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Monday, October 06, 2003

Fertility and the European Marriage Pattern

One of the big mysteries that still continues to obsess some of us is why there was an 'industrial revolution' and why it took place in the UK. My own personal pitch was that it was some kind of self-reinforcing dynamic between demographic growth, markets and technology, with the demographic surge at the heart. Now those who know my attraction to the tempo momentum argument used, among others, by Wolfgang Lutz , will be aware that a significant part of our current fertility decline is produced by the systematic raising of the age of marriage and first birth. What may be more surprising is to find the American economic historian Greg Clark explaining how the Britsh population explosion of the late 18th early 19th century was in large part produced by a small reduction in the marriage age. The reasons Clark offers for this reduction will have to await a subsequent post.

The odd thing about the European marriage pattern is that it prevailed to a different degree in different epochs. In England, for example, it was most marked in the seventeenth century, where the limitations on fertility were sosevere that population fell for part of the period. As we move into the eighteenth century the average age of first marriage fell, so that by 1800-1850 it was 23.4 compared to 25.9 in the seventeenth century. At the same time the percentage of women never marrying fell also to about 7 percent, while the illegitimacy rate (despite the much smaller fraction of the female population at risk of having an illegitimate child) rose from 1.5 percent to 6 percent. These changes may seem quite small but they have a profound effect on fertility. Thus while at the low point in 1660 each women had only 1.9 surviving offspring, in 1815 each woman had 3 surviving offspring. In the IndustrialRevolution period in England population thus rose rapidly from 6.7 m. in 1770 to 17.7 m. in 1850. In the Verviers region of Belgium the average age of first marriage in 1650-59 was 25.3 for women, but rose to 27.5 by 1700-9, before falling again to 25.9 in 1730-39.19 The peculiarity of this marriage practice has raised a number of unanswered questions. Was it adopted as a conscious strategy to limit fertility or was low fertility just an accidental bi-product of social customs adopted for other reasons? Was it a strategy that individuals adopted voluntarily or was it imposed by social control?The case for this being a voluntary strategy of fertility control is the following. Consider England. There were no legal barriers to early marriage. Boys could marry at 14, girls at 12, except for the years 1653-60, when the ageof consent was raised to 16 for boys and 14 for girls. Women first married at all ages, as young as 16 and as old as 45. It was not that people only began to marry at a certain age. It was just that the average age was late. Men waited even longer, marrying women on average who were 2 years younger. Children were relatively independent of their parents once they became teenagers. They tended to leave home and work as servants in the homes of others or as apprentices, using they income they received in these occupations to eventually set up their own households. Once children were 21 they were free of all legal control of their parents. Thus, it is argued, the decision to delay marriage or not marry at all was generally a decision that children had a lot of control over.Generally children would seek the consent of parents to their proposed marriage, and parents may have had an effective veto power over the choice of partner. But the preferences of the individuals themselves were important.

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