Why would people with kids postpone marriage in 19th century Europe?
March 22, 2020 4:34 PM   Subscribe

I'm doing research on families who were living in Europe (mostly France, but not only) in the second half of the 19th century, and I have noted a pattern of unmarried people having children together but getting married years after the birth of the child.

The pattern goes as follow:
1) A woman (non-married, often a widow) and a man (non-married) have a child together
2) One or both parents of the child are written as "unknown" on the birth certificate (in some cases the father is named as a witness!). In France, the kid was given an invented family name that was also a first name, such as "Robert" or "François".
3) The parents marry years later - from 2 to 15 years later! - and only then the child is officially recognized (and the information transcribed retroactively on the child's birth certificate). So you have a girl known as "Jeanne Robert" during her childhood, and then her parents marry when she's 10 and she becomes "Jeanne Duplessis". This happens to boys and girls, and it doesn't seem to have hampered the marriage prospects of the children.

In all cases, the parents are of a similar same social status (high bourgeoisie, aristocracy), and there is no obvious reason for those people for not getting married right away and making things appear legitimate as soon as possible. There's even a case where a woman went through this twice.

At that time "free" women belonged to the non-respectable category, along with "kept women" and prostitutes, and kids born out of wedlock had to live in shame, so these years may have been difficult for the women and the kids (less so for the men). In some cases, I have evidence that these people were actually "together" (perhaps not living together but at least appearing together in social events) during their non-married years, but the relation was otherwise secret.

This keeps happening again and again in the families I'm investigating. What could be the most common reason for these couples to postpone their marriage for years?
posted by elgilito to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Maybe it was related to an inheritance? Some sort of legal issue that would allow or disallow a legitimate child or affect the parents if they married? If the women were widows, was it a way to keep their deceased spouse's money?
posted by emjaybee at 5:02 PM on March 22 [5 favorites]


Is it possible the men actually were already married to another woman at the time of the child’s birth?
posted by nouvelle-personne at 5:09 PM on March 22 [2 favorites]


Most aristocracy needed permission to marry from their families and often the king/ regional leader so they might have been waiting on something to change so they could marry officially. I'm sure it wasn't much of a secret in the meantime if couples were together for years, although the kids were likely kept in the country and officially passed off as adopted or some such nonsense.

It's also possible some of the men were in positions where the couple were not given permission to marry by one or the other set of parents because of too many heirs in one family already: third or fourth son with older married brothers who was forced into the priesthood or the military or a trade and then that changed and they were able to formally acknowledge relationships they'd been in for years already.

Widowed women were not not respectable, not sure where you got that idea from. And very rich people have always largely done what they wanted.
posted by fshgrl at 5:09 PM on March 22 [3 favorites]


The father may not be the biological father. Marrying and receiving a dowry may be conditional on giving the child a name.
posted by frumiousb at 5:12 PM on March 22 [3 favorites]


AskMe is historically full of relationship questions dealing with commitment-phobes who want a relationship but don't want to get married. I don't really understand it in the 21st C., so maybe this is just replacing one puzzle with another. But in combination with unreliable birth control, a phenomenon like that might have yielded the pattern you've observed in 19th C. If the commitment also commits you to recognizing a child and (under the Napoleonic code, automatically?) making them an inheritor, maybe even more men would be hesitant.
posted by Wobbuffet at 5:28 PM on March 22


Possibly, some of the men were married at the time of conception, and had to wait for a illness or accident to remove the original wife from the equation, then had to wait some more for it to become respectable to marry the second woman?

I mean, from what I understand as an informal reader of history books, is that people did not marry for love like they do today. Other considerations predominated, namely how big a future dowry was going to be, or the cementing of important family alliances. It's possible one or both parties had commitments elsewhere. Later on, when the pressure to meet those commitments ceased, they would have been free to marry whomever they wanted. All this is only a guess though.
posted by Crystal Fox at 5:30 PM on March 22 [1 favorite]


IIRC my history correctly, poverty was frequently a reason why people didn't get married. It was expensive to get a proper wedding and if you're dirt poor you're not going to spend money on something only the state or the church really cares about.
posted by fiercekitten at 6:40 PM on March 22 [2 favorites]


On what basis are you concluding that the man was the father of the child? Just curious.
posted by praemunire at 7:21 PM on March 22 [6 favorites]


France: Inheritance Laws in the 19th and 20th Centuries (The Library of Congress)
posted by Iris Gambol at 9:36 PM on March 22 [4 favorites]


The famous nineteenth-century Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind's mother and father got married when she was 14. In her case, her mother was divorced, but for religious reasons refused to remarry until her first husband was dead.

