Love on a Frosty Night: Marriage in 18th Century Germany

by | September 18, 2021 | General | 2 comments

By Donna George Storey

The intimate lives of our ancestors in the 1700s and 1800s will always be a mystery to us. However, as this column has shown, the dedicated writer of historical fiction can discover many windows to the past that allow us to enrich our imaginative stories with fascinating facts.

This summer, I decided to take a break from genealogical research at a subscription site. I expected I’d be filling my time with projects other than family history research. How wrong I was!

I happened to check out a free research site called which provides access to digitized records from some Catholic dioceses in Central Europe, especially Germany and Austria. I knew that only a fraction of available records had been scanned, so I had low expectations. To my delight, the records of the parish of Somborn, Germany, home to three of my great-great grandparents, were available dating back as far as the 1670s.

On the face of it, these records, written in Latin by a succession of priests with varying skills in penmanship, mainly provide only the basic facts of my ancestors’ births, marriages, and deaths. But if we read between the lines, we can discover some interesting details about the daily life of all of those Hufnagels, Dornheckers, and Von Rheins in 18th century Germany.

Marriage records are of course the natural focus of a writer of erotic fiction. We can find evidence of honeymoon consummations in the baptismal records, as most couples had a child within the first year after the wedding. I’ve yet to find any obvious “premature” babies among my ancestors, but I found records for illegitimate children, generally from out-of-towners–a topic I will examine next month.

One big surprise was how different marriage customs were from our own day. For example, the most popular months for weddings were January, February, and November. “Das Jubelpaar” [by Hermann Bethke (1825-1895) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons], a painting of a German couple celebrating their golden wedding anniversary, might be set in any of those months, with the snow sparkling in the dim winter light. I assume that when the fields were fallow, the villagers had more time to tend to their own fertility.

In the twenty-first century, the wedding is marketed as a gala event full of unique personal touches where the bride and groom are stars of the show. In 18th-century Germany, the church was open for weddings on weekdays—Tuesday being especially popular. Six to ten couples were married one after the other, rather like City Hall weddings today. I’ve found numerous instances where siblings were married on the same day and shared the same witnesses. Perhaps this indicates some practical economy, as the parents could host a midwinter feast of roast goose, sausages, and new wine for two children for the price of one.

After the celebration, when the couple retired to their marriage bed, they surely had to huddle together to keep warm with all that frost trimming the windows. As erotica writers, we can imagine a sweet union for bride and groom, the first time they could be alone together. A respectable couple living under the watchful eyes of parents and neighbors would have had more pressure to refrain so their children would be registered as “legitimate” in the church registry.

Married life seemed to be agreeable to the villagers in the parish of Somborn. Church records show that widowers of any age were quick to marry after the death of their spouses.

For example, Anton Zwergle married my sixth great-grandmother, Anna Maria Schaffrath, six weeks after his first wife died. Anna Maria waited a year and a half after her husband Melchior Schneider’s sudden death at age 33 to marry Anton in November 1732. She brought three young children into the marriage and had several more with Anton. No doubt before microwaves and washing machines, a wife was missed on long November nights. A husband’s economic support was likely missed just as keenly.

Peter Von Rhein, both my fifth and sixth great grandfathers, had three wives. He married his first wife, Katharina in 1729. Katharina died in 1750 while giving birth to their tenth child. Peter then married Eva Poer on 2 July 1753. Eva died on August 11, just one month later, and Peter went on to marry my ancestor, 31-year-old Elisabeth Peter, on 24 January 1754 at the age of 56. The couple had four more children, the last when Peter was 66.


Two of those Von Rhein daughters, Gertrude and Katharina, married two Hufnagel brothers, Lorenz and Andreas. The great-grandson of Andreas, Peter Hufnagel, ended up marrying the great-great granddaughter of Lorenz, Catharine Hufnagel, in Pennsylvania in 1888. Peter Hufnagel and Catharine Hufnagel were double third cousins—and my great-grandparents, pictured above! (For those of you who have not joined the genealogy craze, this is some serious-fun discovery for a family historian).

Most couples in the 18th and 19th centuries had a baby every other year until the wife was in her forties. Some births were closer, but this usually meant the previous baby hadn’t survived long. In my genealogy research, I assemble a list of births for a family, then check the death registry. I’d guess that over half of the babies born didn’t survive past the age of 3. And yet my ancestors soldiered on, marrying, birthing, and dying generation after generation, through the Thirty Years War and Napoleon’s advances and retreats, until many decided to try their luck in Pennsylvania–which still has the most residents named “Hufnagel” in the country, a fact that surely makes other all other states very jealous!

So, my dear reader and writer, remember that inspiration for our stories lies in many surprising places, including dusty church records that were once meant for the eyes of a few local priests. Armed with hard-won facts, and our vivid imaginations, we can surely celebrate our ancestors’ wedding days and nights once again.

Write on!

Donna George Storey

I want to change the world one dirty story at a time. When I posted this mission statement on my website, I hoped my cheeky ambition would make my readers smile. I smile every time I read it myself. And yet I’m totally serious. I truly believe that writers who are brave enough to speak their truth about the erotic experience in all its complexity—the yearning, the pleasure, the conflicts, and the sweet satisfaction—do change the world for the better. So if you’re here at ERWA because you’re already writing erotica, a big thank you and keep on doing what you’re doing. If you’re more a reader than a writer, I encourage you to start dreaming and writing and expressing the truth and magic of this fundamental part of the human experience in your own unique voice. Can there be a more pleasurable way to change the world? I'm the author of Amorous Woman, a semi-autobiographical erotic novel set in Japan, The Mammoth Book of Erotica Presents the Best of Donna George Storey  and nearly 200 short stories and essays in journals and anthologies. Check out my Facebook author page at:  


  1. Lisabet Sarai

    I love the way you manage to tease out these inferences from records that seem quite sparse on the surface.

    Also fascinating that you have these multi-relationships in your family, e.g. that one guy was both your fifth and sixth grandfather.

    • Donna George Storey

      Thank you, Lisabet! I’m guessing that most of us have those interwoven relationships when you go back far enough to the small village setting. However, it is particularly eye-opening when you see the evidence of it in the records!

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