Understanding Your ...

Understanding Your Western European Ancestors:
Demographics: Births

Birth dates and places are among the most basic pieces of information you can collect about your ancestors. A few facts will help you understand these important events in your ancestors’ lives and locate the records more effectively. Keep in mind when looking for birth records, that the birth of some of the family’s children will often predate the marriage record and that women often continued to have children into their early forties – and sometimes later. For more information on finding birth records, go to the Parish Records section.

Fertility and Family Size

Despite modern notions that women in this period gave birth to nearly a dozen children each, records tell a different story. European women had an average of five or six children during their lives, although the numbers varied greatly from place to place. For example, in Germany in the 1840s, the average number of children per marriage varied from 5.1 in Württemberg to 3.8 in East Prussia.

Several factors kept family size small. For one thing, women had a relatively short window of time to bear children. Most women didn’t marry until their late twenties when their fertility was already on the decline. Then, high death rates among young women cut short their number of childbearing years. Poor health and nutrition also contributed to smaller families, limiting the number of times a woman became pregnant. Another influential factor for family size was breastfeeding. In areas where breastfeeding was widely practiced, spacing between children increased, lowering the number of children a couple conceived.

Historians have also found evidence that couples made a conscious effort to limit the number of children they had. These practices started even before the beginning of the 1800s in some areas. Although birth control as we think of it wasn’t available, couples did have some options. By relying on periods of abstinence and other natural means, couples could space their children or stop conceiving children well before the woman became infertile. Large-scale declines in fertility didn’t occur until near the end of the 1800s. But, individual couples employed methods to control their family size long before this.


Illegitimacy was a rather common occurrence in Western Europe in the 1700 and 1800s. Children born the first eight months of marriage were even more common. Together, between ten (in France) and thirty-seven percent (in England) of first births fell into the category of premarital conception. However, most illegitimate births did occur within a socially accepted courtship, which was often followed by marriage.

Despite the abundance of illegitimacy, children born to unmarried parents still experienced some setbacks early in life. For one thing, laws often discriminated against them. In many areas in Germany, illegitimate children couldn’t inherit property. However, if the parents married later many of the limitations didn’t apply anymore. Illegitimate children also had a higher infant mortality rate.

Illegitimacy took on a much different appearance than illegitimacy today. Although it was common for couples who weren’t married to have children, it was uncommon for these couples not to marry eventually. In essence, many illegitimate children were born into family units, although their families lacked the official blessing of the Lutheran Church. The couple often lived together and considered themselves a family at the time of the child's birth.

Couples delayed marriages for several reasons. Sometimes, they didn’t have the money to pay the marriage fee. Other times, the church was far away or the pastor wasn’t easily accessible. Some German states, in an effort to control the booming population, placed legal restrictions on marriage, making it more difficult. And sometimes, the couple simply didn’t feel that much concern about whether marriage or children came first. Before the Lutheran Church had gained a prominent role, peasant society had its own marriage customs. The community had viewed living together, making a commitment to one another, and especially having children as equivalent to getting married. Despite valiant efforts by the church, stamping out traditions and convincing people to first perform the ceremony in the church proved difficult.