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Common-law unions

Unions that were not formalised by a church wedding were a taboo in the past. They were considered to be sinful and the few people who, for different circumstances, dared to enter into one had to suffer strong social pressure.

Over the decades, they began to increase in number and were better tolerated, particularly when they occurred outside the family setting. They have now begun to be a common phenomenon and, in general, are accepted, at least among younger people.

Single mothers

In the past, any girl who became pregnant without being married suffered the contempt of her neighbours and often of her own family.

Rural society was particularly hard on a young girl who had a child out of wedlock, a borte as they say in the Montaña de Navarra. This explains why there were many cases of newborns being abandoned even though it was condemned by the General Charter of Navarra. At the end of the 19th century, there were still towns where a woman with a child out of wedlock was forced to go to church for a certain period of time to toll the bells at dawn to remind the neighbours of her shame[1].

The worst situation that the girl could face was to be turned out of her parents’ home.

The pregnant girl sometimes left the town on some pretext before she began to show and returned after giving birth and leaving her child in an orphanage or with a relative. She would thus save face and be free of criticism from her neighbours.

Attempts were always made to marry the girl to the man who had left her pregnant. Only when he refused to do so or the girl was not sure who he was or did not want to identify him was she forced to take some of the above steps. Despite the stigma of being a single mother, she would sometimes manage to marry another man who was not the father.

Pregnancies that were the result of out-of-wedlock relations between couples who were engaged to be marriage were also criticised. The wedding was often brought forward to solve the problem. This situation was known as a “shotgun wedding”.

The cases of premature births before nine months had passed since the wedding were also problematic for the woman as there were always suspicious minds who thought she was already pregnant when she married.

Illegitimate children


Illegitimate children were given the surnames of their mother as they were not recognised children. “Father unknown” was put in the space for the father’s name on the birth certificate. It should be noted that if the mother was not married to the father of the child, it was because he did not recognise the child as his own, as under no circumstances did the situation occur as is common today where the child is given the surnames of the father and mother even if they are not married.

Fate of the children

In general, the fate of illegitimate children was the foundling hospital and, in the best of cases, the home of relatives who lived far from the place of residence of the mother.

According to Caro Baroja, when a unmarried woman or widow had a child as the result of secret love affairs, a borte, and the family wanted that to remain hidden, in some villages of the Montaña Navarra (valleys of Bertiz, Baztan, Santesteban and Basaburua Menor), they took the newborn secretly at night to another village, neither too close or too far away, and left it at the door of a house, called and said: "Emen dagona artzue" (Take in what we have left here). The family who found itself with such an expected burden could report what had happened and the child would then be taken to the Pamplona foundling hospital, but people usually took the child in and brought it up[2].

Illegitimate children were sometimes accepted into the home and were brought up in the same way as the others.

Separation and divorce

As was acknowledged in some places surveyed, separations were not as common in the past.

When there were clear cohabitation problems but separation was not an option, the woman often came out worse in the situation[3].

Women’s economic dependency on their husbands in the past also stemmed the cases of separations. The numbers were lower in rural areas as the social pressure was greater in smaller populations. This phenomenon was greater in charter towns and urban areas.

Divorce was not a legal option until recently, specifically in 1978. During the short period of the Republic, some people divorced as there was a divorce law in force, but there were more cases in mining and industrial areas. This was reported by the people interviewed in Muzkiz (Bizkaia). Only the separation of the spouses was possible from 1936 to 1978.

The Catholic mentality and tradition have helped to keep the number of divorces at a minimum. The idea of the indissolubility of marriage has been clear and once married, the couples would continue together even if there were cohabitation problems.

  1. Julio CARO BAROJA. Los Vascos. San Sebastián: 1949, pp. 321-322.
  2. Julio CARO BAROJA. La vida rural en Vera de Bidasoa. Madrid: 1944, p. 146.
  3. In Uharte-Hiri (BN), on the other hand, when the marital rows reached the point that the wife hit the husband, the young people of the village organised astolasterka. A group of them, in fancy dress, would make their way to the square, some on foot and other on horseback. In middle of the procession, two young people represented the ill-disposed spouses. A donkey was behind them. When they arrived in the square, they all danced to the sound of the clarinet, the xirula, cornets, drum and kettledrums, after which those playing the spouses argued and hit each other. The popular song writers, koblariak, improvised some verses to mark the event. Finally the donkey was put on a table and hit on the sides to force it to adopt grotesque postures that the young people thought was hilarious. José Miguel de BARANDIARAN. "Matériaux pour une étude du peuple Basque: A Uhart-Mixe" in lkuska. Nº 6-7 (1947) p. 173.