom’s parents - such as if the parent is deceased, where he or she lives, or what the father’s occupation is.

Occupation. Many times you’ll find the occupation of the groom in the marriage record. Commonly, it is a title such as farmer, farmhand, or smith.

Age or Birth Information. Pastors in the 1800s sometimes wrote down the ages or even the birthdates of the parties getting married. In some parishes, you may be fortunate enough to find the birthdates and places of the bride and groom.

Other Information. The list of other possible details a parish marriage record might include is endless. The pastor could’ve noted if the couple had a child before the marriage or other descriptive information.

Marriage Banns

Banns were read or posted at the church for three Sundays before a couple married. Their purpose was to make the bride and groom’s intention to marry known and give anyone with an objection the chance to come forward. You may find banns recorded separately. Or, you may simply notice three dates recorded before the marriage dates, all one week apart. In rare cases, only the marriage banns have survived.  

[1] Kenneth L. Smith, German Church Books: Beyond the Basics (Picton Press: Camden Maine, 1993), 65.

[2] Lloyd Bonfield, “European Family Law,” in The History of the European Family, volume two:  Family Life in the Long Nineteenth Century, 1789-1913, David Kertzer and Marzio Baragli, editors (Yale University Press:  New Haven, 2000), 144.

[3] Ibid, 113.

[4] Regina Schulte, “Peasants and Farmers’ Maids: Female Farm Servants at the End of the Nineteenth Century,” in The German Peasantry: Conflict and Community in Rural Society from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Century, Richard J. Evans and W.R Lee, editors (St. Martin’s Press: New York, 1986), 169.

[5] James J. Sheehan, German History, 1770-1866 (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1994), 457.

[6] John G. Gagliardo, From Parish to Patriot (The University Press of Kentucky: Lexington, Kentucky, 1969), 18.

[7] Ibid., 11-12.

[8] Sheehan, 785.

[9] Caroline Brettell, “Migration,” in The History of the European Family, volume two:  Family Life in the Long Nineteenth Century, 1789-1913, David Kertxer and Marzio Baragli, editors (Yale University Press:  New Haven, 2000), 229.

[10]Schulte, 158-161.

[11] Eda Sagarra, A Social History of Germany, 1648-1914 (Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1977), 256, 291, and 303.

[12] John G. Gagliardo, Germany Under the Old Regime: 1600-1790 (Longman: London, 1991), 167.

[13] Smith, 7.

[14] Uta Frevert, Women in Germany History, Stuart McKinnon-Evans, Terry Bond, and Barbara Norden, editors (St Martin’s Press, New York, 1988), 25.

[15] Antoinette Fauve-Chamoux, “Marriage, Widowhood, and Divorce,” in ,” in The History of the European Family, volume two:  Family Life in Early Modern Times, 1500-1789, David Kertxer and Marzio Baragli, editors (Yale University Press:  New Haven, 2000), 225.

[16] Sheehan, 456.

[17] Frevert, 26 and Cathleen S. Catt, “Farmers and Factory Workers: Rural Society in Imperial Germany: the Example of Maudach,” in The German Peasantry: Conflict and Community in Rural Society from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Century, Richard J. Evans and W.R Lee, editors (St. Martin’s Press: New York, 1986), 145. Interestingly, this study finds much earlier marriage ages than those generally reported. According to this data, wives of farmers often married as young as seventeen.

[18] Schulte, 167.

[19] Josef Ehmer, “Marriage,” in The History of the European Family, volume two:  Family Life in the Long Nineteenth Century, 1789-1913, David Kertxer and Marzio Baragli, editors (Yale University Press:  New Haven, 2000), 302-303.

[20] Smith, 70.

[21] Sheehan, 256. Part of the reason these numbers are so low is because of the high infant mortality rates. Life expectancies increased significantly for people who survived until their first birthdays.

[22] Fauve-Chamoux, 242.

[23] FamilySearch, “Research Outline: Germany” (Family and Church History Department: Salt Lake City, Utah), 15-17.

[24] Shirley J. Riemer, The German Research Companion (Lorelei Press, 1997), 428.

[25] Philip Otterness, Becoming German: The 1709 Palatine Migration to New York (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2004), 15.