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I am trying to keep a fair degree of verisimilitude in my fantasy games (outside the obviously fantastical elements like magic and dragons). As part of that, the normal/average marriage age for characters has been significant. Does anyone know a good source for things like the normal age of marriage and similar details for normal life in the dark ages and/or middle ages?

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Have you considered posing this question to a history-focused forum, such as History.StackExchange? You may get an answer here, but this is starting to creep pretty far afield of our specialty. –  AceCalhoon May 23 '12 at 20:18
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@AceCalhoon The interaction between games and history has a long, *ahem*, history, so I wouldn't say it's out of place here. However, a good answer might be "Yes! History.StackExchange is an excellent resource for this sort of detail." ;-) Consider that this sort of information is likely to be sought be gamers so answers here serve future users, and searches with terms like "medieval fantasy marriage age" will find us too. –  SevenSidedDie May 23 '12 at 22:05
    
@AceCalhoon -- We're very eager for these sorts of questions over on history.stackexchange.com! –  Joe May 23 '12 at 22:37
    
I'm removing the verisimilitude tag, since anything tagged with it is basically going to be a non-games research question. If anyone disagrees, feel free to add it back -- I won't be offended. –  Joe May 23 '12 at 23:16

5 Answers 5

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Beal & others A new commentary on Canon Law indicates that the Eastern Church took Roman law literally as 14/12, but that the Western Church took Roman law on its basis: functional adolescence. While Beal goes on to note that primary concern in the church was with the development of moral capacity to consent, in actuality proof of wickedness (sexual "maturity") made up for a want of age—thus children found copulating could be married.

But there's a great distance between Church stricture and human practice between 500 and 1500 AD (our "sourcebook"). And a thousand years of Europe is enough time and space to allow anything to happen. We need to look beyond actual incidents (not indicative) and determine the underlying causes of marriage. (Engels. Family, Private Property, and the State).

Families are economic units designed to replicate property structures. In some instances they are economic units designed to replicate state structures. Let us examine situations:

  • Replication of the principle state structures: monarchies, bishoprics (by brother or sister marriage), monestaries (by brother or sister marriage), papistries (by brother or sister marriage).
  • Replication of the chief units of exploitation: the aristocracy and the manorial system
  • Replication of the chief economic productive unit: the gentry, free alloders, peasantry, serfs and slaves

To replicate a monarchy is a family issue. Often inheritance law will dictate the requirements of marriage. Marriage will be flexible in the extreme. One will think little of engaging 8 year olds, only to break the marriage; marrying them at 10 only to annul claiming lack of sexual consumation; or declaring children bastards as a previous annulment of an unconsumated marriage was illegitimate as they had had sex only not procreated thereby this current marriage was always illegal. Picture Henry VIII clinging to power by the head of his codpiece. Avoid regency at all costs! In the case where religious figures can only be illegally married, it is all about siblings. Adventure hooks: find the bloody sheets, etc.

RPG outcomes: Monarchs, their consorts, their children and Pontificate's Siblings engage between 8 and "infertility" of mid 20s. They marry between 10 and "infertility" of mid 20s. The children of Regents are unlikely to marry until majority (18-21), but may be engaged

To replicate an aristocracy or a manor is a family issue. The chief requirement here is the ability to go into battle and to command men in battle. Marriage prior to this age is silly. You may need to form an alliance later. Engagement early, yes, but marriage after majority (as soon as possible for whatever local majority is, get them pumping replacement inheritors and future mounted combatants out). You don't marry girls off early because the leader of a manor is an economic mastermind. Why marry a dumb beautiful girl, when what you really want is a medieval form of Margaret Thatcher and your serfs are the miners. You want a lady who'll "keep coal reserves up in summer" so she can starve the peasants out through winter. You are in a constant class war against those who labour in the fields, and to reduce a gentry to a poor freeman, a freeman to a peasant, a peasant to a serf or a serf to a slave is the highest ideal. A 14 year old slip of a girl can't starve a peasant family into submission. I recommend Christine de Pizan's works, or any of the manuals of manorial management. Adventure hooks vary from convincing a homosexual heir that family duty isn't about coitus but wealth; or the standard goblin genocide only with Slavonic language speaking peasants.

