As early as the 9th century, the Catholic Church affirmed that mutual consent was alone sufficient for the sacrament of matrimony. However, it would take another two centuries before a clear and unified doctrine was incorporated into canon law and become standard practice of the
church. In 1140, the doctrine of consent found its first influential expression in the theological works of the jurist Gratian, who established in his decretals that marriage was a “faith of consent” among equals, and that the final decision should not be made by parents or the priest. Beyond the Alps, the matter was settled by Peter Lombard, Bishop of Paris, and author of the theology textbook Sentences, who believed that a valid marriage derived from consent by spoken words in the present tense, or per verba de presenti. One joins a fully realized union of marriage through the swearing of the marital oath without accompanying formalities, the oversight of the family or the blessing of the priest. Interpreted romantically, consensual marriage emphasized mutual love as a prerequisite for consummation, signaling the 12th century turn to individualism and a weakening of the traditional family, kinship, and the feudal order.
Although the principle was met with resistance by conventions of aristocratic courtship, contemporary English pastoral manuals reveal that consensual marriage disseminated widely at the parish level by the 15th century, undermining the authority of manorial lords, who lost control of the marriage decisions and affairs of the serfs. The doctrine also dealt a blow to the authority of the parents, who were more willing to allow their children to leave the family and establish their own household. Although the emergence of EMP was legitimized by the preaching of the Catholic Church, it is not a sufficient cause in explaining why the new marriage pattern was confined to the North Sea region. Other factors must have been at work.
Rise of Labor Markets
The transition to the EMP accelerated after 1348, when the bubonic plague docked at the ports of Europe and went on to decimate nearly a third of the European population. The virulence of the Black Death also unintentionally nailed the coffin of the patriarchal household. Due to labor shortages and the demise of the feudal system, women took advantage of lucrative labor opportunities and improvements in real earnings, translating economic gains into matrimonial autonomy. Wage labor became a significant part of the life cycle, with women acquiring skills as young servants and migrating to cities when opportunities became available. It was estimated that before the plague, women earned a penny a day, less than half of that of unskilled laborers. After 1348, the wages of women nearly tripled and quadrupled, giving women an edge in the gendered division of labor. In contrast to Eastern and Southern Europe, where new employment slots were predominantly filled by men in urban areas, cities in the Northwest saw a large influx of unmarried women in search of jobs traditionally reserved for men. From reapers to mowers, and ploughers to servants, women gained access to labor markets and left the household as independent wage earners, challenging the authority of the parent and the family.
Another interesting conjecture linking the EMP to the Black Death found that due to the abundance of land and scarcity of labor, land-intensive pastoral agriculture became a profitable sector. Young women were more accustomed and productive in pastoral work, thereby raising their employment prospects outside of the domestic household. The share of women aged 20-24 who worked as servants was estimated at 40% in England and 36% in the Low Countries, delaying the first age of marriage to 25 or beyond. In fact, it became so common for girls to leave their families for work between adolescence and marriage that the German word Magd (maid) defined both an unmarried woman and a servant. As women married late or stayed celibate, this imposed a natural check on fertility and lowered population pressure. Wages remained high and the development of a prosperous middle class followed suit. Unlike the agricultural and labor conditions of the Northwest, farming and production in Mediterranean countries favored transhumance, or the driving of livestock across vast distances, but which did not suit women’s social roles and services in husbandry. In Eastern Europe, serfdom continued as the dominant form of production, hindering
the growth in wages and access to labor among women. This ensured that the EMP did not develop in to a continent-wide phenomenon but was limited to the North Sea region.
The Black Death ushered in the “golden age of the craftsman” and women shared in the utopia. Exploiting labor and agricultural conditions to become wage earners, young women found the perfect opportunity to withdraw from parental authority and gain bargaining power once they started to own property. The incentive that spouses postpone marriage before they had accumulated enough wealth to set up a new household became a characteristic feature of the EMP in the Northwest and explains why the region saw economic development ahead of the rest of Europe and the world.