The Concepts of Consanguinity and Age of Majority in Genealogy

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Submitted by Dan MacDonald -

In response to a query left on the Register's Message Forum, Dan MacDonald, left these very good "tutorials" on not only the concept of consanguinity, but also on another term you will see in Roman Catholic marriage registers: Age of Majority, and notes on marriage dispensations in the Catholic Church... With Dan's permission, I am passing these notes along here!


Relationships, through either blood (consanguinity) or marriage (affinity) were recorded, and marriage dispensations were granted, by "degree". A first degree relationship would indicate siblings; a second degree relationship would indicate first cousins; third degree meant second cousins; and fourth degree indicated third cousins. Relationships more distant than third cousins (fourth degree) were not recorded in the marriage records. You can think of it this way: brothers and sisters were one degree, or one generation, away from the common ancestor; first cousins were two generations away from the common ancestor; etc.

Naturally, marriages to the first degree were never permitted, by either civil or canon law.

Removals could also be recorded, so that a marriage to a second cousin once removed would receive a dispensation of the "third to fourth" or "third and fourth" degree. I have not seen an instance where two or more degrees of removal (i.e.: second cousin twice removed) was ever noted.

If a couple was related as second cousin only once, the dispensation might be recorded as "third degree", "third degree simple", or "third degree pure". If they were related as second cousin twice (through two separate lines), the dispensation might be recorded as "third degree double" or "third degree on one side and third degree on the other side", etc.

Dispensations of affinity were treated in the same manner as dispensations of consanguinity. Effectively, once you were married, your wife's blood relatives would be considered to have the same relationship to you as if they were actually blood relatives to you as well. So, if a widowed man decided to marry his late wife's first cousin, the couple would receive a dispensation to the second degree. The only difference is that it would be a dispensation of affinity rather than a dispensation of consanguinity (unless, of course, a true blood relationship also existed, and that would be noted as well).

The priests were supposed to record all relationships of the fourth degree and closer - so, a couple who were related in four different ways should have received four different dispensations. Unfortunately, this was not always done. As well, each priest used slightly different terminology in their records - it might take some practice to figure out exactly what each priest meant. The best thing to do is to trace out some dispensations, where the lineages are known from other sources, to determine that particular priest's terminology and accuracy. The accuracy depended on two things: the priest's desire to get it both right and complete; and the couple's accuracy in recalling and reciting their own lineages (garbage in- garbage out!). Like anything else in genealogy, one must never take anything for granted.

Unfortunately, not all of the priests actually made the effort to determine whether or not a couple was related. So, some couples who should have received dispensations didn't. This is very unfortunate since marriage dispensations can prove to be very useful to genealogists in tracing and sorting out their family trees. Where gaps exist in the records (as occurs on PEI), the dispensations might be the only manner of tracing certain families. This is especially true for the Acadian families, since large gaps in the records exist from the time of the expulsion. It is also helpful for immigrant families as we might not have any indication of connections between families after they arrived in North America. But, the dispensations might show that these otherwise un-related families did indeed have some blood connections back in the Old World.

This is not necessarily an easy subject to address, and I will not claim to be an expert on the matter. I do hope that I have provided some explanation to your question. And, I welcome any comments from others who might have more knowledge of, or more experience with, marriage dispensations.

See Family Relationships Chart

Age of Majority

After the last posting concerning dispensations of consanguinity, I thought it might be useful to briefly touch on "ages of majority" as well. This is another subject usually noted in the Catholic marriage records that can help to provide some insight into our ancestors, either helping to confirm other sources or giving some clues where the information can not otherwise be found.

Like the dispensations of consanguinity, there are some differences in usage or definition, which could vary by priest or diocese. However, in most cases, it is fairly consistent. Also, the accuracy depended both on the priest and the person giving him the information. Again, it might take some practice working through a few to determine the exact definition and accuracy for each priest.

In general, the age of majority for females was 18, and that for males was 21. Where one or both was under the age of majority, the priest required the permission of the parents before performing the marriage ceremony. Over the age of majority, no permission other than that of the bride and groom was required.

I believe that some Irish priests used 25 for both males and females. Also, some of the records indicate that permission of the parents was granted even though both the bride and the groom were over the age of majority (conversely, no mention of the parent's permission is made in some cases where one or both were below the age of majority).

Many (although not all) of the Catholic marriage records do note whether or not both the bride and groom had reached the age of majority. This might be written as "son/daughter of (not of) age", "major (or minor) son/daughter", or, in the case of French records "fils (or fille) majeur(e)/mineur(e)".

Obviously, we can use this notation to get a rough estimate of a person's age. If a woman was married in 1818 and she was under the age of majority (under 18), she had to have been born c. 1800 or later. Conversely, if she was over the age of majority, she had to have been born c. 1800 or earlier.

