Trouwen in Nederland : een historisch - demografische studie van de 19e en vroeg - 20e eeuw

F.W.A. van Poppel

    Research output: Thesisexternal PhD, WU


    This study deals with the development of marriage, marital dissolution, and remarriage in the Netherlands in the period 1815-1930. It consists of two parts, the first dealing with first marriages, the second with marital dissolution and remarriage.

    Although this study is a demographic one, it clearly distinguishes itself from previous demographic studies. This relates not only to the fact that earlier studies were based mainly or solely on published, statistical data, and could, as a consequence, give only a vague and incomplete picture of the social and regional variation in marriage patterns. It also has to do with the fact that these studies seldom paid attention to the cultural ideas which regulated the entry into and the dissolution of marriage and that they neglected marital dissolution and remarriage, which were important phenomena during most of the period. These shortcomings are discussed in Chapter I and the main principles and topics of our research are introduced.

    Chapter II analyzes the overall trends in age at first marriage and marriage frequency in the Netherlands during the 19th and 20th century. In this period, the marriage frequency clearly increased while age at first marriage decreased, particularly between 1860 and the end of the 19th century.

    Chapter III pays attention to the cultural ideas that guided the marriage decisions of 19th century men and women. It is based on an extensive analysis of 19th and 20th century statistical, sociological, historical, legal, economic, and ethnographic sources. Inasmuch as these opinions were recorded, they were fairly biased with respect to the origin of those involved; in the majority of cases this was males from higher social classes. From this analysis it appeared that, during the period studied, there were definite ideas on the age at which males and females ought to get married. Too 'early' marriages were considered detrimental to the health of the husband, wife, and children, while too 'late' marriages were considered unnatural or indecent. It was expected of individuals who wished to marry that they were economically, physically, and socially mature, but obviously these criteria varied per social group.

    A popular complaint was that males from the working class entered marriage rashly, without considering whether they were able to support themselves and a family. One way to reduce these careless marriages was to teach the lower social classes to take responsibility for their own actions. Others did not support this and were advocates of state interference in the freedom to get married. However, another group, in defense of the behaviour of the lower classes, pointed out the hopelessness of their situation and that hope of improvement was in vain. This group realized that the age-dependent nature of the wage level actually made early marriages worthwhile.

    As the 20th century approached, the disapproving attitudes became less voluble. The neo-malthusians considered the psychological and physical health problems, related to sexual abstinence, as a justification for marriages at a young age, and felt that the use of contraceptives could solve the problems related to the declining age at marriage. The organized labour movement also generally understood the need for labourers to marry at a young age, just like some progressive physicians. Abstinence was considered too difficult and, from a societal viewpoint, this was also seen as an injustice to a group that was already so deprived. Those opposed to prostitution felt this could be best combatted by resolving the issue of marriage at a young age.

    The high age at marriage of the higher classes was intended to set an example for the working class, but was negatively judged by many as well. From a eugenistic viewpoint, it was considered disadvantageous that the most valuable social group married so late. The fact that many women from the higher social classes could not find a marriage partner, or not until they were older, stimulated the discussion on issues such as the improvement in women's education and the extension of vocational possibilities for women and was considered a factor which stimulated or even caused the growth of the feminist movement.
    Chapters IV, V, and VI confront the 19th century's ideas with reality.

    Chapter IV contains a general overview of existing theories on the development of the European and Dutch marriage pattern, an overview in which Hajnal's thesis and a theory developed by the Dutch sociologist Hofstee are predominant. In both theories, as well as in the opinions of 19th century observers, class differences in age at marriage were the central issue.

    In chapter V, the differences in age at marriage between the social classes in the 19th century are examined. Data on age at marriage and occupation of bride and bridegroom for more then 63,000 marriages during the period 1812-1912 in a number of Dutch municipalities, indicate that there were large differences in age at marriage between the various social classes. Among males, it was indeed the upper class and the farmers who married later than others, while the working classes got married a few years sooner. Among females, the differences between social classes was less than for males, with the highest ages at marriage among females who married casual and unskilled labourers.

    The age at marriage for males and females only dropped after 1860-70, and it did so particularly rapidly among casual and unskilled labourers, and among craftsmen in small businesses, in industries and the building industry, and among agricultural labourers. However, the age at marriage also declined among the lower level professionals and lower civil servants and supervising occupations. Among the upper class, only males showed a decline, while the development among farmers varied greatly per region. The age at marriage among farmers and shopkeepers, small entrepreneurs and merchants, and self-employed artisans did not drop until after 1890. It seems plausible that the increase in the standard of living, an increase not restricted to one social class, was the cause of the decline in age at marriage. From the 1860s, there was definite economic growth in trade and agriculture, and the marriage conditions could be more easily met due to rising wages and more stable employment. After 1880, in the cities, industrialization led to an increase in the number of jobs providing a stable income and relatively secure employment.

