A new research article concludes that changes to marriage patterns in the Late Middle Ages, in particular in England and the Low Countries, had important consequences for the women and the economic success of those areas.
"Girl power: the European marriage pattern and labour markets in the North Sea region in the late medieval and early modern period," by Tine de Moor and Jan Luiten Van Zanden, can be found in the latest issue of the Economic History Review. The article examines the European Marriage Pattern (EMP), which is fairly unique for pre-modern society, where marriage in Northwestern Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries was typically between couples in their mid-twenties. Furthermore, this period saw very low levels of childbirth out of wedlock.
The authors find that several factors made the situation more ideal for women. First, the Catholic Church had promoted the idea that marriages could only be done with the consent of both the man and the woman, and this gradually eroded the ability of families to arrange the weddings of the children.
Secondly, the large scale population decline in the 14th century from the Black Death and other plagues created a labour shortage, which allowed for more women to get involved in the labour market and earn higher wages. In places like England and the Netherlands, unmarried women as young as eight could be found working as domestic servants, while studies from Italy and other parts of southern Europe show that it was married women who filled those roles.
"For example," the authors note, "thatchers’ assistants (usually women), earned a third of the wage of the thatcher himself (one versus three pence). After 1348, the wages of thatchers’ assistants increased to two pence in the 1360s and almost three pence at the end of the fourteenth century, whereas the wages of thatchers increased by only a third to about four pence. These thatchers’ wages are probably the best guide to the relative development of women’s wage levels after 1348. In addition, government regulation was also quite beneficial for women: the Statutes of Labourers of 1444 set the wages of female labourers at four and a half pence, which was in fact higher than that of unskilled male labourers (‘every other labourer’) which was set at three-and-a-half pence."
The authors explain, "young women and men were able to free themselves from parental influence through their high real earnings. In the process, they developed strategies which were labour market-oriented: wage labour became a key stage in the life cycle, starting with work as a servant (girls) or an apprentice (boys) during their teens, through which they acquired the skills and the savings to set up their own household. A very mobile and flexible labour force developed—young people migrated to cities at the age of 12 or 14 when job opportunities were growing there, or moved to other regions and/or jobs when prospects seemed good. Even after marriage and the establishment of a new household, wage labour remained the main source of income. So not only did the booming labour market induce men and women to change their marriage pattern, but the changed marriage pattern in its turn resulted in an increased dependence on wage labour."
The way inheritance was distributed to children also played an important role - in southern Europe dowries were more common, in which the daughter would be given her inheritance at the time of her marriage. This would give them an incentive to marry earlier. Meanwhile, in northwestern Europe, the inheritance would not come until the death of their parents, meaning that the decision to marry would not be affected by this kind of monetary inducement.
One might expect that having a society where people did not get married until their mid-20s would have also meant a larger proportion of illegitimate children, but this was not the case in England and the Low Countries. As one scholar states, "couples hardly denied themselves all sexual activity. The important thing was to avoid having babies, and evidence on courting practices throughout north-western Europe reveals that couples, especially those already betrothed, often engaged in socially sanctioned sessions of petting and fondling."
The authors agree with the suggestion that late medieval England and the Low Countries were "a golden age for women," but also noted that how this situation improved the economies of those regions as a whole - their were more people involved in the workforce, more competition for jobs, and this system encouraged parents to make sure their children were better educated and ready to work in a trade.
At the same time, there was less of an emphasis on having the children take care of their own parents in their old age. "Investment in human capital (schooling and on-the-job training) became a normal part of the life cycle of young men and women," the article states, "effectively delaying their entry into the marriage market. In short, instead of being backward-looking (that is, focused on taking care of the parents), the household became forward-looking (that is, focused on investing in its offspring)."
The article, "Girl power: the European marriage pattern and labour markets in the North Sea region in the late medieval and early modern period," can be found in Volume 63, Number 1 of Economic History Review (2010).
See our section To Have and To Hold: Marriage in Pre-Modern Europe for more about this topic