Silvia Moreno-Garcia | More Thoughts on Marriage
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More Thoughts on Marriage

Question: When was a girl in Medieval England a spinster? What about Regency England? And Victorian England?

Last time I discussed European marriage customs (women were more likely to be married in their late teens or early twenties) in Medieval Europe. Somebody asked me about spinsters. At what point would people start to think a woman was past the age of marriage? What’s realistic if you’re penning a novel? Once again, there is a lot of variation.

Some facts taken from Singlewomen in the European Past, 1250-1800:

  • When young women migrated to towns, they remained single longer than native-born women. Vivien Brodsky Elliott’s study of women in late Tudor London, for example, shows that women who migrated to London married four years later. Why? They were migrating to find work and this decreased their chances of marriage.
  • Rich girls married earlier.  The gap was especially large in seventeenth-century Geneva where wealthy women  usually married a few months before their twentieth birthdays. Working women married at 27.
  • But, aristocratic daughters were more likely to remain permanently single, perhaps because they could afford it.
  • Many Mediterranean cultures promoted early, universal marriage; Italy, southern France, and Iberia had few single women. It has been argued that the economic system in England was more favorable for women remaining single. Women in Northwestern Europe were more likely to marry later or not marry.
  • Death of a parent or being left an orphan could lower marriage age.

According to “All masters discourage the marrying of their male servants, and admit not by any means the marriage of the female’: Domestic Service and Celibacy in Western Europe from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century”:

  • In 1541, Venetian servants had been ‘forbidden to marry, or even to promise to marry, a female servant without the master’s consent,’  in France a law of 1567 established that ‘a servant who married without his master’s express consent could lose not only his job, but all the wages owed to him as well’,” in England, according to Elizabethan laws, maids were not allowed to marry before completing their agreed period of service was over.
  • In Florence, in 1841, according to Maria Casalini, half of single women were servants and, among unmarried maids, 88 per cent were live-ins. While among maids (both live-ins and live-outs), in 1863, the index of permanent celibacy was 0.53, for the other women it was only 0.16. Female servants, when they married, were older than other women: on average, they married at the age of 32.

Between 1787-1901 these were some of the mean ages for marriage in Europe for women (information from Spinsters, Susan Cotts Watkins).

  • Italy, 1861, 23.5
  • France, 1800-09, 26.3
  • England, 1816, 25.5
  • Norway, 1851-55, 27.1

Turning our eye toward Regency England, Jane Austen and Marriage by Hazel Jones, there are several mentions of the age of “twenty-seven” as being a defining moment for women. If you look at the information I posted above this makes sense since women in 1816 were around 25 when they were getting married.

“Women and the dynamics of marriage, household status, and aging in Victorian Canada and the United States” concludes that Canadian women were older at first marriage. Between the ages 20 and 24, about half of U.S. women in 1880 were married, while only 38% of Canadian women had joined in matrimony.

I hope that answers the question.