    The continuous reproaches against the lower classes, who carelessly got married at a young age and thus caused the group of impoverished to increase, seem to be rather exaggerated when looking at our data. Craftsmen in small businesses, industrial craftsmen, building craftsmen, and casual and unskilled labourers did get married relatively younger than the farmers, the upper class, lower level professionals, and lower civil servants, but the differences were not as great as is often suggested. And although contemporary observers considered it a fact that males and females from the last mentioned groups got married less often and at increasingly higher ages, we did not find an increase in the age at marriage among these groups during the 19th century. During the second half of the 19th century, the marriage frequency of upper class males was above the Dutch average and did not show a decline. Among females, however, there were signs that the upper class was not included in the general declining trend in age at marriage.

    A striking fact was that there was a very high regional variation in age at marriage within the various social groups: for almost a century, marrying late and not very frequently remained a phenomenon that was characteristic of the rural areas of North Brabant, Limburg, and Gelderland and for the cities in Brabant, while the highest marriage frequencies and the lowest ages at marriage were found in the cities in the West and in the rural areas of North Holland, Friesland, Groningen, and Drenthe. In chapter VI, this regional variation for the years 1850, 1890, and 1930 is subjected to multivariate analysis, using published statistical data for 27 regions.

    It appeared that in 1850 and 1890, three variables - the availability of mates (the sex ratio), the feasibility of marriage (measured by the income level), and the social desirability of marriage (indicated by the percentage of Catholics) - together explained about 75% of the regional variance in the age at marriage and the marriage frequency for males. Female surpluses and low percentages of Catholics were associated in each period with relatively many and relatively young marriages. Contrary to expectations, as income rose, the marriage frequency of males dropped. This was the result of the strong negative relation between income level and the sex ratio. Income level remained highest in groups where the male surplus was the lowest: females mainly departed for areas where earnings were higher, that is, where job opportunities in domestic service were highest.

    Part II of our study deals with marital dissolution and remarriage. Chapter VII first describes the global development. The frequency of marital dissolution due to the death of husband or wife especially decreased between 1870 and 1930. Nearly at the same time, around the 1860s, an increase began in the divorce frequency. Increasingly fewer males and females remarried, while the age at remarriage rose.

    The overwhelming majority of marriages that were dissolved in the 19th century were dissolved by the death of one of the partners. Dissolution of marriage seriously affected the position of the remaining man or woman, of the children, and also the socio-economic basis of the family, partly due to the limited public aid available. In these situations, remarriage was very significant: it could provide a solution for the economic, care, and emotional problems confronting the family and the community. However, remarriage also caused new problems for those involved. Thus the decision to remarry or to contemplate other living arrangements had to be carefully considered. Chapter VIII discusses the international literature on widowhood and remarriage, analyzes the existing Dutch data on widowhood and remarriage, and traces the position of the widow and widower in 19th century Dutch society, using a variety of qualitative sources.

    The Dutch remarriage pattern is examined in more detail in chapter IX, using data from the vital registration system (marriages, births, and deaths) and the population register, in the period 1850-90 for the cities of Breda (South Netherlands) and Gouda (West Netherlands). A group of 6,500 widows and widowers was followed from the moment they became a widow(er) to the time of remarriage or death as a widow (er). Migrating widow (er) s were also followed to their new destinations.

    Proportional hazards models were used in the analysis. It appeared that age at widowhood was most indicative of the probability of remarriage. In addition, males had a much higher probability of remarriage than females. This was partly ascribed to the large female surpluses in cities, but mainly to the negative societal attitudes towards remarriage of a widow and the fact that widowhood was relatively easier to bear for females than for males. Children could not be considered an advantage: men and women with children had a much lower probability of remarriage than childless couples, and if there was a child, it had to be young to be successful in finding a new partner. Thus remarriage mainly occurred for widow (er) s whose situation was as close as possible to that of a normal marriage: the partner had to be relatively young and childless or have children who were still young. Neither the occupation nor the religion of the widow (er) were very significant, and changes in remarriage probabilities were not found in the period studied. Finally, it was striking, but fitted the general idea that existed on the differences between the West of the Netherlands on the one hand, and the South on the other hand, that in Gouda the probability of remarriage was generally much higher: family ties were much looser in the West and attitudes toward remarriage of widows and widowers were less negative than in the South. The restrictions on age at marriage and marriage frequency that were characteristic for the South thus also applied to the marriages of widows and widowers.

    As was already stated, the divorce rate in the Netherlands rose considerably between 1865 and 1915. In this same period, lively debates were held on the legal procedure for divorce and on the grounds for receiving a divorce. Chapter X gives an overview of this discussion, starting around 1870.

