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German Genealogy

Marriage Customs, Laws and Records

The many formerly independent kingdoms, duchies, and other small and large entities that made up the German Empire, led to variations and customs relating to marriage. In addition, in the 18th and 19th centuries marriage laws were passed to limit population growth in the lower classes. This led to more out-of-wedlock births and an increase in emigration. The prospective couple had to submit proof of property and employment income sufficient to guarantee that they would not need public assistance in the future. Hessen-Nassau and Bavaria had the most restrictive laws. A 1722 law in Wuerttemberg specified the minimum age for marriage as 25 years for men and 22 years of women. A 1822 Ducal decree in Hessen-Nassau had the minimum ages as 22 and 18 years.

Some common customs and requirements in marriage included:

  • Prescribed rituals for engagements, such as the bride's family being required to buy certain quantities of alcoholic beverages from the local tavern.
  • Requirement of parental permission for first marriages. If the parents were deceased, the county court gave permission.
  • Marriage usually took place in the bride's home town.
  • Dispensations were required for those related by blood up to the fourth degree and for marrying outside of one's religious denomination.
  • The intent to marry was proclaimed 2-3 times in each person's home town/parish of residence and/or birth.  Dispensations for a price could be obtained if the couple already had a child or were planning to emigrate.
  • If either party was a serf tied to the land, the lord of the land had to given his permission to marry.
  • Special permission to remarry were often required if a person was divorced. Divorces were usually granted by the court, and partners sometimes were denied the privilege to remarry for a number of years.
  • Soldiers could not marry until they were discharged, and after posting a large bond that would support survivors if he was killed. This led to many couples living together and bearing children before marriage.
  • Journeymen had to complete their traveling training before receiving permission to marry. They often married girls in the town where they received their training.
  • Marriage records may include proof of property ownership and income, copies of parental permission, birth/baptismal certificates, and military discharge papers. In some instances, the marriage permission files may include guardianship records for illegitimate and orphaned children giving the child's name, birth date, birth place, parents, guardian, and details concerning financial arrangements.
  • A town council could deny permission to marry, and the whole process could be repeated several times.

Wedding contracts regulated everything that was brought into the marriage -- both possessions and children from previous relationships -- as well as what was to become of them in case one of the spouses died. These contracts are a good indication of a family's social standing because they included such things as requirements for children to be raised in the Christian faith and how much money they had for food and clothes.

To find these records, check first with the state archive for the area in which your ancestors lived. Also check local town or community archives and genealogical societies for these and other unique records.