One of many mistakes I was guilty of in the past was, by and large, marrying my historical characters off as teens, and almost always making them within a year of one another’s age. It’s not that there’s zero truth to this, but rather that it’s a widespread popular misconception.
Yes, on average, people (esp. women) did tend to marry far younger than they do today, and it wasn’t after years of dating and cohabiting. People “knew their place,” and as such understood the importance of settling down sooner rather than later, and courting or dating with marriage in mind.
It was also scandalous to cohabit out of wedlock, never mind getting caught having sexual relations or a woman becoming pregnant. Respectable people didn’t indefinitely court or go steady for years before marrying almost as an afterthought.
So what was the historically-accurate marriage age?
The ancient world:
Girls were deemed marriageable (and thus old enough for sexual relations and childbearing) upon menarche, which was probably about 13–14. Boys were old enough when they began growing pubic hair. Because marriage was a private family matter, relatively unregulated by the state, these guidelines weren’t set in stone.
The Roman Empire:
Augustus Caesar issued marriage laws in 18 BCE and 9 CE, declaring betrothal wasn’t valid if the man didn’t marry within two years of it. Girls were to be at least ten upon betrothal, and reached the minimum marriageable age after completing twelve full years.
Some families held off on arranging marriages for a few years, as they waited for greater political, social, or economic status. A more prestigious marriage could thus be arranged.
The Middle Ages:
In the 12th century, jurist Johannes Gratian wrote the authoritative Catholic text Decretrum Gratiani, which set the minimum betrothal age at seven for both sexes, and the lawful age for a girl to consent to marriage and carnal intercourse at twelve. Unusual circumstances rendered marriage valid at younger ages.
Other authorities declared a girl’s physical development, not age, determined marriageability.
A common stereotype about the Middle Ages is that girls routinely married at all of 12 years old, or in their very early teens. While this did happen, particularly among royalty and nobility, it still wasn’t the norm. Most poor and lower-middle-status women married between 18–22, while in some regions, women married in their early to mid-twenties.
In Eastern Europe, it was far more common for girls to be 12–15.
The average Italian bride was 18, and married a man 10–12 years older. Englishwomen were 21. By the end of the 16th century, women were 25 and men were 27 in England and the Low Countries.
Teen marriage was very rare in Northwestern Europe, and the Catholic Church dictated both sexes be at least 21 to marry without parental approval. Brides were most commonly 22, grooms 24. The average age was 24 for brides and 27 for grooms. Elizabethans believed marriage under 16 was dangerous.
In Massachusetts, from the 1650s through 1800, average first marriage age for women was 19.5–22.5. Other colonies’ records indicate similar stats. The average marriage age in all colonies, pre-1700, was 19.8. During the early 18th century, it was 21.2, and in the late 18th century, it was 22.7.
In France, Germany, and England, women’s average first marriage age was 25.1 from 1750–99. In England alone, it was 26 for women and 28 for men by the end of the century.
Until the French Revolution, marriage age was 12 for girls and 14 for boys. In 1792, it was upped to 13 and 15, respectively. The Napoléonic Code of 1804 raised it to 15 and 18.
In France, Germany, and England, women’s average first marriage age was 25.7 from 1800–49. In England alone, it never fell below 22.
Working-class women tended to marry later than upper-class women, and royalty continued marrying in their late teens.
After the U.S. Civil War, women on average married from 22–24, a trend which continued till the 1940s.
This is the one era when many women did indeed marry very young. Many were shotgun marriages, but many other couples felt an overwhelming social and cultural pressure to marry and start families as soon as possible. It was what everyone did, and who wanted to be different and attract negative gossip?
By 1950, the average marriage age was 20.5, though many married much younger. Seventeen magazine had ads for china patterns, wedding dresses, and engagement rings, and in the case of shotgun marriages, many brides were underage.