We have all ready touched a bit on the subject of the French marriage contract in the post about dowries, but thought it might not hurt to look at one in detail. Firstly, let us remind all that a French marriage contract, historically, has never been a pre-nup. A modern pre-nuptial agreement is a kind of insurance, meant to protect the assets of one or both parties should the marriage end in divorce. Marriage contracts have existed in France for hundreds of years. For most of that time, France has been a Catholic country, where marriages did not end in divorce. For the French, the marriage contract is closer to the British idea of articles of incorporation. Two individuals, members of different organisations, each with assets deriving from those organisations, are joining together to form a new corporate entity. Its success or failure was determined by its ability to produce and support and endow with assets new members. As we have written before: the French think of marriage the way Americans think of business.
Our example contract was written in 1901, on the ninth of September. The couple were married in October. The contract always comes before the marriage. Sometimes, it may be the day before; we know of one that was written two years before.
The groom is aged twenty-six, a farmer, living with his parents. The bride is twenty-three and also lives with her parents. They are from neighbouring villages in Normandy. Both sets of parents are present at the drawing up of the contract. More, the groom's parents are "acting for him and in his name" and the bride's are "contracting the agreement for her and in her name, because of the donation they are going to make". The couple opt for the regime dotal, which groups together all that the wife is bringing to the marriage, either on her own or as gifts to her, into one category as her property.
The contract then goes on to list every conceivable type of possession the bride might have -- furniture, property, money, bank shares, railway shares -- current and future, and says that she will retain full rights over it all to do with as she wishes. She will also keep all of the income and her husband is not to touch it. The bride cannot touch the shares either, but only receive the income and she is to approve any expenditure of it the groom may wish to make. This absolute right extends to whatever she may inherit one day.
The next point states that she be allowed to make a donation inter vivos of any of her own property to any of her future children or grandchildren, without having to ask her husband's permission. Then, that the marriage forms a company in terms of acquisitions, each owning half of all, and that, when one of the couple shall die, the other shall have the right to usage (l'usufruct) of the home and all its furnishings exactly as it was, until his or her death.
The couple's individual belongings are listed. The groom has two suits, some clothes, underclothes and jewellery valued at five hundred francs, and he has fifteen hundred francs in savings, dear boy. His father is giving him a sum of seven thousand francs, once the marriage actually takes place, of course. The bride's parents are giving her a stunning trousseau (seen in part above) : six sheets! thirty-six blouses! thirty-six pillow covers! twenty-four tea towels! forty-eight handkerchiefs!! A bed, mattresses, a mirror, pillows, nightstand, wardrobe, a parasol and an umbrella. The whole lot was valued at three thousand francs, and they gave her another five thousand in cash. (Note that the groom need not list in detail his clothing, but the bride's list details not only the house linen, but every one of her undergarments. Was this not embarrassing and humiliating, one wonders?)
People were modern in 1901 and there is a clause anticipating the possible dissolution of the company (not marriage) which states that the bride will keep all that she brought to and acquired personally during the marriage, especially her jewellery and any linens marked with her initials. However, should she wish, she may accept three thousand in cash if all has grown too tatty. The surviving spouse gets to choose from the communal property which bits will constitute his or her share. The bride gets to do the choosing if the company is dissolved. Should the company produce children, their inheritance comes from the community property, and the survivor's share is proportionately reduced, though he or she retains the use.
The notaire wrote that he read various and appropriate articles of the Code Civil to all present so that everyone knew the law. He gave the young folks a certificate confirming the contract, which they would then present to the officier d'état civil, who records the marriage. (He would note in the record that the marriage was under a contract, the contract type, date and the name of the notaire.) Everybody signed.
Although the wording refers to the rights and decisions of the bride and groom, it is clear that they had no part in the decisions as to the contract. In truth, in this case, even the groom's parents seem invisible. Yet, all in all, this is a fairly ordinary marriage contract, with many of the paragraphs being standard, as is the listing of the trousseau and even its price seems to be standard, hovering at three thousand francs for a good century. Perhaps one would dread meeting the bride's parents in court and perhaps forty-eight handkerchiefs is a bit much, but otherwise this is a good representation of how most French marriages began.
Marriage contracts are invaluable sources of genealogical information and the detail of daily life. Where to look for a marriage contract :
- Parish records rarely state if the married couple had a contract. One would not have expected one for the poor; one would expect one for anyone with any money. Civil records will state in the registration of the marriage if there were a contract, giving the date of the contract and the name of the notaire.
- If it is over 125 years old, it should be in the departmental archives. Notaires are supposed to turn over to the archives all of their records of that age. Some do, some don't. Requesting an old contract from a notaire is costly and slow, because he or she will charge for their writing to the archives and requesting the copy of their old file. Spend a little time hunting in the departmental archives and you can have it more quickly and cheaply .
- If you know the date of the marriage, begin searching notarial archives just prior to that.
- If you do not have the name of the notaire, almost certainly it will be one in the town where the couple married or where one of them lived. One did not go to an out of town notaire for a marriage contract.
*Addendum : Gilles Dubois does the same with an 18th century marriage contract on his blog Carnet Web de Généalogie.
©2010 Anne Morddel