Today our notion of marriage is built on the concept of finding a life partner, falling in love, and getting married. This romanticized idea of marriage is perpetuated in modern popular culture, especially music and the cinema. But this ideal is a modern creation, and has not always been the case.
Prior to the twentieth century, marriage was considered an alliance between families. Fathers controlled who their children married. Not only did they look to make matches that would ensure their’ children’s financial security, they looked for alliances between families that would increase their social status as well.
In 1556, Henri II declared that all men under 30 and all women under 25 would now need parental consent to marry. In cases of disagreement about a potential marriage, the opinion of the father would prevail. In addition to the consent of the parents, the Catholic Church required the presence of a priest as well as witnesses to the marriage.
This tie to economics led to the development of marriage contracts. These ensured that all parties lived up to their commitments, financial and otherwise. The settlers of New France brought this tradition with them to the colony, and it remains a common part of Quebecois marriages today.
About the time of the marriage, the parties would go to a notary and sign a marriage contract (contrat de mariage). This document would set out what the bride’s dower would be, what the groom would bring to the marriage, and penalties for either if they were the cause of the marriage not taking place. They also might include a distribution plan for the couples’ assets after their deaths.
For genealogists, marriage contracts are an extremely valuable resource. They often list the names of parents and other family members, as they are often involved in the contract. They can be used to document a marriage where no church record survives. They can give you an economic picture of your family at a given point in time. They can help document a place of residence for your ancestors at a particular time. They can also, based on the language of the contract, give you an idea of how well the two families got along, and if there were any distrust between or suspicion between them.
Notarial records are notoriously difficult to locate. There were no regulations concerning jurisdictions for notaries. One could use a notary anywhere in the province. Thus, records could be located far distant from where the parties lived. Ancestry.com has a database with indexes to many (although not all) notarial records. The records themselves are not yet online there, but if you can locate a record in their index, you can find which branch of the Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales de Québec (www.banq.qc.ca) holds the records for that notary. With this information, you can write to that branch and get copies of the records. The information that these records provide are well worth the effort to locate them. You can also find images of some marriage contracts online at www.genealogiequebec.com.
For more on the history of marriage contracts in France, see Larousse de la Généalogie: À la recherche de vos racines (Paris: Larousse/Vuef, 2002) 128–31.