Volume 40 - Article 28 | Pages 799–834  

The impact of parental death on the timing of first marriage: Evolutionary versus social explanations (The Netherlands, 1850–1940)

By Matthias Rosenbaum-Feldbrügge, Enrico Debiasi


Background: This article examines the impact of parental death in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood on male and female age at marriage in the Netherlands in the period 1850–1940. It follows an interdisciplinary approach as it considers explanations based on social and demographic history and evolutionary biology.

Objective: We study the classical historical framework in more detail by controlling for the age at parental death. Moreover, we study if evolutionary or social-demographic explanations are better able to predict the impact of parental death on marriage behavior in a historical population.

Methods: We apply event-history analysis to the Historical Sample of the Netherlands, which includes life courses of more than 24,000 individuals in marital age.

Results: Losing a parent in early childhood delays transition to marriage for sons and has no significant effect on daughters. Parental death in adulthood, however, accelerates entry into marriage for children of farmers.

Conclusions: Early parental death hindered a smooth transition to marriage but the inheritance of land in adulthood created marriage opportunities both for men and women. The results suggest that farming families employed fast marriage of adult children to restore the gender balance on the farm.

Contribution: Marriage in the period 1850–1940 was strongly determined by regional, cultural, religious, and financial constraints. The proposed evolutionary explanations, and the one based on life history theory in particular, are therefore not able to predict the relationship between parental death and marriage behavior. Accordingly, we advise not to use the age at marriage as a proxy for reproductive and risky sexual behavior.

Author's Affiliation

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