In school, I was taught that the most common form of upper-class marriage in the Middle Ages was for 12-year-old girls to be married to men in their 40s. Perhaps the biggest reason this bothers us is the suggestion of a sexual relationship between a 12-year-old and a 40-year-old. This stereotype bears no resemblance to anything I’ve yet read in medieval literature, so I’ve gathered some data to take a look.
I have examined 66 medieval marriages from 1180–1423 to look at the age of both spouses upon marriage and the amount of time it took them to have their first child. I’ve looked only at the aristocracy, primarily the ruling families and their offspring, and primarily from France and England. I limited the study in this way because information outside of this range was difficult for me to identify.
The main question for this study is “according to modern sensibilities, were most medieval marriages creepy?” When I asked for an acceptable age range for marriages, readers responded that 0–5 years is normal, while 10–15 years is the upper limit of acceptability (in the context of a Western European culture). For purposes of the study, I’ll set the maximum upper limit of “not creepy” at 15.
Why 66 marriages? I made it through 66 before I got sick of entering data. I also threw out any marriages in which the marriage date or either spouse’s birth date could not be verified down to the exact year. I’m not trained in how to make meaningful use of less clear evidence, so I stuck to a smaller range.
- 71% of marriages had spouses within 0–5 years of each other.
- 88% of marriages had spouses within the acceptable “not creepy” range.
- 17 was the average marriage age for women.
- 36% of women married under the age of 15.
- 23 was the average marriage age for men.
- 20% of men married under the age of 15.
36% of women (or 24 out of 66) married under the age of 15. However, only 2 of those marriages (3% of the total) of those marriages fall into the “creepy” category. When the bride was young, the groom was similarly young. In addition, these couples do not have their first child until the wife is at least 16 years old, if not 18–25.
There could be a couple reasons for this. Régine Pernoud notes that 12 was generally considered the age of legal consent for girls and 14 the age of legal consent for boys, though local custom could set consent at a later age.  This doesn’t require that 12 and 14 were expected ages for sexual activity, so the data would support the suggestion that young marriages were not consummated until both parties were older. Another possibility is that the age for menstruation was later in the Middle Ages than it is now, so regardless of whether or not couples were sexually active, children were not possible until later. A third possibility is that they had really good birth control in the Middle Ages. This is unlikely.
Let’s look at one example of a marriage. I’m selecting Louis IX of France and Margaret of Provence because Jean de Joinville’s biography verifies that they adored each other—we would consider them to have a good relationship by modern standards. Louis IX was just over 20 years old when he married Margaret, who was then 13 years old. By modern standards, this falls into the “creepy” category. However, they didn’t have their first child until 6 years later, when Margaret was 19. Why didn’t they have children earlier, especially since producing a male heir was a priority for a royal family? Was Louis away on the Crusades? Did political turmoil keep him away from his wife for extended periods of time? Did they just hate each other? It doesn’t look like it. Since Louis IX and Margaret eventually had 11 children, with each successive birth occurring between 1 and 3 years from the previous, it seems that a sexual relationship just didn’t occur until they were older. (Side note: 11 children from a couple also seems to be an unusually high number, but that’s a different study.)
I didn’t look at the background of most other marriages, but from the time between marriage and first births, this seems to be pretty typical. Marriage age and age of sexual activity may not have been the same thing. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found anything from scholars to give more guidance on the best way to interpret this information.
The Creepy Ones
Now to look at the creepy ones. In the 9 marriages we would define as “creepy,” 2 of them featured brides under the age of 15. In one, the age difference was 38 years, and this seems to have been a purely political arrangement, for it was the husband’s second marriage and there were no children. The other was a 25-year difference, but a first marriage for first parties, and the wife was 16 at the birth of her first child. Half of these “creepy” marriages bore no heirs, and in those that did, the wife was of an age we would consider sexually responsible by modern standards. We wouldn’t approve of these marriages today, but it seems that there is far more involved than a child being forced into a marriage with a man old enough to be her father.
In 20% of marriages, the wife was older than her husband. In most she is 1–3 years older, but in a couple, it’s as much as 8. I mention it simply because I’ve never seen this information included in a study before.
There are clearly some limitations to my research. The biggest is that 66 is not enough marriages to get an acceptably broad picture. However, I think it is safe to say that the stereotype “most girls were married at the age of 12 to men in their 40s” is not true. Only 3% of the marriages come close to the creep factor drilled into me at school, and by no definition does 3% equal “most.” Christine Klapisch-Zuber says that “literature of the fabliaux widely exploits the theme of unequal ages in marriage between a graybeard and a tender young thing.”  This appears to be the best answer to the stereotype. Fabliaux or satires usually depict events that were seen as unusual, strange, and undesirable by a medieval audience. When a modern audience no longer has the same point of reference as the original audience, many of these become mistaken for the norm, and a stereotype is born.