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Unmarried status

Marriage was traditionally considered the natural situation of men and women, except in the case of religious vocation. However, the reality is that people who did not marry and remained unmarried as they got older were found in all the villages and towns surveyed.

Reasons for being unmarried

The surveys mentioned general reasons for being unmarried. These included shyness, physical appearance, not having found the right person with whom to set up home, having being left on the shelf, there being far more young people of one sex than the other, constant mourning and disappointments in love. Being too involved in the group of single friends was thought in many locations to be a problem for young males to start relationships with young girls.

Parents were also blamed for their children failing to marry.

One of the reasons for women not marrying was if they had to look after their parents, an elderly and sick relative, or a brother who was a priest.

Another reason given was the pressure from a man's single friends that made it difficult for a member of the gang to go out with a girl and start a relationship.

Integration of unmarried people in the home

Traditionally throughout the Basque Country, unmarried children could continue to live in their family home, with the men working in the fields and the women doing the housework. When the parents died, they continued to live in the house with the brother who had been the heir and his family. This meant they were not abandoned, although that situation was a source of conflicts. From the 1950s onwards, unmarried adults who had previously worked in the fields began to work as employees outside the home.

Marriage and procreation

Marriage traditionally was considered the natural destiny of everyone once they were adults. Young people who opted for religious life by entering a monastery or convent or those who joined the seminary to be priests were the exception to this rule.

On the other hand, procreation was considered the natural reason for marriage. Parents have always wanted to see all their children “well placed” or “settled”, in other words, they have wanted their children to be married and have their own family. The expression “then we can die happy” that is so common and deep-rooted is proof that that has been the ultimate aspiration of the parents. The religious vocation of the children has also been seen as a stable situation. That is not the case of being unmarried which parents have seen as an incomplete and more difficult status.

In the traditional system, marriage and procreation was required for the continuity of the farmstead within the main line.

Religious celibacy

One of the life options, along with marriage, has been “to enter an order” and become a monk or nun, or join the priesthood by taking holy orders. Both the status of being a nun or monk and of being priest implies celibacy. However, those who opt for those ways of life are not usually included in the category of unmarried people.

Entering an order involves a solemn rite of passage known as taking their vows to show their religious vocation, which indicates an option in life. That step is preceded by a preparatory period lasting several months – postulancy – and a training one – novitiate – before their religious consecration. The young women entering the convent had to provide a stipulated dowry of clothes and money. They could also profess their faith without providing any dowry, but in that case they would carry out the manual work in the life of the convent and have the category of “Sisters”.

The parallelism between novitiate and courtship, the dowry in both cases, between saying their religious vows and marrying, makes people say that the monks and nuns are “married to God”. Consequently, they are required to behave according to their religious status and to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience that they made when professing their faith.

In Durango (B) up until the 1970s, a notable number of young women between 18 and 25 entered a religious order or, as was popularly said, “went to the nuns”. Some of the women entered cloistered convents (Poor Clares - Franciscans -, Augustinians, Discalced Carmelites); teaching congregations (Carmelite Sisters of Charity); sent to far-off missions (Mercedarian Missionaries, Franciscan Missionaries of Mary); look after the sick and the old (Daughters of Charity).

During the rite of “taking the habit” to enter a convent (Poor Clares or Augustinians), the young aspirant wore a long white dress and a floral diadem, and held a bunch of flowers like a bride. After the ceremony, a reception was held for the family and female friends of the new nun, but without her presence if it was a cloistered order.

Marriage of widows and widowers

In the past, men and women who were widowed waited a reasonable period before marrying a second time as it was not viewed favourably to marry again before, at least, a year had gone by. In the northern Basque Country, it was said that widows should not marry until the large candle lit in the family grave for the death of their husband had burnt away, and that was lit for thirteen months[1].

The marriage of widowers and widows, and of people who were getting on in age, was the subject of jokes, mischievous songs and cencerradas [noise made with cowbells, pots and pans in mockery]. Young people were mainly behind them to show their disapproval and criticise a marriage outside the normal age for getting married. To avoid that public decrying, those marriages were held very early in the morning, with the place and time of the ceremony kept a secret.

  1. Juan THALAMAS LABANDIBAR. "Contribution to the Ethnographic Atlas of the Northern Basque Country" in AEF, XI (1931) p. 20.