When the marriage records are complete and accurate, they can provide a lot more useful information than just names and dates. Along with the dispensations (giving clues into lineage and relationships) and the ages of majority (giving clues to age), they often include: the names of parents, place of residence and/or place of origin, occupation, and, in some instances, the relationship of the marriage witnesses to the bride and groom. Unfortunately, these supplementary facts are all too often overlooked by researchers. Or, where a researcher only has access to transcripts of the records, it might be well worth the effort to view the original documents, to see what information may have been excluded from the transcripts/extracts.

Marriage Dispensations of Consanguinity/Affinity

Researchers must remember that marriage dispensations of consanguinity/affinity were not granted as a matter of course. And, not all priests had the rights to grant marriage dispensations.

The power to grant a marriage dispensation was, to my understanding, held by the Diocese (ie: the Bishop or Arch-Bishop) and not by the individual priest. However, priests were sometimes extended the powers to grant dispensations to a particular degree without having to apply to the Diocese in every case. But, should the priest not have been granted those powers, or the dispensation in question was outside of the limits set for him, then an application to the Diocese would have to be made.

I am unaware how these applications were made or handled at each level. There may or may not have been a formal procedure to follow. However, some of the early correspondence between the priests and the Bishops do discuss individual cases, although not always at length. And, the follow-up correspondence from the Bishop to the priests would indicate whether or not permission had been granted, and why.

Some of the marriage records do note whether or not the priest had been given the powers to grant marriage dispensations, and there is often a date attached to that (separate and distinct from the date of the marriage). A quick review of that date should inform the researcher if the dispensation in question was covered by some general powers or by a specific application to the Bishop. In other words, if the date of the granting of powers was several years prior to the actual marriage, it would be covered by some general rights (and there would probably be no mention of it in any correspondence) while a date just a few months prior might indicate that a specific application had been made. To be certain that the latter is true, you must also review some records both prior to and after the marriage in question. From time-to-time, the priests powers were altered or renewed, which would obviously change the date of the granting of the powers. Usually, only a sudden, one-time change in date would indicate any possible specific discussion of the marriage in question. Not all priests noted the granting of any powers, or the dates in question, even for the most exceptional of cases.

If a researcher is faced with a couple who were granted a marriage dispensation for a fairly close relationship (ie: second degree consanguinity), it might be worth the effort to try and review some of this correspondence between the priest and the Bishop. These letters may reveal some more detail on the couple in question. I am not sure, though, what Diocesan records, if any, may be available for public view at your local archives or historical society. The release of Catholic Church records to the public is subject to certain limits and regulations, and the types or amounts of information available may vary from one Diocese to another.

Some of the letters from the priests request the right to grant close dispensations to a specific couple, and the follow-ups from the Bishop actually rejected any possibility of marriage. So, your ancestor's attempt to marry their first beloved may have been refused, either initially or totally, making an interesting footnote to any family history!

To be honest, from the correspondence I have seen, it is rare that these letters name individual parishioners or betrothed couples, for any reason. This might indicate that some separate, formal procedure was followed, and thus there was no reason for the priest to mention the couples in general correspondence. On the other hand, it may simply be indicative of the fact that few "exceptional" marriage requests were made, and therefore there is little opportunity for the researcher to garner additional information through this source. However, it is an additional resource available to us so it should definitely not be ignored.

For Prince Edward Island research, one must also keep in mind that the Island Catholics were originally part of the Diocese/Arch-Diocese of Québec until sometime circa 1830-1835 (Father Aeneas MacEachern was the first Bishop of an independent Diocese of Charlottetown that also included, for a time, the Magdelan Islands and New Brunswick). Therefore, the correspondence of the early priests and missionaries to PEI would actually be held by the Archives of the Arch-Diocese of Quebéc, rather than the Archives of the Diocese of Charlottetown. Finally, the early correspondence can appear in any one or a combination of three languages: English, French, and Latin.

I would strongly suggest that researchers interested in this resource check for the availability of information through their local archives, research centre, or historical society before approaching the Catholic Church. Most provincial archives do attempt to have copies of any and all pertinent documents on-hand, either personal, family, religious, or governmental. Because of the conditions set by the Catholic and other churches on the release of their information, we can generally assume that if the provincial archives do not have a copy, the documents in question have not been released for public view. And, your local archives or research centres are normally better equipped to handle both general and specific inquiries from researchers and genealogists (although they also tend to be limited in staff, so a personal visit is always the best way to go!). For those who frequent Family History Centres, it should be noted that some of the microfilming of church records was done by the Diocese rather than the LDS. The Diocese then controlled the distribution of the films, which often did not include the LDS.

As for my previous postings, I am not an expert on this subject and do welcome any comments or corrections from those with more experience. However, I do hope that this will help some researchers garner a little more useful information for their files.

Dan MacDonald -

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Last Updated: 04/18/2001 6:24:42 PM
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