Book Review: Marriage Law for Genealogists: The Definitive Guide

21 Mar 2013

Understanding the law of the time and place in which you are researching will help you tremendously as a genealogist. Rebecca Probert is a genealogist. She is also Professor of Law at Warwick University in England. She is the leading authority on the history of marriage laws in England and Wales. After writing a number of scholarly works on the subject, she realized that a book on the subject written specifically for a genealogical perspective would be very helpful for researchers. Last year she published Marriage Law for Genealogists: the Definitive Guide.



I picked up a copy at Who Do You Think You Are? Live! a few weeks ago. The modest-sized book (156 pages), it is jam-packed with incredibly important information.  Now, there are many research guides for genealogists that touch on marriage records, so why do we need this new book?

Probert started having doubts about the accuracy of many of the claims about informal marriage arrangements and other tales of marriage and family. Ten years ago she decided to start researching to see what she could discover. She poured through statutes and case law, as well as literature. Like any good genealogist, she then dove in headfirst, examining records across the entirety of England and Wales, researching families and analyzing data.

The results of her research “have overturned many long-standing myths about how our ancestors were married. The simple but very clear findings are that the overwhelming majority of couples married in the Church of England, cohabitation was vanishingly rare, and informal marriage practices non-existent. This disproves man of the claims of a previous generation of historians . . . on which guidebooks for family historians have relied.” (p. 14)

Over the course of the past decade, she has published numerous academic papers on her findings. “But this book has a far broader remit than simply distilling my earlier research. The need for a completely new book on marriage law for family historians became apparent when I looked at the existing resources. Not to put to fine a point on it, I was consistently disappointed (and occasionally flabbergasted) by the inaccuracy of existing accounts of marriage law: even the best genealogy books and websites repeat basic errors of law; mistakes are unintentionally compounded as one author repeats and then builds upon another’s conclusions without consulting the primary sources; inevitably, minor misconceptions have snowballed into outright falsehoods, leading the poor genealogists who rely on them into a thoroughly erroneous understanding of their ancestors’ marital customs and their beliefs and motivations in this most personal and universal of areas.” (p. 14)

Probert conducted a great deal of her research via working with original records and microfilm, but it was the modern-day digital databases and record images that allowed her to easily conduct a massive study that was untenable for earlier generations of historians. I had the please of conversing with her for a bit at Who Do You Think You Are? Live! in London a few weeks ago. She clearly knows her subject well, and is very passionate about it.

Marriage Law for Genealogists: the Definitive Guide is a necessary work for anyone researching their ancestors in England and/or Wales. It is available from Amazon for $14.99 (US) or £9.99 (UK).