I know you said that in the cases you're looking into the parents were either single or already widowed, but it got me to thinking - maybe they were waiting for the death of a family member, perhaps a parent, who objected to the marriage?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:35 AM on March 23 [3 favorites]


The invented family name you mentioned may actually have been the bio-father's first name.

If widow Cormier has a child by Jean Angelou Desolé who is married to a very living wife, she's got no legal right to call the child Marie Therese Desolé, or Marie Therese Cormier, but since everyone in town knows who the father is, she might call her Marie Therese Jean, reverting back to the old custom of using the father's first name to create a last name - Johnson, Wilson, etc. Using the father's first name means it is easier for everyone to figure out who the child is and where she relates to the local kin network, but still acknowledges that the child in question is not eligible for inheritance.

The guy that the mother was living with who later married her and gave his name to the child, is more likely, in my opinion, to have been her pimp, or someone in her support network. You mention that the mother was often a widow. A widow who cannot afford to get married is like a man who can't find work and doesn't own land. She's got no means of support. She may have been deeply in love with the guy she is living with, but this has trashed her reputation so no one else will marry her, and if he can't afford to marry her and support her she needs to work outside of the home...


The issue of the child's legitimacy may not have mattered until the child was getting old enough to want to get married herself. Depending on the laws in France, she may not herself be able to contract a marriage that was recognized by the church or the civil authorities. The children of bastards, in England at least, were also bastards even if a legal marriage were performed between the parental bastard and a legitimate spouse, and the inherited illegitimacy could extend down through several generations. If it were discovered that great grandfather had pulled a fast one on great grandmother and actually had a prior living wife, the entire lineage was immediately disinherited, including from all their other grandparents. Every single marriage in the deceitful great-grandfather's descendants was void. Property law was different then because the property that mattered was land, and the integrity of that property was everything. If you split the property up among descendants people starved so they had very strict rules and customs.

So if little Marie Therese John actually survived until she was fourteen or so, or twenty-three, at that point there would likely be considerable incentive to get her a name. The most obvious guy to marry the mother and claim paternity would not be the actual father, but the one the mother most trusted and had a long domestic relationship with. Jean Angelou Desolé would often pay a chunk of money for his daughter at that point, having waited until she actually survived and he was older and more prosperous and able to afford it. Spending it to get her legitimized would be a better use of the money than using it for her dowry or spending it to pay for an apprenticeship. Another option would have been to provide her for a dowry to enter holy orders if she were inclined that way, but while bastards could enter holy orders their status there was also less than legitimate people going into the novitiate. Even with a decent dowry a bastard would only have ended up in the laundry, not much better than if she ended up in a Magdalen.

It made much more sense to do this later by getting the child's mother married off, rather than having done it when the kid was little, as Monsieur Desolé would have a much better idea at that point how many surviving kids he would need to get established then he would have when they were all younger. He could easily have been supporting her all along. A few sou every week or month would have kept everything going and felt fair to everyone involved. If he settled a sum of money on the mother when the bastard was born he would risk it being spent long before the child was of age, or if the child actually didn't live to grow up, he risked having wasted his money. Investing in a newborn or a toddler was a fool's game.

WARNING: Do not read any farther if infanticide information will distress you.

This is just an addenda on the prospects of unwanted children and not more information on why children were being legitimized. So you don't need to go on reading if this could upset you and really only wanted find out the answer to the question.

The infant and child mortality rate was dropping rapidly, but they were not long out from the time when only two or three survivors in a family that had fifteen births was no surprise. There had been a holocaust of infant deaths since the decades following the French Revolution, as the emerging middle class needed to reduce their reproduction rate but did not have access to reliable birth control. Most of the deaths were from plausibly denied neglect. The children were sent to a wet nurse in the country where they would not receive sufficient nursing to survive but would also not be at home where the mother might succumb to bonding and feed the poor mite and prolong the whole ordeal for everybody. A wet nurse might have eight or ten children in her cottage and the only one to survive would be the one she had given birth to. Wet nurses and madame the abortionist were known interchangeably as angel makers.

For women who could not afford the services of a wet nurse the solution was soothing syrup. It was made out of laudanum (morphine syrup). A couple of drops meant the baby would sleep and not cry from hunger. A full teaspoonful meant it would go to sleep and not wake up again. Soothing syrup was marketed as comforting the baby so that the baby wouldn't fret, but it was absolutely no secret that it was used by women who needed to work and couldn't afford to keep the child alive, as the kindest method for everyone to get through the situation when there was nobody to step up and look after the baby. The key was the plausible deniability which absolved the mother and the community of guilt because after all, she didn't do anything harmful, the child just grew too weak to suck.

