Debates on marriage patterns

How can we study the relationship between institutions for collective action and marriage patterns?


There are several domains in which we can expect to find significant influence of marriage patterns on the formation and functioning of guilds. The most important may be the rules of access -in particular the type and duration of apprenticeship- and the access to guilds for women, and the position of (unmarried) journeymen within the guild. For apprenticeship we first of all need to consider the impact of the European Marriage Pattern (EMP) as a whole on human capital formation within the guilds. It has been argued that the EMP had a strong impact on the level of human capital formation of both boys and girls (De Moor and Van Zanden, 2008). In regions where human capital formation was more highly valued, the apprenticeship system may have been more widely practiced within the guilds. The fact that there was neo-locality in North-Western Europe may have stimulated the creation of a system of institutionalised apprenticeships.

If this view is correct, one would expect knowledge transfers in Southern Europe to be more likely between father and son, and thus not to require institutionalised apprenticeship. Secondly, there is a potential connection between the length of apprenticeship and age of marriage. Marriage ages in North-Western Europe were, in comparison with Southern Europe, remarkably high for both men and women. Did late marriage influence the apprenticeship, and vice versa? The other domain of the guilds where marriage patterns may have had an impact is the access and participation of women in the guild system. Here the average age at marriage of women may have been significant. We may assume that wherever women married early in life, and thus did not have an opportunity to work as wage labourers, they would be unable to enter the guild as independent craftswomen. Likewise we need to consider the position of widows within the guild, both as partners of their master-husbands and as their successors.

Beguinages can in many ways be linked to changes in marriage practices. One of the most obvious connections is the large number of single women as an important characteristic of the EMP. Women could be employed in town, or work as textile/embroidery workers at the beguinages and also live in these institutions. For a number of the beguines this was a temporary solution; beguines could leave the beguinage to marry. At the same time it was a refuge for widows who did not wish to remarry, or could not count on the support of their children.

Women known as beguines generally came from the middle class and lived in urban environments. Their independence from the ‘patriarchal’ world was expressed in their way of life: their households excluded males, the beguine communities were only loosely connected with each other, and clerical authorities oversaw them only informally. Many aspects make this way of life exceptional: the relative independence from the clerical and secular authorities, their economic autonomy, and the fact that they were communities founded and managed by women, independently from each other. Their independence from 'male authority in marriage and in the church' was previously unknown in Western culture. The position and large number of beguines in the towns of the Low Countries (Simons, 2001), the adjacent regions in Northern France, and in the vicinity of Cologne suggest that this movement was linked to changes in the demographic and socio-economic position of women, and not the result of some ‘top-down’ initiative by, for example, the Church. It is also well-known, albeit little studied, that beguinages often encroached upon the privileged arena of the guilds, as they were active as textile workers. Textile guilds often protested against the commercial activities of the beguines.

The same applies to the commons, but earlier analyses of the regulation of historical commons have already shown that the way in which access to the commons was regulated was also dependent on local family patterns. Some commons in Western Europe — such as the markegenootschappen in the Eastern Netherlands — explicitly emphasised family relations to former members as a condition for membership (Hoppenbrouwers, 2002). Elsewhere, e.g. the Campine area north of Antwerp, this was of a lesser, or no importance at all. The use of family ties as a criterion for access may restrict the number of members in a situation where natural resources need to be carefully safeguarded from overexploitation, but in times of population growth such solutions may prove insufficient. It has been noted that other conditions — such as restrictions to male family members, or the exclusion of in-laws — are often introduced in these circumstances (De Moor, 2002), thus giving marriage and gender a regulating role. Another aspect of common land arrangements is the social security provision by some of these commons, in particular for widows.



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