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The Making of Modern Marriage: Matrimonial Control and the Rise of Sentiment in Neuchatel, 1550-1800.

Though some might view the title of this book as too sweeping, and though my mother was amused when seeing it that "modern" referred to a period ending nearly three centuries ago, Jeffrey Watt is persuasive in his identification of new emphases in the control and conceptualization of marriage in early modern Neuchatel. Prime among these was the acceptance of incompatibility as a sufficient ground for divorce, which he rightly identifies as "a vitally important step in the history of marriage." Only within the last two decades, o course, have some states in this country become as "modern" in this element of their legal codes as Neuchatel was three hundred years ago, making my assurance to my mother of the parallels between the couples Watt studies and those she knows ring truer than one might initially assume. By 1800 in Neuchatel, the ideas guiding those who regulated marriage, and to some degree those who entere it, sound much more familiar than foreign, though, as Watt makes clear, this familiarity disappeared when the area was ceded to Napoleon in 1806, which ende the possibility for divorce.

Like several other recent studies of early modern marriage, most notably Thomas Safley's Let No Man Put Asunder. The Control of Marriage in the German Southwest: A Comparative Study, 1550-1600 (Kirksville, Mo.: Sixteenth Century Journal, 1984), Watt's study is based primarily on court cases. He uses records from 4,100 cases in three different courts--two matrimonial courts and one consistory--and blends statistical analysis of the types and adjudication of cases with more impressionistic discussion of the possible reasons for the trends he has found. The book is divided chronologically into two main sections the first beginning in 1547 with the first extant court records and ending with the accession of the Prussians as the territorial princes in 1707, and the second ending when Neuchatel was ceded to Napoleon in 1806. Though one may wonder whether using chronological divisions based so closely on political events is appropriate for an analysis of an institution affected--by Watt's own admission--more by intellectual and social change, the separate focus on the Prussian period allows Watt to test "whether the eighteenth century was indeed turning point in the history of marriage, as several historians would have us believe."

The first section primarily analyzes the effects of the Reformation on marriage in Neuchatel--the territory became Protestant in 1530, under the influence of Bern--and notes that despite the secularization of the control of marriage, there was not a sharp break with pre-Reformation practices. The most common typ of cases continued to be contract disputes about agreements to marry, with the courts favoring procedure over sentiment and enforcing promises of marriage which they determined had taken place even if neither party still wanted to marry. Most breach of promise cases were brought by female plaintiffs who did still wish to marry, though Watt discovers that the number of such cases declined in the seventeenth century at the same time that the number of illegitimate births increased. The number of cases before 1700 which sought to break a marriage was much smaller than those which sought to make one, though the few petitions for divorce on the grounds of either abandonment or adultery which were brought before the courts were generally granted, even those involving adulterous husbands. (One's happiness at this liberality is tempered by Watt's note that there were ten times as many convictions for adultery by husbands during the period than divorces for it, pointing out just how desperat women had to be before suing for divorce.)

The second section also examines cases of contract enforcement and divorce, along with other types of petitions and charges which the court itself brought, such as those for fornication. In this later period divorce cases outnumbered those seeking contract enforcement, with the courts for the first time viewing cruelty and incompatibility, along with desertion and adultery, as justifiable grounds. No longer did the courts enforce marriage contracts when either party disagreed, unless there was a pregnancy or child involved, and even then the courts occasionally refused to force the marriage. Watt views both of these practices as signs that the judges were operating with a new ideal of marriage, one in which love or at least compatibility was the most important element, and ties this to Enlightenment works expressing the same ideas which he can tell th judges are reading based on book club and subscription lists. Because he views the possibility of escaping from an undesirable marriage as a key positive change for women, he thus concludes that the Enlightenment was less negative fo women than many other recent commentators have judged. Those who continue to se the effects of the Protestant Reformation as largely positive for women will no get as much support from Watt's study, however, nor will those who view change in early modern marriage as primarily resulting from economic trends, for, as Watt ably demonstrates, finding specific evidence which documents this, such as the occupations of those who sued for divorce, is very difficult.

Merry E. Wiesner University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Wiesner, Merry E.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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