Marriage in crisis: WWI and behavioural change in Belgium

World War I had a deep impact on the civilian population of Belgium. Unemployment rose, and market prices for food and other essential goods skyrocketed. Travel, transportation and communication opportunities were severely undermined. This paper paper asks how, and through which mechanisms, patterns of first marriage were affected by these extreme conditions.
Durkheim, who studied suicide under war conditions, observed that counterintuitively its rates in fact dropped significantly during wars – to rise again afterwards. He attributed this phenomenon to a strong increase of social cohesion and integration among populations under the threat of a common enemy (Durkheim 1897: 218-2). Durkheim’s findings rise interesting questions concerning another demographic phenomenon: that of marriage. Did war conditions also temporarily change patterns of social homogamy, enabling people to jump across ordinary dividing lines? Do we see evidence of integration across social classes and urban versus rural residents? Or was there no such opening up of the marriage market?
To shed light on these questions, this paper draws on a sample of more than 20,000 marriage acts from the Belgian province of Flemish-Brabant covering the period before, during and directly after 1914-1918. The acts include, among others, information on age at marriage, profession, place of residence and place of birth as well as parental characteristics. This presentation shows the first preliminary results of analyses of the data, which suggest that the Great War indeed had a marked impact on marriage that went beyond decreasing marriage intensity. Patterns of homogamy and heterogamy changed, as economic shock altered values which had traditionally been attributed to profession and socio-economic status on the marriage market. The Belgium population, in other words, rapidly responded to the new challenges posed by changing conditions.