As I celebrate the newest member of my extended family, I am also thinking about my great-great-grandparents, Jacob and Sarah Cohen. A while back I had sent for their marriage certificate from the General Register Office in England, and the certificate arrived just a few days before Remy was born. It confirms a number of facts I already knew—that Sarah’s birth name was Jacobs, that her father’s first name was Reuben, that she and Jacob married on October 24, 1844, that Hart, Jacob’s father, was a dealer as was Reuben Jacobs, Sarah’s father (a glass dealer?) and Jacob himself, and that they all lived in Spitalfields, Christchurch, Middlesex County, in England. But the marriage certificate also revealed a few other interesting details.
For example, according to the certificate, Jacob was still a minor, but Sarah was of “full” age. All the documents I have for Sarah, both from England and the US, place her at least two years younger than Jacob. I wondered: Was the age of majority younger for women in England in 1844 than it was for men? The 1841 census puts Rachel’s age that year as 15, meaning she was 18 when she married Jacob, whereas Jacob was only 20. (When I think about how young they were and then how many children their marriage produced and how many years they were married, it is astounding.)
I did a little research and learned that although a girl could marry at 12 and a boy at 14, parental consent was necessary if either was under 21. Both men and women were considered minors before they were 21; there was not a double standard. That leaves me perplexed. Was Rachel older or younger than Jacob? Was the marriage certificate right and all the other documents wrong? One would think that a marriage certificate would be more accurate than census reports, but perhaps this was just a mistake.
The certificate also indicates that, as with Hart Levy Cohen on his wife Rachel’s death certificate, Jacob and Sarah could not sign the document, but only left their marks on it. Another question is thus raised: how literate was the population of England at this time?
A little quick research revealed that the literacy rate in England in 1840 was somewhere between 67% and 75% for the working class population. Another source indicated that based on the ability of brides and bridegrooms to sign their marriage certificates, the literacy rate was even lower among women at that time—around 50%, . That same source, however, suggested that since writing was taught after reading, simply because someone could not sign his or her name did not mean that he or she could not read.
A third interesting detail on the certificate is that it appears that both Jacob and Sarah were residing at 8 Landers Building at the time they were married. Since it is not likely they were living together before they were married, this would mean that their families were living in the same building. Were they childhood friends? Had their parents as neighbors arranged the marriage? Were they all related in some way? It also appears that the marriage had taken place at this same location, not at a synagogue. But the record from Synagogue Scribes indicated that they were married at the Great Synagogue, as were Hart and Rachel. I assume that this was this just a civil certificate completed to comply with civil, not religious, law. I find it interesting that it states that the ceremony was done “according to the rites and ceremonies of the Jewish religion” despite the fact that it is not a religious document.
It is quite amazing to me how much information and how many questions can be mined from one simple document. Receiving this document was very exciting, as with receiving Rachel’s death certificate from England. It ties me directly to my ancestors—people who were born almost 200 years ago, but with whom I have a direct and easily established connection.
 See the discussion on RootsChat at http://www.rootschat.com/forum/index.php?topic=643885.0 and also at BritishGenealogy.com at http://www.british-genealogy.com/forums/showthread.php/57256-Age-at-Marriage-Minor
 R.S. Schofield, “Dimensions of Illiteracy in England, 1750-1850) in Literacy and Social Development In the West: A Reader (edited by Harvey J. Graff) (1981), p.201.
 “Introduction,” Aspects of the Victorian Book, at http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pr_intro.html