02 Jul Final thoughts on marriage
I have discussed marriage in several contexts, particularly in the Middle Ages, in several recent posts. Here are my previous posts. Please read them all before reading this one:
I also recommend that you check out “Ripe to be a Bride: Marriage Age in Romeo and Juliet.” It goes into more detail than I could.
Okay, so we’ve talked about several things. In a nutshell, the child bride wasn’t as common in the Middle Ages as we might imagine. She was even less common in the Elizabethan era, and once you reach the 1800s brides are likely to be in their twenties.
So why wasn’t Europe in say, the Late Middle Ages or the Elizabethan era, awash with child brides? Health issues, perhaps.
Medieval maidens : young women and gender in England, 1270-1540 by Kim M. Philips states that “the stereotype of child marriage” in the Middle Ages has been eroded by recent research. She points out that even for noble girls, who married younger, “it is evident that early marriage took place for pure expediency rather than any sense that wedlock was suitable for a pubescent girl.” Philips points out the case of Margaret Beaufort who was married at 12 and might have been damaged giving birth to her only child when she was 13. As Philips points out, when brides were under 15 there was a “tendency to delay consummation” because birthing might be difficult at that age.
Very young brides and grooms could also ask for their marriage to be dissolved, on the grounds that they were too young to consent. This might ruin all the careful planning of two families.
As for girls who were peasants, in The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England Barbara A. Hanawalt argues that “all evidence points to the mid-teenage years as being too young for adult responsibilities, including marriage.” Youth of 14, she says, were not taxed because they were not considered adults.
One final point: In rape cases or attempted rape cases, Hanawalt says, “jurors singled out as especially reprehensible those men whose victims were teenagers…[this] indicates a feeling on the part of society that girls in their teenage years should be sheltered from sexual encounter and that violent sexual attacks on them were repugnant.”