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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: October ::
Re: Age of Consent
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.2289  Thursday, 4 October 2001

[1]     From:   Frank Whigham <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 03 Oct 2001 12:05:54 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.2278 Re: Age of Consent

[2]     From:   Bruce Young <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 03 Oct 2001 11:34:48 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.2278 Re: Age of Consent

[3]     From:   Stevie Gamble <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 3 Oct 2001 21:10:28 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.2278 Re: Age of Consent

[4]     From:   David Lindley <
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        Date:   Thursday, 4 Oct 2001 08:43:44 GMT0BST
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.2278 Re: Age of Consent


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Frank Whigham <
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Date:           Wednesday, 03 Oct 2001 12:05:54 -0500
Subject: 12.2278 Re: Age of Consent
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.2278 Re: Age of Consent

For one respected and heavily-documented account of this data
(confirming Bruce's numbers) see Ralph Houlbrooke, The English Family
1450-1700, ch. 4: The Making of Marriage," 63-95; the age issue is
discussed at 63-68.

Frank Whigham

> > the average age of marriage was about 25 for women, 27 for men
>
>While I recognize that the matter is a vexed one, this assertion goes
>against all that I've read on the matter.
>
>Does this statistic mix in second and subsequent marriages as well as
>first ones? What kind of average is it, and how was it derived? Is this
>now universally held to be the case by Renaissance historians?
>
>My impression was that (royalty aside), people in the Middle Ages and
>Renaissance generally married as soon as their families were financially
>able to manage it. Thus younger sons had to wait, but the eldest usually
>married in his late teens. And daughters got married off as soon as
>there was a sufficiently appropriate and / or lucrative offer -- whether
>at 13 or 30.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bruce Young <
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Date:           Wednesday, 03 Oct 2001 11:34:48 -0600
Subject: 12.2278 Re: Age of Consent
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.2278 Re: Age of Consent

On the assertion that 25 (or 26) was the average age at marriage for
women in Shakespeare's time and 27 (or 28) the average age for men, Don
Bloom asks:

> Does this statistic mix in second and subsequent marriages as well as
> first ones?

No.  Only first marriages are counted in this average.

>What kind of average is it, and how was it derived?

It's derived mainly from parish registers and remains pretty steady from
county to county and from decade to decade through the 16th and 17th
centuries.  I think it's basically a numerical average (is that what's
called a "mean"?).

> Is this
> now universally held to be the case by Renaissance historians?

I don't know about "universally," but I haven't seen any credible study
contradicting this information in the past 20 years.  Of course, there
are slight variations from one authority to another depending on the
exact data being used.

This subject came up a year and a half ago on this list.  Frank Whigham
and I provided some sources.  Here's a brief repeat:

Ralph Houlbrooke, The English Family, 1450-1700: 63ff.

Keith Wrightson, English Society, 1580-1680: 68ff.

Several books by Peter Laslett: Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier
Generations; Household and Family in Past Time; The World We Have Lost;
Bastardy and Its Comparative History  (ed., with Karla Oosterveen and
Richard M. Smith).

Ann Jennalie Cook, "The Mode of Marriage in Shakespeare's England,"
Southern Humanities Review 11 (1977): 126-32

Bruce W. Young [that's me], "Haste, Consent, and Age at Marriage: Some
Implications of Social History for Romeo and Juliet," Iowa State Journal
of Research 62 (1987-1988): 459-74.

Michael Anderson, Approaches to the History of the Western Family,
1500-1914.

According to Michael Anderson (page 18), the average age at marriage for
women in Western Europe during (as well as long before and after)
Shakespeare's time was about 25 or 26; for men, 27 or 28. For England
from 1550 to 1650, Peter Laslett has gathered data indicating almost
exactly the same ages: approximately 25 for women and 28 for men
(Bastardy 21).  See also Laslett, Family Life 29, 218; and Houlbrooke,
English Family 63.  (Houlbrooke gives 26 as the mean age of marriage for
women, 27 to 29 as the mean age for men, in Elizabethan and Stuart
England.)

The average age of marriage was somewhat lower for the aristocracy of
Renaissance England than for other classes (Laslett, World 86, 285;
Houlbrooke, English Family 65, 128).  But it was still in the twenties
(about 19 to 21 for women, 24 to 26 for men).

Of course, some marriages took place at much earlier ages, though much
less often than many have assumed.  The common view seems to have been
that early marriages were undesirable as well as rare, in part because
lack of physical maturity could endanger the life of a too-young mother,
also because the marriage of an immature bride and groom might not be
grounded in "real and solid love."

Bruce Young

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stevie Gamble <
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Date:           Wednesday, 3 Oct 2001 21:10:28 +0100
Subject: 12.2278 Re: Age of Consent
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.2278 Re: Age of Consent

> Bruce Young writes:
>
> > the average age of marriage was about 25 for women, 27 for men
>
> While I recognize that the matter is a vexed one, this assertion goes
> against all that I've read on the matter.

> Does this statistic mix in second and subsequent marriages as well as
> first ones? What kind of average is it, and how was it derived? Is this
> now universally held to be the case by Renaissance historians?

I think that it would be helpful if you were to bear in mind that the
Renaissance is a distinctly amorphous concept, located vaguely in time
and space, and that using it as if it were a factual description rather
freaks out those of us who read Combined Honours in Sociology as well as
Drama and Theatre Arts.  Demographic statisticians (not historians)
certainly cite those sorts of figures for England in Shakespeare's
lifetime; as for the nature of the 'averages' used I would suggest a
brief course in statistics.

> My impression was that (royalty aside), people in the Middle Ages and
> Renaissance generally married as soon as their families were financially
> able to manage it. Thus younger sons had to wait, but the eldest usually
> married in his late teens. And daughters got married off as soon as
> there was a sufficiently appropriate and / or lucrative offer -- whether
> at 13 or 30.
>
> Is this untrue?

Yes.

> We need more data here.

Actually, there is quite a bit of data; reading it, and understanding
it, is what is needed.

Best wishes
Stevie Gamble

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Lindley <
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Date:           Thursday, 4 Oct 2001 08:43:44 GMT0BST
Subject: 12.2278 Re: Age of Consent
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.2278 Re: Age of Consent

> the average age of marriage was about 25 for women, 27 for men

>While I recognize that the matter is a vexed one, this assertion goes
>against all that I've read on the matter.

But it is entirely in accord with all the more recent work of social
historians - see Laslett, Stone, MacFarlane and many others.

>Is this now universally held to be the case by Renaissance historians?

Yes

My impression was that (royalty aside), people in the Middle Ages and
Renaissance generally married as soon as their families were financially
able to manage it. Thus younger sons had to wait, but the eldest usually
married in his late teens. And daughters got married off as soon as
there was a sufficiently appropriate and / or lucrative offer -- whether
at 13 or 30.

Is this untrue?

Sorry, yes.  It's actually the highest social classes who tended to
arrange marriage contracts for their children at a (very) early age, and
bring them to fruition as soon as legally possible.  Princess Elizabeth,
for example, was 16 when married to the Elector Palatine.  Lower down
the social scale such arranged marriages were rarer, and waited on the
economic security of the couple.  Of course there were exceptions in
both directions in all social classes, but the myth that Romeo and
Juliet were typical of the 'real' world in the sixteenth century is one
of the most pervasive of errors.

Professor David Lindley
Head, School of English

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