Recently I was attending a Family History Conference when the institution of marriage was brought up for discussion. The point was made that not all marriages were formalized or legal. In some areas of northern Europe, common law marriage was referred to as a partnership. And dissolution of the partnership could be attained simply by walking away from the relationship.
In the United States, the legal formalities of marriage were not always followed. In the Midwest, often times, ministers or judges were distant. A marriage ceremony could be as simple as a couple announcing to their family and friends, and the immediate community, that they were married. At some later date, when the minister was traveling through, the ceremony would be legalized. Children born between these dates were not considered illegitimate. It simply showed that the legal system was slow to catch up with the community.
The institution of marriage can be further complicated by the motives for marriage. Everyone likes to believe their ancestors married for love. Prince Charming came into town and swept Grandma off her feet. And, some marriages may have been the result of love. But, before the 1880s, marriage was often regarded as a contract or a business agreement. Marriages often were negotiated to advance political power, or business influence, or more money. Rarely did love come into consideration.
Known as “companionate marriage,” the institution of marriage, before the dawning 20th century, was a negotiated agreement. Dowries and legal agreements came into consideration. Love had very little to do with marriage until the late 1800s
Marriage as an institution and the relationships coming out of matrimony are important considerations for Family History. Yet, understanding the motives behind it all is equally important.