Courtship, Sex and Marriage in Eighteenth-Century Popular Literature

  • Tanya Evans


During the eighteenth century, people were marrying earlier and having more children than at any time before, both inside and outside marriage. Until the twentieth century, however, there was no consensus between the state, church, and popular opinion as to how marriage should be defined; thus, meanings of marriage remained unstable until the end of our period. During the early modern period, London developed the widest range of opportunities for clandestine marriages as they came to replace marriages formalised through private contract or betrothal.1 In 1695, a tax of 5 shillings was levied on marriage licences and certificates in an attempt to raise state money and to bring a halt to informal marriage practices.2 In 1712, another Act targeted the keepers of prisons who oversaw clandestine marriages. The marriage shops in the Liberty of the Fleet remained exempt and the popularity of these forms of marriage persisted. A parliamentary committee investigating a string of complaints against the Fleet estimated in 1706 that, from 19 October 1704 to 12 February 1706, 2954 marriages were captured in the Fleet registers.3 R.L. Brown has put the figure at 6609 by the 1740s.4 Between 200,000 and 300,000 marriages were recorded in the Fleet from 1694 to 1754.5 The Fleet was widely used, therefore, by London’s working classes to marry in the early eighteenth century.6


Eighteenth Century Stable Marriage Marriage Partner Unmarried Mother Early Modern Period 
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    R.B. Outhwaite, Clandestine Marriage in England, 1500–1850 (London, 1995), p. xxi.Google Scholar
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    R.L. Brown, ‘The Rise and Fall of the Fleet Marriages’, in R.B. Outhwaite (ed.), Marriage and Society: Studies in the Social History of Marriage (London, 1981), p. 123.Google Scholar
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    See also R. Darnton, ‘Peasants Tell Tales: The Meanings of Mother Goose’, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (London, 1984), pp. 34, 64.Google Scholar
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    M. Saxby, Memoirs of a Female Vagrant Written by Herself (London, 1806), pp. 8, 15, 17.Google Scholar
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    D. Symonds, Weep Not for Me; Women, Ballads, and Infanticide in Early Modern Scotland (Pennsylvania, 1997), p. 24.Google Scholar
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© Tanya Evans 2005

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  • Tanya Evans

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