Desktop version

Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Families, Status and Dynasties: 1600-2000


The Widening Range of Status Equivalence: Marriage

Marriages as performances of status offer another way to trace the complex nature of the new amalgam of occupations and the mechanisms that organized this complexity into a new order. We saw earlier in this book how, after the time of councillors, marriages in five Swedish councillor dynasties adjusted to the widening range of status equivalence, when the number of marriages to councillors and their daughters declined. Councillors were replaced by the very same officeholders as at the time of councillors, that is, governors, courtiers, officers and justices. Thus the range of status equivalence remained the same as before, only the proportions of these occupations changed. This continuity was also reflected by noble-to-noble marriages in councillor dynasties: their proportion declined from 96 per cent in 1550—1800 to 82 per cent in the nineteenth century for noblemen, and from 97 per cent to 89 per cent for noblewomen.

In contrast to many other European countries (Macknight 2012, 44), Finland saw a dramatic fall in the number of endogamous noble-to-noble marriages in the nineteenth century, at all levels of the nobility.[1] In the highest layer, that is, in the six councillor dynasties, noblemen’s noble- to-noble marriages fell from 94 per cent in 1600—1800 to 56 per cent in the nineteenth century. The fall was even sharper among noblewomen, from 92 per cent to 46 per cent. In the remaining higher nobility the decline was slightly less dramatic, from 83 per cent to 51 per cent for noblemen and from 75 per cent to 55 per cent for noblewomen. In other words, the difference between these two tiers of the higher nobility had disappeared, giving good reason to lump them together as the higher nobility. The dividing line between the lower and the higher nobility, on the other hand, remained intact: 28 per cent of noblemen and 39 per cent of noblewomen in the lower nobility married nobles. This represents a marked contrast from the figures in 1600-1800, 75 per cent and 55 per cent, respectively. By the nineteenth century, then, the lower nobility was well on the way to becoming merged into the non-noble population, indeed more fundamentally so than one would expect based on noblemen’s own occupations.

Historically, the erosion of status equivalence in the nobility was in large part the result of marriages to commoners, which in the Finnish lower nobility outnumbered noble-to-noble marriages as early as the nineteenth century. However, equally important for our analysis here are noble-to-noble marriages, that is, marriages that adhered to the old imperative of marrying one’s social equal. Whom did noblemen and noblewomen marry when their choices fell upon their own circles? In the Finnish higher nobility as a whole, where slightly more than half of noblemen married noblewomen, over four-fifths of these noblemen married daughters of noble senators, governors, courtiers or officers. Even though marriages to daughters of officers were overrepresented, it is a noteworthy finding that the same four occupations that dominated the marriage market of the higher nobility before 1800 continued to shape their internal marriage market in the nineteenth century. Interestingly, this was also true of the lower nobility’s 28 per cent minority, that is, those noblemen who married noblewomen: two-thirds of these noblemen married daughters of noble senators, governors, courtiers or officers, though in this case mainly daughters of noble officers, who once again filled the vacuum when senators, governors and courtiers were no longer available in the nobility’s marriage market. The division of this market into two distinct parts was in fact a very sharp and profound one. Those who married nobles stuck to the same narrow range of status equivalence as the high nobility had done for centuries. Its scope stems from the very idea of nobility, that is, being in the service of the sovereign in state administration, the army or court. Almost half of the higher nobility and less than one-quarter of the lower nobility followed this primeval tradition into the nineteenth century, most obviously of their own volition yet under the compulsion of the nobility’s binding legacy.

The other half of the high nobility and the three-fourths of the lower nobility, those who chose commoners as their spouses, had a rather different matrimonial profile. I begin by looking at those non-noble spouses whose status by occupation was as restricted as in most noble-to-noble marriages. As we just saw, the spouses were primarily senators, governors, officers and courtiers or their daughters. Altogether, marriages to them formed a 27 per cent minority among higher noblemen and a 28 per cent minority among higher noblewomen. In the lower nobility, the respective minorities were even smaller, 11 per cent for noblemen and 14 per cent for noblewomen.

The divide into two distinct marriage markets becomes clearer when these overall percentages are compared with those for endogamous noble- to-noble marriages. In the higher nobility, 66 per cent of women were married to noble officers, senators, governors, courtiers and other highest- level civil servants, and 84 per cent of men were married to their daughters. The figures for noble-to-commoner marriages were much lower, 28 per cent for women and 27 per cent for men. A similar gap is seen in the lower nobility: while 61 per cent of women married noble officers, courtiers, senators, governors or other highest-level civil servants and 64 per cent of men married their daughters, the proportions of such noble-to- commoner marriages were only 14 per cent for women and 11 per cent for men. These marked differences indicate that even in the lower nobility, strict status equivalence was primarily maintained in endogamous noble-to-noble marriages, whereas in marriages to commoners these principles were only rarely put into practice, even in the higher nobility.