This is the exact same sort of double-think that was behind the recent shocking marketing of formula in third world countries to women who could not afford to keep buying it or to provide safe sterilization, and yet who let their own milk dry up. Women in third world countries are not stupid. They were or are in the same economic circumstances as the women in France had been earlier, trying to transition to the middle class and needing to reduce their family size, without enough power in the household to prevent pregnancies. When the family has the resources and desire to keep the child, the mother is given the support to provide the constant care an infant needs. First born sons proudly being given their father's name are not sent to wet nurse, or fed soothing syrup, or in third world countries, fed on formula.

I think this is the probably reason why they waited to legitimize the child. She had to become old enough for them to think the investment was worthwhile and necessary.
posted by Jane the Brown at 3:01 AM on March 23 [13 favorites]


Thanks for the answers!

The husband not being the biological father and the inheritance angle seem the most promising reasons (thanks for the links about this). Making a daughter more suitable for a good marriage is another. There's at least one marriage certificate + child recognition that stated that the formerly illegitimate child would have the same rights as future legitimate children. Unfortunately, when the husband committed suicide a few years later, his widow and his son were still deprived of their inheritance by the rest of the family. I'll have to look deeper into inheritance law.

Here are some additional comments.

On what basis are you concluding that the man was the father of the child? Just curious.
This is something that I should have given more thought. In the first case I found, the father is named on the birth certificate as a witness, the child bears part of his name, the address given for the place of birth was basically his own, gossip columnists talked about his paternity in coded terms, etc. But it is certainly possible, even probable, that in other cases the husband was not the biological father.

Is it possible the men actually were already married to another woman at the time of the child’s birth?
No, the vital records of these people (birth, marriage) show that in all cases the child was born when both parents were legally able to marry.

maybe they were waiting for the death of a family member, perhaps a parent, who objected to the marriage?
This was true at least in one case, as the marriage happened a few months after the death of the husband's father. Strangely, the husband was himself illegitimate, and I have evidence that his "unknown", secret mother had been living with his father for decades (they died of old age in the same house!). But the timing was indeed very convenient.

Widowed women were not not respectable, not sure where you got that idea from.
I used the term "free" women as it was used at the time (in France) to describe women who did not follow societal rules and were rather public about it. The separation between "respectable" and "non respectable" women, was rather strict, at least in the higher classes. Feminist writer Olympe Audouard was included in the Police registry of clandestine prostitutes because she was separated from her husband, had lovers, and led an independent life! So a widow was indeed respectable, but a widow with a child not from her late husband, well that could be difficult.

A widow who cannot afford to get married is like a man who can't find work and doesn't own land. She's got no means of support.
As I mentioned, these people were (high) bourgeoisie or aristocracy, from wealthy families. On the marriage certificate , the women are called "rentière" (living off investments). At the time of their marriage, these couples were either living together at the same address or in separate homes, but always in the golden 1-4-8-9-16-17th districts in Paris or in other affluent parts of the country. Some of the marriage certificates mention a prenuptial agreement, which would protect the bride's property (without such a contract, a wife was basically treated like a minor when it came to money). It is thus possible that men would be reluctant to enter such contract, or that the women, particularly rich widows, feared that they could lose their financial freedom by marrying again.

A wet nurse might have eight or ten children in her cottage and the only one to survive would be the one she had given birth to.
Women of all conditions did send their children to wet nurses in the countryside (it's a plot point in Emile Zola's Nana for instance, and the kid eventually dies), but I don't think that baby farming was a thing in France the way it was in the UK (there were some horrified articles in the French press about the baby farming scandal in England). Also, while laudanum was widely used for medical (and recreational) purposes, it was strictly regulated in France and only available on prescription.
posted by elgilito at 6:59 PM on March 23 [4 favorites]


This is the exact same sort of double-think that was behind the recent shocking marketing of formula in third world countries to women who could not afford to keep buying it or to provide safe sterilization, and yet who let their own milk dry up. Women in third world countries are not stupid. They were or are in the same economic circumstances as the women in France had been earlier, trying to transition to the middle class and needing to reduce their family size, without enough power in the household to prevent pregnancies. When the family has the resources and desire to keep the child, the mother is given the support to provide the constant care an infant needs. First born sons proudly being given their father's name are not sent to wet nurse, or fed soothing syrup, or in third world countries, fed on formula.


I am by no means an expert, but I do have some work experience around issues with infant formula usage by poor mothers in developing countries, and this is not something I've encountered in the contexts I've worked in. I'd really appreciate a reference, if you have one to hand.
posted by tavegyl at 8:24 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]


Trying to track down my references and will get back to you. I was reading about historical trends in infanticide roughly ten years ago, mainly with library books through inter-library loan, so don't have my sources to hand. One of them may have been Sarah Blaffer Hrdy but I think her focus is on primatology, not history.

