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  • Heirat als Privileg: Obrigkeitliche Heiratsbeschränkungen in Tirol und Vorarlberg 1820 bis 1920
  • Jonathan Sperber
Heirat als Privileg: Obrigkeitliche Heiratsbeschränkungen in Tirol und Vorarlberg 1820 bis 1920. By Elisabeth Mantl (München: R. Oldenbourg Verlag, 1997. 262pp.).

One of the most peculiar and distinctive aspects of the nineteenth century sociodemographic regime in southern Germany and the Alpine lands were the legal limitations on nuptiality. Couples of legal age could not simply get married; they had to meet property qualifications and/or gain the approval of the local authorities, before they could be wed. Elisabeth Mantl’s study of “marriage as privilege,” examines this practice in the Austrian province of the Tirol and Vorarlberg, a region where these legal limitations on marriage lasted longer than elsewhere and reached quite extreme proportions.

Mantl finds that town councils were more than willing to turn down applications for marriage, particularly if they came from day laborers, journeymen artisans, and impoverished master craftsmen. In the post-1850 decades of particularly strict application of the marriage laws, a majority of the marriage requests from members of lower class groups in the towns she studies were rejected. Local governments continued to reject applications for marriage licenses into the early twentieth century, when the practice gradually became more uncommon, although it was not formally abolished until 1920, after Austria had become a republic.

Demographic developments reflected the legal situation: low birth rates, on the order of 25 per 1000; very high ages at first marriage, peaking in the 1860s at about 35 for men, and 30 for women; upwards of one-third of the adult population remaining permanently unmarried. The author carefully investigates regional differences and finds that the restrictions were strictest in the Alpine valleys of the central Tyrol, where primogeniture reigned, the climate made agriculture difficult and unrewarding, and the lower classes had the fewest opportunities to found their own households. By contrast, the same restrictions were rarely [End Page 236] applied in the Voralberg, in the west of the province, where an expanding system of textile outworking and later factory production offered workers better possibilities to make a living. In the Trentino, at the southern end of the Tyrol, the rural silk industry had a similar effect, and, one might add, the Italian-speaking population of the area seems to have had a different attitude about restricting marriage. Birth and marriage rates were correspondingly higher in the west and south of the province, ages at first marriage lower.

A major part of the book is the author’s investigation of the actual workings of the system. Local elites, she suggests, argued that restrictions on marriage for the lower classes were necessary, to prevent the poor from rushing into wedlock economically unprepared to found a family, whose members would soon be found seeking poor relief. Mantl asserts that such Malthusian fears were largely fantasies. The feared increase in an impoverished population never took place; moreover, members of the rural lower classes themselves did not rush, unthinkingly, into marriage, but only did so when they felt that they could support a family. Marriage restrictions, she suggests, were part of a restorationist policy, strongly supported by the influential and also conservative and ultramontanist Catholic clergy (civil marriage was only introduced into the Tyrol by the Nazis, in 1939). This policy was designed to preserve regional structures of social inequality, of which differential access to marriage and household formation were an important part, and to ward off the threat of socioeconomic change.

The author makes her arguments clearly and concisely. Working from a wide variety of published and unpublished sources, she can offer a particularly interesting description of the attitudes of the authorities and of the lower classes towards marriage and starting a family. However, three problems with her argument emerge from a closer consideration. First, the author’s assertion that marriage legislation had no influence on demographic developments is basically unproven. Areas where permission to marry was usually granted did have substantially higher birthrates than those of a more restrictive policy. The few scattered figures she offers from before 1820, when the strict policy of marriage restriction was introduced, do show both higher marriage and...

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pp. 236-238
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