Next I move on to compare spouses’ occupational statuses with noblemen’s own occupations. The differences are illuminating. One conspicuous difference is that both higher and lower noblemen created careers as officers more often than they chose to marry non-noble officers’ daughters. In the higher nobility, 37 per cent of men were officers, but a smaller proportion, 20 per cent, married non-noble officers’ daughters. Higher noblewomen were equally hesitant about marrying non-noble officers: no more than 24 per cent of them made this choice. In the lower nobility, 26 per cent of men were officers, while a mere 10 per cent of noblemen married non-noble officers’ daughters. Among lower noblewomen, 10 per cent chose non-noble officers as their husbands. If we furthermore take into account the statistic that 57 per cent of higher and 53 per cent of lower noblemen married daughters of noble officers, we have enough evidence to conclude that a non-noble officer was not as highly esteemed by the nobility as a noble officer. This interpretation is backed by marriages that I consider to be performances of status. The noble officer was still the paragon of what an officer should be and therefore more highly esteemed (James 2010, 349-53); a non-noble officer could not yet hope to achieve such prestige. In the lower nobility there was an equally conspicuous, analogical difference: while 25 per cent of lower noblemen were lower civil servants, non-noble lower civil servants were less acceptable in the nobility’s marriage market; 14 per cent of lower noblemen married daughters of non-noble lower civil servants, and 13 per cent of lower noblewomen married non-noble lower civil servants. In the same way as a noble officer seemed more prestigious than a non-noble officer of the same rank, it was thought that a noble lower civil servant was more prestigious than a non-noble lower civil servant. Glory continued to radiate from the nobility, making nobles seem more eminent than commoners of the same rank, particularly in occupations that had been prevalent in the nobility.

But to get to the point of these disparities we need to discuss two further differences, which are opposite to those examined above. First, higher noblemen hardly ever entered the priesthood, but 7 per cent of lower noblemen took this step in the nineteenth century. However, in the nobility’s marriage market clergymen made a more impressive performance: they were quite frequently accepted as spouses, particularly by lower noblewomen (27 per cent). Lower noblemen were also favourably disposed to the clergy, as 14 per cent of them took clergymen’s daughters as their wives. Secondly, it was quite rare for noblemen in both layers of the nobility to embark on entrepreneurship (5 per cent), but they did much more often marry daughters of entrepreneurs, particularly in the higher nobility (23 per cent), but also in the lower nobility (14 per cent). This difference echoes the phenomenon that drew much public attention in the late nineteenth century, namely, matrimonial alliances between English peers and American Dollar Princesses (MacColl and Wallace 2012);

more on this in Chap. 4, where we discuss entrepreneurial dynasties. Suffice it to say here that this phenomenon gained momentum in Finland too, but marriages between noblemen and daughters of entrepreneurs remained at a national level, even though there were lots of American girls traipsing around Europe seeking invitations and proposals of marriage, especially in the 1880s (MacColl and Wallace 2012, 73). As far as I know, no American businessman’s daughter travelled to Finland to find a baron or a count as her husband—good evidence of the workings of status differences between the nobilities of different states.

Learned professionals deserve further comment here for the same reason as above when we were discussing noblemen’s own occupations. Learned professions were a new opening for noblemen, but what was the situation in the nobility’s marriage market? When all learned professionals in my data set are clustered together, including judges and vicars, we find some quite interesting results. If lower noblemen spearheaded the transition from traditional noble occupations towards middle-class professions, noblewomen in both the higher and lower nobility were forerunners in the nobility’s marriage market. Some 50 per cent of higher and lower noblewomen took non-noble learned professionals as their husbands. These percentages are in sharp contrast to the figures for higher noblemen (16 per cent) and lower noblemen (26 per cent) who became learned professionals. Even though lower noblemen were avant-gardist in their early entry into learned professions, they married professionals much less frequently than lower noblewomen. An interesting difference also came up between higher and lower noblewomen in their marriages to commoners: lower noblewomen accepted non-noble clergymen as their husbands more often than higher noblewomen who, in turn, favoured other non-noble professionals like professors, judges and medical doctors. This difference suggests that learned professionals were also ranked into different statuses. Yet clergymen made their way into the circles of the nobility via another route, as we saw when surveying ennoblements in the nineteenth century. Over one-third of newly ennobled commoners were clergymen’s sons.

Finally, we have those noblemen and noblewomen who married lower- ranking non-noble people such as craftsmen, crofters and workers. Their numbers in the higher nobility were insignificant, 3 per cent in all among men who took their wives from these lower-ranking social segments. The percentage for higher noblewomen was even lower. In fact the only nobles who took spouses from the lower ranks were lower noblemen: 12 per cent of them did so, among them the Jarnefelts whose social standing declined radically in the late nineteenth century. There were other similar cases too, but not all of such marriages led to social decline.