I concur on the point that suggests not getting or being married wasn't necessarily a point of survival but of status and comfort or self determination. I remember reading a study on remarriage in New England prior to the American Revolution which covered the situation of widows who did not remarry in order to maintain an income they would lose if they did remarry.

I would think that waiting for marriage until a parent passed away was more likely a matter of waiting for an inheritance than waiting for permission. There could easily also be logistical reasons, such as one of the couple needing to spend so much time at the parent's house providing support that the other half of the couple had to also prioritize connections outside of the house. Eg. Luc spend three weeks of every month at his mother's house in Petite Bologne, and there was no point trying to keep up with a cow and chickens on her own, so Amelié spent those three weeks working for Monsieur le Cure where she got meals and additional income. But when Luc's mother dies, the cow shed is already waiting for the heifer that they have already put a down payment on and Amelié is sick of working outside of the home, so it's safe to turn it from a long engagement into a marriage. Decades long engagements were extremely common.

My examples are from lower classes rather than aristocracy or higher bourgeois, because I tend to try to focus on them in my studies and research. They are much less well documented but much more representative of what life was like in that era. Very similar factors scaled up for income and position would have been influencing the people you are researching too. Luc might still have been spending three weeks a month with Maman, so Amelié kept herself from being lonely by passing her time in Toulouse and working on her trousseau.

I was under the impression that the Napoleonic code which required all the children to receive some form of inheritance was a major factor in encouraging people to limit the number of births as smaller property owners could not provide those inheritances without destroying the familial economy and that as a result the leap in the infant mortality rate and the decrease in family sizes occurred earlier in France than it did in England.

If you own a small holding, such as tailor shop, and have five children who do not work well together, the business either will go under if they try to run it cooperatively, or have to be sold. This meant the strategy of grooming the most promising child to inherit and paying for the education of the others, such as apprenticing them into other occupations was not going to work. Your tailor shop would still get sold out from under the one trained to work there, in order to provide the inheritance share for the soldier, carpenter, domestic servant and milliner. You couldn't say that the money spent on training the four who were apprenticed out was their share of the inheritance, so it reduced your incentive to educate them but then that ensured they would claw as much out of the inheritance as possible. A family of four was one thing, but a family of thirteen survivors would have been disastrous. The Civil Code provided strong incentive to reduce family size, and I don't know of anything similar that changed that in England. They both had many other pressures on them to reduce family size, but the Napoleonic code was above and beyond the pressures in England.

It's possible that England was industrializing faster, so they started to reduce their birth rate faster or at a different time because children were not nearly as useful in factories than they were on farms. - Not just a matter of more useful but rather, more likely to survive as they could earn more of their own keep. Even if you don't practice infanticide, you do practice as much family planning as you can if you can't imagine how you are going to feed the child.

Do you have the stats on infant mortality in France vs. in England? I'd really love to look at a side by side by the decade comparison starting as far back as possible right now. Pinning facts more closely to dates would likely help make trends and probabilities clearer. This is very interesting to me and I hope you can help me to get a more accurate idea of what was happening.
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:53 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


There are lots of stats in the literature, but frankly one needs to be a demograph (which I'm not, and I'm not a historian either) to sort them out. There's a lot of uncertainty here depending on the availability and quality of the raw data and how they must be corrected.
The conclusion of Meslée & Vallin (1989, p 1138-39) may be interesting to you (I haven't checked more recent papers): infant mortality (q0 0-1 )
posted by elgilito at 10:37 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


(pushed "post" by mistake) started high in the early 1800s (about 200 per 1000 births), decreased slowly until the 1850s and then picked up again until the 1870s. It decreased slowly again but it only really went down (< 100) in the early 1900s (see Nadot, 1970, p 57). Meslée & Vallin explain this by saying that industrialization caused worker families to send their infants to the countryside where sanitary conditions were poor (or to use formula, which also caused health issues). The trend is less visible (or inexistent) for older children because they were less susceptible to these detrimental effects.

Other sources:
Infant mortality stats in the Seine (Paris) region: van de Valle & Preston 1974.
Infant mortality in France since 1900: Barbieri 1998
Infant mortality in Britain: Woods 1994.
Comparison between European countries: Vallin 1989
For a good discussion of nursing conditions in France, see Rollet 1978.
Again, I'm not a demograph or a historian, so there are probably more recent and comprehensive papers out there.
posted by elgilito at 11:05 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


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