Dealing with marriage age in historical fiction

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.

Renaissance:

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.

17th century:

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.

18th century:

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.

19th century:

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.

Post-WWII:

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.

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WeWriWa—Inga meets Yuriy

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes right after last week’s, when Yuriy cleaned and dressed Inga’s injured knee.

Inga, who’s barely eighteen and has only been on a few dates that didn’t get physical, is a little unsettled by a strange man touching her leg, but doesn’t have any reason not to trust him. Yuriy, meanwhile, is already starting to fall in love with her.

“It’ll get better before you get married.  Do you mind if I check just to make sure you didn’t break or dislocate anything?  Unlike my animal patients, you can tell me what hurts, and where.”

Inga feels slightly odd about letting a strange man she’s just met touch her leg, but at least he’s being professional about it.  Nothing hurts too badly, just some dull aches and pains.  It hurts most when she tries to bend her leg.

“I noticed a small scar a little above your knee.  Is that recent?”

“Oh, that’s just my smallpox vaccine scar.  My mother thought it was best to have it done on my leg instead of my arm, so I could hide it better.”

WeWriWa—Inga meets Yuriy

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes right after last week’s, as Inga started to get better acquainted.

Inga has told Yuriy she’s eighteen, the circumstances of her leaving the USSR and coming to America, and how she’s supposed to meet the father who has no idea she exists.

Yuriy pours saline over the large cut. “I’m twenty-three.  I just finished my first year of veterinary school, after getting a bachelor’s degree in biology.  If I’d had my way, I would’ve gone right into the service, but my parents wanted me to have one year of veterinary school first.  They thought it’d put me at a better advantage when I come home and resume my studies.  I assume I will come home alive.  Not even the Nazis would shoot a medic.”

Inga bites her tongue as he wipes the residual blood and dirt out of the wound, presses a gauze pad against her knee to stop the flow of blood, and rubs the cleaned-out scrape with black iodine.  Finally he puts a fresh gauze pad over it, wraps a gauze bandage around it, and secures it with medical tape.

Avoiding amateur writing mistakes (Hist-fic edition)

These are some of the things I’ve either been guilty of myself or seen in other historical books or films. Speaking from my own experience, these are honest mistakes pretty much everyone goes through. Some can also be applied to other genres.

1. Packing in everything but the kitchen sink syndrome. Prime examples are the TV miniseries The ’60s and The ’70s, which forced in every single major news story, social movement, political event, piece of pop culture, etc., of those decades. What are the odds every single person in one family or group of friends would be involved with every single thing that happened in a decade?

2. Not enough historical detail. So many of my earliest drafts had almost zero connection to their respective eras. This is the opposite extreme from gut-loading your story with every single thing that ever happened in that decade.

3. Clichés. E.g., thinking a 1920s story has to revolve around flappers, automatically setting your story about immigrants to the U.S. in the Lower East Side, or being unable to think outside of the Imperial Russian Court.

4. Gossip Girl in period clothes. I see too much of this in YA historicals published in the U.S. in recent years, and was guilty of it myself as a preteen. At least my excuse was extreme youth. Just make your story a contemporary and be done with it. Don’t pretend it’s a historical yet give all your characters very modern values, speech, and ideas, with cheap, lazy window-dressing like an occasional mention of popular music or news stories.

5. Assuming everyone in that decade had monolithic experiences. E.g., assuming every single person in the Sixties was a hippie and anti-war protestor. If your story’s set in a small, rural town far from a large city, that’s highly unlikely to reflect your characters’ reality.

6. Vague, generic, underdeveloped ideas. It’s good to have a general idea of where you want to go and what you want to write about, but even episodic stories that are deliberately slower-paced and more about character development need to be hung on some kind of arc. It’s not enough to aimlessly write about 1840s Boston, 1920s NYC, or 1780s Charleston.

7. Only focusing on the biggest events of a decade. While I’d look askance at, e.g., a 1940s historical where WWII is barely mentioned, or a late 1960s historical with no mention of Vietnam, it shouldn’t be the book’s entire focus. People had other things going on in their lives, and there were plenty of other major historical events! Your book doesn’t have to revolve around Vietnam, flappers, or the Spanish Inquisition.

8. Using contemporary hist-fic to waltz down memory lane. There has to be a real reason your story’s set in the last few decades, beyond happily name-dropping all your fave bands, movies, and TV shows, and rattling off jokes about then-current events. Don’t force all your memories and fave raves into the story.

9. Reading too much and understanding too little (i.e., failing to research important details). E.g., seeing a list of movies from a certain year, and having your characters see them months before they were in theatres, or having guys of all ages randomly being drafted to Vietnam. When I discovered how the draft lottery really worked, I had to make Ricky two years older than Adicia in Little Ragdoll. That important storyline wouldn’t have worked had they been the same age.

10. Assuming your setting’s modern-day demographics were historically true as well. Just recently I discovered Atlantic City had quite a large Jewish community in the first half of the 20th century, a far cry from its modern form. There were dozens of synagogues; many kosher restaurants, groceries, bakeries, candy store, and restaurants; religious schools; and Jewish hotels and other businesses.

11. Perpetuating popular misunderstandings. E.g., having everyone married by 18, and marrying your female characters to men several decades older. Outside of royalty, high society, and the American frontier, large age gaps weren’t that common, and most women weren’t married till their twenties.

Are there any other amateur mistakes you’d add?

WeWriWa—Inga meets Yuriy

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes right after last week’s, when Yuriy introduced himself to Inga as a Russian-speaking Canadian army medic and offered to treat her injured knee.

Though Yuriy is a veterinary student, not a human med student, he still has basic training in people medicine. It’s not unheard-of for vets to serve as medics, just as some medics have treated animals wounded in warzones.

Inga lets him pull her up, and grips his arm as she hops along on her left leg.  After she’s settled on a wide brick windowsill of a nearby building, Yuriy retrieves her luggage.

“How old are you?” he asks as he lifts her right leg onto his lap. “Did you just come here, and are you alone?”

“I turned eighteen in June.  My grandparents sent me to Shanghai when we were in Vladivostok for my graduation trip.  Then I got permission to come to America, since my father’s a citizen.  I’m supposed to meet some immigration officials and other authorities, and then we’re going to see my father together.  He has no idea I exist.”