RPG outcomes: Male aristocrats and nobility marry for the first time after at least 16, males remarry for political reasons whenever widowed (unless personal reasons cause them not to OR they have spare sisters or daughters suitable to manage their holdings). Peak ages for first marriage are the age of coming into majority (18-21)

RPG outcomes: Female aristocrats and nobility marry for the first time at any time after 15, but prior to their mid 20s. Second marriages are likely to be for political reasons. Peak ages for first marriage are prior to the age of coming into majority (16-19)

To replicate a peasantry is a family issue. A peasant family is a right to access land as part of a community and work on it. Obviously you want to keep your children from competing with you as long as possible. And this means keeping them from full membership in the community. And this means keeping them from marriage. Obviously if you're a child you want access to land as soon as possible, and this means being married, and one of the best ways to force marriage is conspicuous pregnancy. But if you do it too soon your fathers will beat you into a pulp and send the kid off as a bastard or a "bed pan boy" for the aristocrats (or sacrifice them to the fairies etc.). So the idea is to become sexually active as young as possible, but delay pregnancy until you're capable of beating your fathers into submission and forcing them to give you land. I recommend Emile Zola's Earth for this. It is a 19th century socialist realist novel of a capitalist peasantry, but despite the influence of cash cropping and cash economies, the access to land and the sexual and family politics of access to land are displayed in a vital and bloody way. Women, keep your sons stupid but strong, so you can be a merry widow. Men, keep your sons weak and your daughters virgin, so you can plough your land for as long as you live. Don't romanticise peasant marriage, Zola doesn't.

When peasants are poor, land access happens earlier, and the children are of the same age (16, 18, 20). When peasants are rich, they can hold the threat of access to land over their children's heads and delay pregnancy until the late 20s for males (26/18, 28/16, 30/14). Wealth here is manure, field rotation, allody, gentry status, long term enclosed field rents. The sunk capital of these land improvements mean that getting access to new land isn't worth it, waiting for dad to die is better. When there isn't sunk wealth, you may as well beg the Lord for recognition as a full member of the distributed strip fields collective.

RPG outcomes: Males in poor communities will marry for the first at any time after 16, local peaks set by the age of local access to land. By their mid 30s, landless males are unlikely to become married and are likely to have to pursue alternate coupling activities, including vagabondage. Second marriages will be conducted in order to get access to female controlled property.

Males in rich communities will marry for the first time after 21, with peaks between 26 and 35. Second marriages will be conducted in order to get access to female controlled property.

Females in poor communities will marry for the first time between 14 and 20. Second marriages will occur to cement property relationships

Females in rich communities will marry for the first time between 16 and 28. Second marriages will occur to cement property relationships

This doesn't cover peasant marriage on monastery lands (much better managed, but "owned" by religious communities); nor does it cover illegal settlements on wastes where land access is as free as your capacity to fight off the King's forrest guards and break new ground.

It also doesn't cover thief class marriages, I'd suggest using bourgeois marriage in the cities, which is like rich peasant marriage, except you occasionally get rich old women marrying youthful men instead of just exclusively rich old men marrying youthful women.

It also doesn't cover wizard class marriages, I'd suggest treating them like University professors: forced chastity, but my brother is looking for a wife.

You can feel free to try and remove the historical patriarchy of marriage in high fantasy, but it means that you'll need to reconsider chastity given that chastity in religious, civil and military life was a way of getting rid of excess potential noble combatants who might want an opportunity to economically exploit peasants.

The general source books I suggest are social histories of european women. I strongly recommend, for example: Anderson and Zinsser A History of Their Own: Women in Europe from Prehistory to the Present Volume I Volume II. It is so widely reprinted that I don't need to supply a year or publisher really. Anderson and Zinsser present a class focused account of women's differing social realities in Europe over time.

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This answer definitely presents a lot of detail as to motivations and elegability criteria for marriage, but it doesn't actually specify any age ranges that are likely to result. (Well, except for 'definitely older than 14 for noblewomen.') As a result, I'd say that it doesn't entirely answer the question, so I'll withhold my upvote for now. –  GMJoe May 24 '12 at 2:37
    
Whoops, I just noticed the section on land access. +1. –  GMJoe May 24 '12 at 2:39
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I clarified the immediately RPG useful section of the answer, so other users don't have user867's experience. –  Samuel Russell May 24 '12 at 4:28
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Högberg & others, "Maternal Deaths in Medieval Sweden: …" J. Biosoc Sci 19 1987: 495ff 3/330 deaths, 10% survival rate for females to 60. Hellworth The Reproductive Unconscious in medieval and early modern England p46 "as high as 15 to 20 percent". Sweden is at the low end of wealth, England at the mid point of wealth in medieval society. I would suggest women under 50, and all men would attempt to remarry. –  Samuel Russell May 24 '12 at 5:51
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Beal oversimplifies the issue of age and canonical law - various dioceses and provinces ecclesiastical set different ages, but the canonical provisions were established early on as age of reason at 7, age of marital consent at 14 male and 12 female... based soundly in Roman imperial law. –  aramis May 25 '12 at 21:11

Christendom

In Christendom, during the dark and middle ages (circa 500 to 1600), marriage customs varied, but the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches pretty much followed the old Roman laws: Age 14 for males, age 12 for females. Some dioceses recognized age 10 for girls, as well. Consent of the female was required.

