Understanding Your ...

Understanding Your Western European Ancestors:
Demographics: Marriages

Marriage records are the second standard type of document for which genealogists search. Keep in mind a couple of facts when searching for these records. First, most couples married in the bride’s parish. If she was working away from home, they may have married there. Also, people in Western Europe married late – usually when they were close to thirty. It was also common for people not to marry. Typically, in Western European countries, fewer than half of women between ages fifteen and forty-nine were married. For more information, read the sections below and see the Parish Records section.

Age at Marriage

Throughout most of Central and Northern Europe, the average age at marriage was twenty-nine for men, and twenty-seven for women (in England and Spain, both men and women tended to marry a few years earlier). In order to marry and begin a household of their own, young men and women first needed resources. For children of landed peasants, this usually meant waiting until their parents retired, at which point the land passed on to the next generation. Although all the children couldn’t inherit the homestead and land, they still got portions of their parents’ wealth and belongings which helped them establish their own home. Women marrying landowning farmers married younger than those marrying landless workers since they didn’t need to have saved a large amount of money themselves.

For those who had little to inherit from parents, the delay in marriage allowed them time to earn money. Children in these families usually continued working for other people until they had saved enough to establish themselves independently.

Of course, some people still married much earlier or later than the average. For instance, marriages at younger ages often occurred when a young woman became pregnant.


In most areas, divorce was basically unheard of. However, the early death of one spouse was quite common. The frequency of early death left many single parents. In the harsh and demanding environment of peasant life, remaining a single parent for a long amount of time simply was not a feasible option. One parent couldn’t fulfill the responsibilities of caring for children and providing for a family. Because of this, widows or widowers nearly always remarried – and remarried quickly. On average, fifty to seventy-five percent of widowers who remarried did so in the first year after the death of their spouse. Women, on average, 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.

Position of Women in Society

Women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries stayed under the authority of someone else throughout their lives, never being treated as fully independent people. Until marriage, fathers had authority over their daughters. Once a woman married, she became subordinate to her husband. Husbands made decisions and gave instructions for their households, which wives were expected to follow. Some examples from German law illustrate women’s positions. Most German states didn’t recognize women’s right to hold property and even gave husbands the ultimate authority over their children. Throughout the eighteenth century and often beyond, German law confirmed a husband’s right to use physical force against his wife.

Much of this second-class existence originated in religion. Men were recognized to have God-given stewardship over their households. Even in worship, women had limited rights. Until the nineteenth century, many people believed women should be silent in church. In some places they weren’t even allowed to sing. Yet, often women practiced their religion more piously than their husbands.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, literature about differences in the sexes had become prominent. Thinkers and writers of the time claimed that women were weak, dependent, emotional, religious, understanding, modest, and loving. Men, on the other hand, tended to be powerful, energetic, ambitious, forceful, intellectual, bold, and knowledgeable. This led to the confirmation of the ideal of different spheres. Men participated in the public life and ran their farms. Women concentrated on the home.

The reality of peasant life, however, didn’t allow most rural women to conform to this standard. In poor households, women had no choice but to work alongside men. They often served as household managers, under the direction of their husbands, supervising any maidservants they had as well as their own children. They also performed chores of all types.