Silvia Moreno-Garcia | The Problem With Juliet
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The Problem With Juliet

Argument: Early teenage sex and marriage were common in Medieval Europe, as in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet where the heroine is 13 going on 14. Fictional portrayals, such as Game of Thrones, also give us an accurate glimpse at what sexual and marriage customs might have been like (sex and marriage to very young women was acceptable). In the past old enough to bleed, old enough to breed was the norm.

My answer in brief: Wrong.

The Details

Here is a demographic table taken from Singlewomen in the European past, 1250-1800.

PLEASE read this and my other posts on similar topics, one looks at Jewish Medieval Marriages a bit and the other considers marriage ages during several time periods, including the Victorian era. It is all wrapped up with Final Thoughts on Marriage. The three other posts provide more links, sources, that I did not mention in this first post. Okay? Now go ahead.

When discussing a long chunk of time, such as the European Middle Ages, and a large region of the world (Europe is not one country, after all) making generalizations can be problematic. However, we can make some intelligent ones based on historical research. And we can say that marriage to very young women 12-14, was not the norm in most of Europe throughout this time period, though variations did exist.

“The so-called northwestern European marriage pattern included first marriages in the mid-twenties for women, and mid-to-late twenties for men. Nobility and gentry tended to marry a little younger: women in their late teens to early twenties while their grooms were often in their early twenties. During the later Middle Ages, reliable records for demographic studies are not as plentiful, but P. J. P. Goldberg has collated results from a variety of sources and studies and concluded that the pattern of late age at first marriage largely had been established by the later Middle Ages, but with averages a bit lower (late teens to early twenties) in rural areas, especially among the more well-to-do.” Source: He Would Never Consent in His Heart”: Child Marriages in Early Modern England, Johanna Rickman.

John McLaughlin states that a young woman of middle or low status in the Middle Ages would marry around 22 years of age. Noblewoman, he said, might marry younger. David Herlihy in the book Medieval Households pegs marriage age of noblewomen at 18 in Germany.

But what was happening in Shakespeare’s time period? Was marriage to 12-14 year-old girls becoming more common? Is that why Juliet is almost 14?I gathered a random sample of women of the Elizabethan and Tudor age, women who are roughly around the era Shakespeare is around. They are all noblewomen.

Here are the ages at which they married:

Catherine de’ Medici (14)
Catherine of Aragon (16)
Katherine Howard (16)
Lady Jane Gray (17)
Catherine Parr (17)
Catherine Howard (17)
Joanna of Castile (17)
Amy Robsart (18)
Isabella I of Castile (18)
Penelope Devereux (18)
Mary Sidney Herbert(19)
Cecilia, Princess of Sweden (19)
Maria of Austria, Holy Roman Empress (20)
Anna of Austria (21)
Helena of Snakenborg (23)
Isabella of Portugal (23)
Anne of Cleves (25)
Jane Seymour (28)
Anne Boleyn (32)
Mary I (37)

As you can see, women tend to cluster at around 17-20 (the average marriage age if we take this small sample is 21). Few women marry younger. It’s actually more likely for them to marry *older* rather than very young if you look at these numbers. A lot of the women I picked are British because it was just easy to pull a list of Elizabeth’s contemporaries that way. If we expanded the sample or analyzed it by countries we might find some pattern shifts. Shakespeare married a 26 year-old, by the way.

John Hajnal, in his famous study “European Marriage Patterns in Perspective” identifies a high marriage age for Europeans since the 18th century, but even in the Middle Ages he comes up with the number 17 as the mean age for women getting married around the 14th century. From 1480 to 1679, the period when Shakespeare is alive (he’s born in 1564), the age is 19.5. Which actually jives with my small math experiment above where I determined that a common age of first marriage would have been 17-20.

Juliet would have been an anomaly, just like Catherine de’ Medici. Why did Shakespeare make her that young, then? Maybe to shock, to make a point, who knows.

Argument: If this is true, does it hold true across other time periods and cultures? Maybe Europe in the Middle Ages was a special case.

It is not good to generalize. But what are some marriage patterns in other cultures and time periods?

The Demography of Victorian England and Wales shows that the mean age of first marriage 1884-1885 for women was between 22 and 26. Wives of miners married younger (22.6) compared to wives of farmers (28.9).

Aristocratic women in the Sung Period in China (from The Inner Quarters: Marriage and the Lives of Chinese Women in the Sung Period) were often married young, when they were between 17 and 22. 90% of women had been married at 22, generally to men of a similar age. Almost no women were married at 15 or younger. Minimum age for marriage was set as 13 for women and 15 for men, though scholars suggested the perfect age was between 14 and 20.

The mean age at first marriage for women in Mexico City in 1811 was 22.7. The Women of Mexico City, 1790-1857 states that 22 was younger than the average European range at the time. However, indigenous women tended to marry younger than women of Spanish or mixed descent. Claude Morin and Cecilia Rabell state that during this same time period women in the countryside married at the average age of 18.

Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale references marriage customs in the 19th century. In Florence’s social circle it was perfectly acceptable for women to marry in one’s mid or late twenties.

Class had an impact on marriage age. In the Sung book I mentioned it shows palace maids married older (25-35). Location also had an impact: rural versus urban. Religion also had an impact.

Why does this matter?

It paints a skewed picture.

For example, I copied and pasted this from a Yahoo board:

“Game of Thrones is modeled after medieval culture. In those days a girl was considered sexually mature enough for marriage as soon as she had menstruated, signaling that she was capable of bearing children. A lord or prince wanted to produce heirs for his dynasty, and lives tended to be short. Therefore an older man would seek a younger bride still capable of bearing several children. Those were the facts of life in ancient times.”

A lot of people repeat this mantra. Those were the “facts of life in ancient times,” constructing an imaginary past in which courtship, marriage and sex bear little resemblance to historical reality.

In conclusion:

  • Don’t try to argue that in the good old days of Medieval Europe it would have been perfectly acceptable to marry and sex a 12 year old.
  • If you are writing anything historical or world-building, please read about real-life marriage and sex customs.

PLEASE read this and my other posts on similar topics, one looks at Jewish Medieval Marriages a bit and the other considers marriage ages during several time periods, including the Victorian era. It is all wrapped up with Final Thoughts on Marriage. The three other posts provide more links, sources, that I did not mention in this first post. Okay? Now go ahead.

Note: It is likely women in the Middle Ages had access to some type of abortifacients (see “Oral Contraceptives and Early-Term Abortifacients during Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages”) but this does not necessarily indicate that most women were engaging in early teenage pre-marital sex. Most likely they were regulating their fertility after marriage and they were older.