3.20.2012

Mediæval Child Brides


A few weeks ago I did a post about medieval hygiene -- here's an easy "filler" post for this week: demolishing the myth that young girls under the age of ten were routinely forced to marry much older men [in the Middle Ages]. Now, it's true that according to the Catholic Church's canon law, girls were considered eligible to marry as young as 12 years old, and boys as young and 14.[1] However, this doesn’t mean that everyone was indeed married at the minimum age. We can use common sense to discern this, since even today Church law allows for marriage at these same ages, yet few marry that young. Furthermore, we’ve already disproved part of the myth since marriage to a girl under 12 was illegal and invalid.

Interestingly, finding sources that can give us any definitive answer about what age people were married at is difficult at best – although one can surmise that the Protestants and Modernists who concocted such canards as the child bride conceived of them from reading about certain isolated (and highly publicised) betrothals of royal princes and princesses at a very young age. Even then, these cases almost always involved a betrothal in childhood that was not translated into a sacramental marriage until many years later, or the couple would not consummate the marriage until adulthood. Further, both were of similar age. Such was the case of Catherine of Aragon’s betrothal to Arthur of England at ages three and two respectively, but they were not married until age 16. The rare cases where a young girl was married to a much older man, such as Isabelle d'Angoulême’s marriage at age thirteen to King John of England (aged 33) in a.D. 1200, received much attention and remained in people’s memories precisely because they were unique occasions of scandal.

Of course, royalty were a very small percentage of the medieval population and it is more useful to see when the average person married. Looking again at The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England by Barbara A. Hanawalt, we see that wills, manorial court records, poll tax lists, and parish registers all fail to give ages.[2] We must therefore look to “circumstantial” evidence drawn from cultural attitudes reflected in the primary sources.

All in all, these sources, which include those mentioned above, as well as literature, hagiographies, descriptions of domains and synodal statutes, indicate that people married at roughly the same age, and at a relatively mature age.[3] Of course, “relatively mature” depends on the culture we are looking at, and we should keep in mind that people in the Middle Ages started work quite young, with many boys entering apprenticeship at seven.[4]

Looking to more specifics, we see that in 14th century England, at least, teenagers were considered too young to marry, as reflected by the fact that in rape cases, men whose victims were teenagers were singled out as especially reprehensible by the prosecutors.[5] This reveals an attitude that girls in their teens should be sheltered from sexual encounters.

It’s also noteworthy, that the age of inheritance was twenty-one, which means that a young man could receive no money from his parents until that age.[6] Moralists of the time such as Robert Mannyng (1275-1338), a Gilbertine Monk and historiographer, considered the marriage of children an outrageous sin. Even the artists of the time wrote in ballads stories of special and tragic circumstances surrounding the taking of a young bride. [7]

All of the foregoing would suggest that most people were married in their early twenties, which is not much different than today (at least among those who don’t live in public sin before marriage). A survey of familial literature (ricordanz) of mercantile “bourgeoisie” from the Tuscany region of modern-day Italy between 1340 and 1530 shows some 136 first-time brides with an average age of 17.2 years married to husbands averaging 18 years old.[8]



[1] Rock, P.M.J., “Canonical Age”, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume I. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. Nihil Obstat. 1 March, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York
[2] Hanawalt, Barbara, The Ties that Bound : Peasant Families in Medieval England, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 98
[3] Klapisch-Zuber, Christiane, “Women and Children”, The Middle Ages, Fifth Edition. Ed. Brian Tierney. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999
[4] "Family Life" Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages, Ed. Norman F. Cantor, London: Viking, 1999.
[5] Hanawalt, supra at note 1, p. 98
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Klapisch-Zuber, Supra at note 3

4 comments:

Sophia's Favorite said...

I went into this on my own blog, about a year and a half ago. Régine Pernoud found that 12- and 14-year-olds (boys and girls respectively) getting married wasn't that unusual in rural France, but they would usually be marrying each other, rather than people older than them, and it wasn't like they moved across the country to start their new household, the way we do.

Also, Pernoud says, those weren't just the minimum ages to marry; those were the ages of legal adulthood. A 12-year-old girl could own her own business or home, file lawsuits, or vote in her village's affairs.

Interestingly, if you average the male and female adulthood ages, you get 13—the age of a bar mitzvah (a Jewish girl has always been considered bat mitzvah, since the Law binds them; but it wasn't until the 20th century that they had a ceremony for it). One wonders if the Church's conception of adulthood is Biblically derived (or, perhaps, Celtic?).

It was the Renaissance that brought back the idea of women as the non-adult wards of their husbands or fathers; in Rome, the adulthood age was 25, and it was usually moot anyway, since Roman men had patria potestas over their wives and children until the day they died.

Nicholas D.C. Wansbutter said...

Did you get this from her book Women in the Age of Cathedrals I've been meaning together that one for some time. Insofar as her comments conflict with those of Dr. Hanawalt, it would seem there was a bit of a cultural difference between France and England in the Middle Ages. So I'd be interested to see her work.

Sophia's Favorite said...

I think that's where it's from, yeah. Also "Those Terrible Middle Ages".

And from what I can tell, the discrepancy may be because Pernoud concentrates almost exclusively on the High Middle Ages (c. 1100-1300, or sometimes defined as from the First Crusade to the Black Plague, 1091-1348), while the other sources seem to cast a wider net. Roman mores, including their conception of adulthood, began to resurface by the time of Philip the Fair in France (early 14th century). They were also in vogue in the Imperial era, during and immediately after Charlemagne's lifetime.

Conceivably, another factor could be that England was more German, and France more Celtic. Culturally, anyway—in terms of "race" (to the extent there is such a thing), both the English and French are almost entirely Briton and Gaul, respectively (and the Irish are mostly Scandinavian, which is odd, I feel). The Germanic invasions didn't displace the Romano-Celtic populace (they didn't have the numbers); they just imposed, to varying degrees, their own culture.

Really, in terms of biology, there's no reason humans shouldn't get married as soon as they're physically capable of reproducing. The only real problem is a young couple's inexperience, and that can be counteracted by the new household staying close to the couple's parents.

Anonymous said...

From what I've read though, currently the ages are 16 for boys and 14 for girls.

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