The growing number of marriages to commoners of divergent occupations obviously created a lot of turbulence in the nobility’s marriage market, challenging the old order of statuses. First of all it brought an increase in singlehood. Between 1600 and 1800, rates of singlehood ranged from 14 to 21 per cent for noblemen and from 12 to 21 per cent for noblewomen. In the nineteenth century these figures were quite different, particularly for noblewomen in both strata of the nobility. While 18-25 per cent of noblemen remained unmarried, the proportion among noblewomen ranged from 26 to 34 per cent. This increase might have been due to the conflicting pressures faced by the nobility in the nineteenth century. They were living at the crossroads of two opposing forces: on the one hand, certain new social segments were being rewarded with rising prestige, making them more and more acceptable in the nobility’s marriage market, but, on the other hand, the century-long tradition required them to marry nobles. In this conflicting situation, singlehood increased. In general terms, the situation was similar to that of younger Protestant princes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As shown in Chap. 2, half of them remained single, part of them apparently because they were not allowed to marry their non-royal lovers. The situation was also analogical to that in Catholic monarchies between 1500 and 1800, where singlehood among princesses was relatively high. Royal families in which most princesses married kings or future kings put greater pressure than other royalties on maintaining this standard, and if there was any risk that this standard could not be met, it was better to remain unmarried. Singlehood seems to increase in situations where conflicting pressures complicate marriage decisions.

But there was also another factor that increased singlehood among noblewomen, and that was their entry into the labour market. This began to increase at the very end of the nineteenth century, when more and more noblewomen became teachers in particular, but also post office employees, copyists, secretaries and telegraphists (Snellman 2014, 205). Like other contemporary women in such posts, a vast majority of them remained unmarried (Jallinoja 1983, 79-99; Wasastjerna 1879, 1880). Noblewomen’s entry into the labour market was significant in another way too: the occupations they entered were lower by status than noblemen’s on average. As teachers they belonged to lower-ranking professionals—in the official list of 14 ranks they were in 11th position—but as post office employees, copyists, secretaries and telegraphists they were likely to occupy even lower ranks.

Furthermore, at the same time as the number of marriages to commoners and celibacy increased in the Swedish and Finnish nobilities, the number of cousin marriages decreased. In the five Swedish councillor dynasties, the proportion of cousin marriages declined from 23 per cent in 1550-1800 to 9 per cent in the nineteenth century. In the six Finnish councillor dynasties, the number dropped from 20 per cent in 1600-1800 to 13 per cent in the nineteenth century; in the lower nobility it fell to around 10 per cent. But there was significant variation between dynasties, and indeed between individual dynasty branches. Apparently, these two simultaneous developments, growing singlehood and the decline of cousin marriages, signalled the gradual disintegration of the nobility’s marriage market. The old matrimonial networks between noble dynasties loosened, adding to the difficulty of finding suitable spouses. The royal marriage market was no longer able to resist the flow of changes, which shook the nobility’s marriage market earlier and more fundamentally. Central to this transformation was the rise to prominence of new status hierarchies, which confused the marriage market and called into question the old imperative of status equivalence, which used to provide such unambiguous guidance.

Status equivalence in the nobility drew its very idea from the uppermost layer of the nobility, where the imperative was applied most strictly. Ideally then, status equivalence implied identical status. When its scope was widened, the basic idea of status equivalence was certainly not forgotten but still at the back of everyone’s mind, as a reminder of the ideal state of affairs. Marriages were one of the benchmarks of status equivalence, verifying that those nobles who married nobles were making their choices primarily in compliance with this perception of status equivalence.

Noblesse presented an obligation in this way too, confining this part of the nobility into a hermetic-like enclave where nobility still mattered a lot, guiding noblemen and noblewomen’s course of life in many ways. In contrast, nobles who married commoners stepped into a different kind of world altogether, where they had to decide who is who in different status hierarchies. Through their choice of spouse, they showed how they esteemed those statuses that had earlier had no footing in their marriage market. It had now become more obscure because there were so many new occupations that had not been recorded and ranked in the same meticulous way as in the 1880 order of preference for civil servants and officers, for instance (Arvojarjestys Suomen Suuriruhtinaanmaalle). At the same time, however, status hierarchies were reorganized, and marriages and the succession took part in this process. What actually happened in the nineteenth century was that to an ever lesser degree, marriages in the nobility reflected their noble status, except in the segment of the nobility that continued to contract endogamous noble-to-noble marriages, albeit to a decreasing extent. But for all others, one’s own profession became the yardstick of status, pushing nobility as a status determinant into the background.

  • [1] Calculations are based on a 70 per cent sample of the higher nobility and a 10 per cent sample ofthe lower nobility still in existence in 1907 in Finland (Wasastjerna 1879, 1880; Carpelan 1954,1958, 1965).
Found a mistake? Please highlight the word and press Shift + Enter  
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >

Related topics