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LHMP #378 De Groot 2019 To Marry or Not to Marry in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-century Cities, with Antwerp and Bruges as Case Studies Chapter 17

Full citation: 

De Groot, Julie. 2019. “To Marry or Not to Marry in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-century Cities, with Antwerp and Bruges as Case Studies” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers addressing (and definine) the state of "singleness" in the Roman Empire, both in pre-Christian and early Christian times. There is a strong focus on Egypt as well as Rome proper, as well as wider Byzantine material. Comparative material is offered from Jewish sources, as well as a small selection of studies from specific cultures of more modern date.

De Groot, Julie. “To Marry or Not to Marry in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-century Cities, with Antwerp and Bruges as Case Studies”

Comparative Voices

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As a comparison from an extremely different time and place, the author looks at marriage patterns in 15-16th century Bruges and Antwerp in the Low Countries. This culture followed what is known as the “West European marriage pattern” involving a relatively late age for first marriage, a small age gap, and a significant adult population who had not yet married or might never marry. In these urban centers, newlyweds expected to establish an independent household, so marriage was delayed until a sufficient nest egg could be accumulated, often through wage labor by both parties.

Even when the will to marry existed, circumstances might make it impossible. And in a social context where marriage was not always possible, choosing not to marry stood out less. What consequence did that have? And did those consequences differ for men and women? Studies of singlehood often focus strongly on women, but this article explores both women’s and men’s single circumstances.

In theory, the marital status of men in Antwerp and Bruges did not affect their legal status, and so that status might not be mentioned overtly, as it typically was for women. Women’s legal status depended heavily on whether they were never-married, married, or widowed. Married women could enter certain types of legal contracts on their own, while singlewomen and widows were expected to have a male agent who acted for them. The importance of marital status shows up in how women are referred to in legal records in terms of their relationship to the relevant male relative “wife of” or “daughter of.” Widows are more visible as their own identities and they were often allowed to be their own legal agents. [Note: the article seems to contradict itself several times regarding the allowance for widows to be their own legal agents. Not just in terms of theory versus practice, but I think there’s a wording error when the topic is first introduced.]

We can also find differences between the prescriptive legal theory and the de facto activities of women reported in the record. One study of 14th century Ghent suggests that married women had far more real ability to act independently of their husbands than legal theory would suggest. This same de facto legal competency is seen in the accounts of widows in 15-16th century Antwerp, despite the official position that they were legally incapable and needed a male guardian to act for them.

Further, in an era when marriages were often clandestine or of challengeable validity, the categories of “single” and “married” could shade into each other.

Unmarried women were economically vulnerable, even setting aside the sharp differential in male and female wages for similar work. As the Middle Ages came to a close, trade guilds became increasingly closed to women as members, and hostile to women freelancers. Young men went into trade apprenticeships while the primary employment for young women was increasingly restricted to domestic service, which was viewed as a temporary lifecycle occupation.

But dynamics were shifting for men as well. It was no longer a given that apprenticeship would lead to independence as a master. And guilds developed feedback loops that increasingly favored the children of existing masters. Strategic marriage and the support of one’s father in law it could be critical to professional success.

There were identifiable strategies that single women (and widows) used to address economic pressures. Joining together in households or informal communities provided security and companionship.

[Note: This section brings in a much wider scope of time and place than the article’s nominal topic, so it’s hard to tell what it’s trying to demonstrate. I feel like this article lacks a clear overall point.]


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