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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: October ::
Re: Age of Consent
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.2272  Tuesday, 2 October 2001

[1]     From:   David Lindley <
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        Date:   Monday, 1 Oct 2001 19:07:18 GMT0BST
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.2261 Age of Consent

[2]     From:   Robin Hamilton <
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        Date:   Monday, 1 Oct 2001 21:55:15 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.2261 Age of Consent

[3]     From:   Thomas Larque <
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        Date:   Monday, 1 Oct 2001 23:04:42 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.2261 Age of Consent

[4]     From:   Dana Shilling <
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        Date:   Monday, 1 Oct 2001 20:49:39 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.2261 Age of Consent

[5]     From:   Bruce Young <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 02 Oct 2001 10:05:53 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.2261 Age of Consent


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Lindley <
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Date:           Monday, 1 Oct 2001 19:07:18 GMT0BST
Subject: 12.2261 Age of Consent
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.2261 Age of Consent

> This may seem a very naive question, but what info do we have on
> sixteenth and seventeenth century attitudes to, perhaps statutory
> statements about the age of sexual consent, for either sex?

The statutory minimum ages at which a woman and man were deemed
competent to consent to marriage were 12 for the woman and 14 for the
man.  I don't think this was necessarily the same as 'sexual consent' -
for there are frequent comments suggesting that sexual intercourse at so
early an age was likely to be damaging to the health of both, and result
in weakling births.  It's for this reason that Frances Howard and the
Earl of Essex were separated with their marriage unconsummated (with the
well-known disastrous consequences I've had something to say about
elsewhere).

Professor David Lindley
Head, School of English

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robin Hamilton <
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Date:           Monday, 1 Oct 2001 21:55:15 +0100
Subject: 12.2261 Age of Consent
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.2261 Age of Consent

> This may seem a very naive question, but what info do we have on
> sixteenth and seventeenth century attitudes to, perhaps statutory
> statements about the age of sexual consent, for either sex?
>
> Stuart Manger

For the last few days, there's been an on-going thread on this very
issue on FICINO.

If you can't access their archives, backchannel me, and I'll copy the
posts to you.

Robin Hamilton

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Thomas Larque <
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Date:           Monday, 1 Oct 2001 23:04:42 +0100
Subject: 12.2261 Age of Consent
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.2261 Age of Consent

> This may seem a very naive question, but what info do we have on
> sixteenth and seventeenth century attitudes to, perhaps statutory
> statements about the age of sexual consent, for either sex?

One source that apparently lays down an age of consent is cited in Karen
Bamford's excellent "Sexual Violence on the Jacobean Stage".  Discussing
changing rape laws in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, she cites one
mid-seventeenth century legal tract (at least I think that is what it
is) written by Sir Matthew Hale which describes rape as "the carnal
knowledge of any woman above the age of ten years against her will, and
of a woman-child under the age of ten years with or against her will"
(p.3 in Bamford's book).  This seems to set a female age of consent at
age ten, below which the girl is unable to give consent to sexual
intercourse and sex with her counts as rape whether she consents or not.

Since puberty apparently occurred later in the Renaissance than in
modern times this age of consent seems to have no reference to the
physical development of a girl's body into an adult woman, but after the
age of ten the "woman-child" apparently legally turns into an adult
woman in Hale's mind.

Thomas Larque.

"Shakespeare and His Critics"
http://ds.dial.pipex.com/thomas_larque

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Dana Shilling <
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Date:           Monday, 1 Oct 2001 20:49:39 -0400
Subject: 12.2261 Age of Consent
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.2261 Age of Consent

Stuart Manger asked:

> This may seem a very naive question, but what info do we have on
> sixteenth and seventeenth century attitudes to, perhaps statutory
> statements about the age of sexual consent, for either sex?

To the best of my knowledge, the Victorian enactment of an age of
consent for females (12) was considered immensely progressive because
prior to that time "she asked for it" would be accepted as a valid
defense in the case of, say, a three-year old.

Dana Shilling

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bruce Young <
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Date:           Tuesday, 02 Oct 2001 10:05:53 -0600
Subject: 12.2261 Age of Consent
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.2261 Age of Consent

In response to Stuart Manger's question ("what info do we have on
sixteenth and seventeenth century attitudes to, perhaps statutory
statements about the age of sexual consent, for either sex"): I don't
know how solid the following information is, but I hope it at least
makes a start at answering your question.

The age of consent for marriage was apparently twelve for girls and
fourteen for boys (but marriages that young were extremely rare; the
average age of marriage was about 25 for women, 27 for men).  My sources
for the age of consent are (1) Henry Swinburne, A Treatise of Spousals
or Matrimonial Contracts (1686, but written much earlier in the 17th
century), who defends these ages as a lower limit; and (2) F.  J.
Furnivall, ed., Child Marriages, Divorces, and Ratifications, &c. in the
Diocese of Chester, A. D. 1561-6, EETS, O.S. 108 (London: Kegan, Paul,
Trench, and Trubner, 1897), pages xxvii, xliii, who quotes Swinburne,
but who in general is misleading since he cites a number of unusually
young marriages as if they represented the norm.

As for sexual relations outside of marriage--or for that matter marrying
without parental consent--I have another source that sets the age at
sixteen: "The taking away of a maide under sixteene yeares of age,
without the consent of her parents or governors, or contracting marriage
with her, or deflowring her, is no felony, but yet shall be punished
with long imprisonment without baile, or with grievous fine" (Michael
Dalton, Countrey Justice [1618], qtd. in Furnivall xxxvi).

I don't know what sort of authority Dalton was, or what sort of law he
is referring to, or how widespread or widely enforced his interpretation
of the law was.  John Donne was imprisoned for secretly marrying
17-year-old Ann More--yet the marriage was still valid, since parental
consent was not required for a valid marriage.

Other sources that might be useful:

The Church and the Law of Nullity of Marriage. London: SPCK, 1955.

Houlbrooke, Ralph A. Church Courts and the People during the English
Reformation, 1520-1570. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979. 62-64.

---. The English Family, 1450-1700. London: Longman, 1984. 68-73.

Ingram, Martin. "Spousals Litigation in the English Ecclesiastical
Courts c.1350-c. 1640." Marriage and Society: Studies in the Social
History of Marriage. Ed. R. B. Outhwaite. London: Europa Publications,
1981. 47-51.

Noonan, John T. "Power to Choose." Viator 4 (1973): 419-34.

I hope this helps.

Bruce Young

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