    Many arguments were raised, in the beginning mainly by liberal jurists, later also by socialists, feminists, and the sexual reform movement - although these groups did not have similar views - favouring the liberalization of divorce laws. It was pointed out that the indissolubility of marriage caused persons to be very hesitant when deciding to get married, thus going against the natural law which dictated early marriage. Freedom to get a divorce was also beneficial for the children because divorce could take place sooner in marriage, namely at a time when the family was not yet so large, and it would help to stop prostitution which had been induced by the enforced union of couples who no longer loved each other. If marriage could be dissolved, then persons would more often marry for love because otherwise there could be grave consequences. The propagated increase in opportunities for marriage dissolution was therefore particularly inspired by the conviction that marriage was of fundamental importance for the wellbeing of society.

    However, opponents of greater freedom to divorce pointed out the dangers related to liberalization. If divorce would be easier, then marriages would be taken even less seriously than was already the case. Uncertainty as to whether or not the couple would stay together would unfavourably influence the partner relationship and could affect the attempts to adjust to each other's character. Children would no longer be able to be raised harmoniously. The financial status of the family would also be affected so that care of the children would be more difficult.

    In 1886, a State Commission introduced a moderate reform proposal for new divorce legislation. In the decade that followed, a conservative, mainly religious, opposition gradually arose against this proposal; for them, divorce was equivalent to undermining the foundation of State and society. When a few years later thanks to the extension of the right to vote, the majority of the population, who clung to the old-fashioned sexual morals, achieved greater political power, the Catholic and Protestant views on divorce started to determine the tone of the debate. For both groups marriage, once entered, achieved a Godly status and could therefore not be broken by man. However, there was no agreement on the specific grounds for allowing divorce, so the strengthening of Catholic and Protestant views did not lead to changes in existing legislation but only to a long-lasting halt in liberalization.

    Chapter XI contains an empirical study of divorce and remarriage in the second half of the 19th century. The study was conducted in The Hague, using a case-control research design. The social characteristics of all 546 marriages in the period 1850-82, which ended in divorce, were compared with those of a random sample from the circa 25,000 marriages which ended in widowhood. A total of circa 2,300 marriages was included in the study. This group was followed from marriage till dissolution of marriage (by death or divorce), and after dissolution, the surviving persons and the divorced men and women were followed till remarriage or death. Again, all migrants were followed in their new place of residence, making use of the population register and the vital registration system.

    At the beginning of the 1850s, the marriage cohort only had a 1 % divorce rate. By the end of the 1870s and the beginning of the 1880s, this had risen to 4%. In the course of time, divorce took place somewhat earlier in the marriage.
    Adultery was by far the most important and increasingly significant ground for getting a divorce, with only slight differences between males and females. Abandonment by the husband or wife was also an important reason for divorce.
    Divorce was not a surrogate of marriage dissolution by death. Even when this factor was eliminated, by using a life table approach, there still was a clear rise over time in the divorce rate. Particularly after 10 to 12 years of marriage, divorce took place much more frequently in the most recent cohort than in the oldest cohort.

    Multivariate analysis (proportional hazard models) showed that the highest probability of divorce occurred among persons who had already gone through a divorce before. High mobility was also related to higher risks of divorce. Young age at marriage and large age differences between husband and wife were also relatively important. The effects of the husband's occupation were slight but clear: the higher social classes had distinctly higher risks than the working classes. Women who worked had relatively high divorce rates. The probability of divorce in religiously-mixed marriages was much higher than in religiously-homogeneous marriages.

    Compared to the dissolution of marriage by the death of one of the partners, divorce occurred much more often when husband and wife were relatively young, and as a consequence, the remarriage probabilities of divorce(e)s were much higher than those of widow(er)s. Males had a much higher probability of remarriage than females; a lower age at marriage dissolution was often associated with remarriage as well. Remarriage was more usual among males and females of the lower classes than among
    the middle and higher classes. Religious denomination was not very important regarding remarriage probabilities. It was striking that divorced males and females who remarried, more often selected a partner with another religion than widows and widowers. Divorced females more often selected partners from another social class than remarrying widows.

    Many of the factors that positively influenced the probability of divorce for 19th century marriages were indicative of, or the cause of, a fundamental contradiction between the expectations of one or both spouses regarding Marriage, and the actual marital situation. It was this contradiction that resulted in failed marriages and divorce. The expectations varied by social class, by gender, and by time period.

    The growth in the divorce rate from the second half of the 19th century was related on the one hand to an increase in the expectations regarding marriage, and on the other hand to a loosening of the ties by which men and women were bound to the marital state. Opting for divorce rather than continuing an unsatisfactory relationship became easier over time: improvements took place with respect to the division of goods and to the right to alimony and the opportunities for custody of the children, which made divorce a more tempting alternative for women with children.

    Chapter XI I summarizes the conclusions of the book and identifies some areas for future research.

    Original languageDutch
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • van der Woude, A.M., Promotor
    Award date2 Dec 1992
    Place of PublicationS.l.
    Publication statusPublished - 1992


    • marriage
    • family life
    • families
    • ethics
    • demography
    • statistics
    • divorce
    • law
    • history
    • customs
    • cohabitation
    • Netherlands

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