Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Marriage, Family, and Identity

Social practices and scholarly fictions

Prof. Dr. Gabriela Signori

Part of the research project „Gender, Choice of Names, and Marriage


At the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century, social economists such as Karl Bücher (1847-1930) programmatically defined the field in which the medieval city’s social history would be studied in Germany over the next hundred years. In reaction to contemporary problems, the interest was above all in questions of social inequality (work, pay, and social stratification) and thus in the “question of women” (i.e. the wage-earning activities of women, declared a social problem).

A form of social history focused—as in France or England—on the urban “marriage market” (on who married whom and for what reasons) as a means and medium of social integration could  not become established in Germany. For this reason, the German-language historiography on the subject is mainly limited to the realm of norms (ecclesiastical law, law governing property in marriage, etc.), and to the didactic writing on marriage that proliferated in the fifteenth century.

Aside from studies of selected patrician families, praxis, including prevailing polygamy, has hardly been touched on in German-language medieval urban history. National traditions, although important, are not the only reason for this “special path” of research. Another factor that is at least as important is the documentary situation: In the North Alpine area, we possess neither detailed tax lists comparable to the Florentine catasto of 1427 nor the sorts of copious and informative family chronicles that have been offered by the Northern Italian urban republics. Hence where in order to uncover structures French and Anglo-American research could rely on series of notarized contracts or the equally rewarding documents of the monte delle doti (the Florentine dowry treasury), the German-language historians, largely focusing on another region, often have to make do with sparse notes or the medium of the marriage agreement, inherently volatile because of its oral nature—the product of an urban culture that, in contrast to the North Italian urban republics, is still definable principally as a “face to face” society.

The marriage agreements indirectly produced the so-called Kundschaftsbücher—“witness books” or protocols in which the personnel participating in the marriage agreement were asked to reconstruct what had been agreed on. The agreements mainly took this written formin the case of conflict and only in hindsight, after one of the parties to the agreement had died (sometimes years after the agreement). Such “preserved” agreements have the advantage of leading us through all the groups and strata of late medieval urban society.
Many questions that I wish to explore in the coming months emerge from both the medium and object of the marriage agreement. The question of personnel here has a central role: who is speaking on such agreements. And what can we learn about the motives of the beneficiaries? If we can assume that in cities the connubium counts among the foundations of integration, how is this reality concretely manifest in the “witness books”?

Initial study of the material has indicated that the neighborhood, hence spatial proximity, played a prominent role in the urban marriage market. Its significance is hardly reconcilable with the widespread idea that the medieval city marriages were mainly agreed on for strategic reasons. For the most part, “strategies” were pursued in the upper strata, with the prominent presence of many “cross-over marriages” (mother and daughter or sisters marrying into the same family). Spatial proximity is central here as well, but in an entirely different way than for the middle class, for whom, in turn, “strategic” considerations seem to play no similarly dominant role.

Finally, regarding the contents of the marriage agreements, we need to keep in mind that these only treat questions of property law. Nevertheless, property was rarely the only thing at stake, social position inevitably being negotiated together with goods.



Gabriela Signori,Karin Czaja (ed.): Häuser, Namen, Identitäten. Beiträge zur spätmittelalterlichen und frühneuzeitlichen Stadtgeschichte, Konstanz: UVK, 2009. (Spätmittelalterstudien 1)


Christof Rolker und Gabriela Signori (ed.): Konkurrierende Zugehörigkeit(en). Praktiken der Namengebung im europäischen Vergleich, Konstanz: UVK, 2011. (Spätmittelalterstudien 2)

Konkurrierende Zugehörigkeiten. Mittelalterliche Praktiken der Namengebung im europäischen Vergleich
Vortrag im Rahmen der Clustertagung, Juli 2010, Ittingen
Gabriela Signori, Christof Rolker, Karin Czaja, Lilach Assaf
lectures, presentation (both in German)