Note that typical marriage ages for gentry and nobility are the best documented, and the formal church weddings generally waited until age 12 or later, but solemn vows of betrothal could be entered from the "age of reason" (Generally held to be about age 7 by canon law pre-vatican II). 1 Typical male age at marriage is between 15 and 25; female between 12 and 18. The Domesday records show many young wives in their teens amongst the commoners and lesser tenants.

Islam

Islam allows marriage at any age; Mohammed married Aisha at age 6. (He waited until age 9 to consummate it. Consent of the woman is not required by Shari'a, but consent of her guardian is, and in many islamic cultures, her consent is also required. The male must be of sufficient reason to consent for himself. 2 Age of Maturity for girls is considered to be (generally) onset of menstruation; for boys, it ranges from age 9 to 18, depending upon culture and local laws. 3

Typically, tho, males married in their teens and twenties, with wives typically in their early teens.

Judaism

Jewish law puts majority between 8 and 13, usually leaning to 13, with the celebration of the bar mitzva or bat mitzva. Betrothals required her consent, as did marriage, and betrothal usually lasted a year.4

Commentary

It should be noted that many places in Europe followed simply church law, leaving marriage (aside from royalty and the tenants in chief) as a matter of the faith alone; the tenants in chief (barons, viscounts, counts, dukes) and the royals (princes and kings) married by whatever marriage the crowns decided to permit; religious recognition could be obtained later for illicit public marriages provided that no prior marriages existed; annulments were common for royals on grounds of infertility and/or infidelity (the former disqualifying one from marriage, the latter showing lack of understanding of the sacrament); Generally Jews in Christendom married by Jewish law.

Further, gentry males generally didn't marry until after being knighted; squiredom could end anywhere from age 15 to age 21, typically squiredom began between 13 and 16; with serving as a page from age 8-10 through age 13-16, followed immediately by squiring.

Marriage was, in all three religious supercultures, seen as a contract, and as a means of begetting progeny. In both Christendom and Judaism, it was also seen as a sacrament - a religious observance, with God being an obligatory part of the union - but the details vary somewhat with time and place.

One other caution: Betrothals are often mislisted as marriages. Betrothals could be entered by the parents, and the children obligated, and thus unable to marry outside, but never result in a marriage due to non-consent of one party or the other.

Further, remember that Christian and Jewish marriages generally had "banns" posted and/or announced: a call for any with just reason to forbid the marriage (including prior marriage) to come forth. Technically, Catholic marriages still require banns be posted....

1: Catholic Encyclopedia Minor
2: Canada Free Press: Islamic Law of Marriage
3: FAQs.org: Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society :: In-Ke - Islam
4: My Jewish Learning: Ancient Jewish Marriage

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I like how this complements my economistic and class based answer with an answer residing in what (I'd consider) "the superstructure," and in particular clearly pointing to the diversity of European religious responses to marriage. It reminds me of the role of "wife kidnapping" in the nobility, and draws our attention towards the structure of the chivalric "romance." –  Samuel Russell May 28 '12 at 1:54

Medieval Weddings, a web site seemingly dedicated to this topic, notes the following:

Arranged marriages amongst the noble class would be decided when the future bride and groom were only 10 or 11 years old. Many would not meet until their wedding day 5 to 6 years later. Marriage meant sharing a lord's property or a noble name. Love wasn't often an issue, but it did occur. But usually the most important goal of marriage between nobles was continued success and the acquisition of wealth.

Some of this has already been said, but this site backs some of those ideas, and the site has more.

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what @samuelrussell said... :) –  javafueled May 24 '12 at 2:50

It also really depends on which class you are talking about. Royalty might be wed much younger to form a political alliance even if the marriage isn't consummated at the time whereas someone in the middle class (tradesman, merchant) might have to work for awhile to achieve success and stability before seeking marriage.

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This site says that a lot of girls in medieval Europe were married as young as twelve (which the site does not specifically say, but I gather is an extreme example). Some middle-eastern patriarchal cultures used their daughters as debt-pawns, and there are several recorded instances of marrying-off incredible young children (again, on the extreme end of the spectrum).

I would assume that the average marrying age would have been somewhat older than the extreme, somewhere between 14-16 years old. Likely the boys somewhat older than the girls.

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