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1. Witnesses and Families
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1. Witnesses and Families   |   2. Governance   |   3. The Reformation   |   4. Confessions

B. Everday Life, Marriage, and Family.

The monogamous, sexually exclusive household of an adult couple, their children, and servants formed the basic social unit of German (and European) society. Because men and women were only allowed to marry after they had achieved a certain level of economic security, the average age at first marriage was relatively high (mid to late twenties) and a significant percentage of the population never married. Unlike in southern Europe, spouses in German society were typically of comparable age, and obvious departures from this norm could spark ridicule and criticism.

Although the husband was the legal head of an intact family, women played a vital role in the daily organization and management of both domestic and commercial activities. Among the classes of urban craftsmen, women organized the household and often were active in a craft, either the husband’s or a separate one, or in the marketing of products from their husbands’ workshops. In some places, wives were permitted to assume control of the shop and employees upon a husband’s death. This privilege encouraged remarriage within the husband’s craft.

In the countryside, women were likewise responsible for the household and the children. In their province, too, lay the care of the garden and the preservation or marketing of its produce. At harvest time, they even worked alongside the men in the fields. Seasonal festivities and village celebrations offered men and women of marriageable age the opportunity to become acquainted with one another and provided relief from the monotony of everyday life. Urban artists idealized village life by portraying peasants as vibrant and carefree in (perhaps deliberate) contrast to the more restrained well-to-do burghers and nobles. In fact, relationships between the sexes were subject to strict protocols both within and between social classes.

Unfortunately, most of the surviving documentation on marital relations was produced under extraordinary circumstances, usually when the pair was geographically separated. In the case of Balthasar and Magdalena Paumgartner, the family business required the husband to make long trips to Italy and to markets in other German regions. Likewise, Martin Luther’s frequent absences from home prompted his correspondence with his wife Katharina. Both sets of letters are interesting for the specific information they supply about historical personalities and their relationships. They are also invaluable for the glimpses they afford into two sixteenth-century marriages. The letters poignantly illustrate the extent to which the husbands valued their wives’ contributions to their families’ livelihoods, and they convey some sense of the maturing of marital relationships with the passage of time. In the Paumgartners’ letters we can follow the development of their relationship from their engagement through sixteen years of “good times and bad.” Martin Luther was frequently separated from Katharina during their twenty-one-year marriage, and, indeed, died on one of his trips in 1546. His last letter to her was written just days before. In two letters included in this collection, Luther also provides a glimpse into his relationships with his parents.

The ideal of marriage evolved significantly under the influence of the Protestant reforms. In the new Churches, marriage was not recognized as a sacrament, members of the clergy were encouraged to marry, and the vow of celibacy was not only rejected but scorned as one of the worst falsehoods introduced by the Roman Church. Although the denial of marriage’s sacramental nature may seem to have devalued it, the abolition of clerical celibacy resulted in the elevation of marriage into the only social ideal for most of the population. (The Protestants could not deny that Paul had praised celibacy for those who were capable of remaining chaste, but they pointed to the evident failure of clerics to do so as evidence that this was intended only for a very select few.) The Reformation era was a time of issuing and enforcing stricter rules for marriage, the regulation of which had never been a purely ecclesiastical function. Whereas medieval Canon Law had stipulated that a valid marriage occurred when two partners had exchanged vows and physically consummated their union, sixteenth-century reformers campaigned against clandestine marriages (“corner marriages”) and demanded that the vows be taken publicly and that sufficient time elapse between the announcement of the engagement and the wedding, so that it could be determined whether both parties were free to marry. A genre of literature and art sprang up around these ideals, and, though some of these were tongue-in-cheek satires, they are nevertheless valuable sources.

Marriages were expected to produce children, although there were checks, either intentional or not, on fertility. Women married relatively late (in their mid-twenties) and breastfed their babies, which reduced fertility. The same can be said of periods of malnourishment or hard labor. The ability of populations to respond quickly to compensate for population losses to disease and war suggests that married couples also practiced rudimentary forms of birth control during other times. The average woman bore four to six children over the course of her life, and given the high rate of infant and child mortality, married couples might expect to see half their children die before reaching adulthood. The Paumgartners were devastated by the death of their only child in 1592, and the Luthers also watched two of their six children die at an early age.

Though the high rate of infant mortality – and mortality in general – certainly influenced parents’ relationships with their children, the few first-person accounts that we have reveal parents’ great personal interest in and affection for their children. As with marriage, there was a genre of popular literature – at times gruesome by modern standards – devoted to childrearing. On the whole, however, there is little reliable evidence for the not uncommon modern assumption that in earlier times high mortality rates and other factors inhibited the formation of close emotional attachments between parents and children.

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