Average Age of Marriage Throughout History

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  • 0:04 Age of Marriage
  • 1:02 Marriage in the Ancient World
  • 2:17 The Medieval and Modern World
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Marriage is a respected tradition around the world and across human history. But everyone treats it a little bit differently. In this lesson, we'll talk about how the average age of marriage has changed across history.

Age of Marriage

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. According to tradition, these are the things a bride should have at her wedding for good luck. Well, she needs these things and proof that she's at least 18 years of age.

In the United States, neither men nor women can legally marry without parent permission until the age of 18. It's even later in a few states. Why is this? There are many reasons, but it's not something that's always been standard. The average age of marriage has varied greatly across time and across the planet. Even to this day, there is no single age agreed upon by all people of the world. Different cultures treat marriage differently, and this has led to different ideas about when is the appropriate age for marriage. This fluctuation across time means that marriage is something ancient and yet something continually reinvented by each society. Something old, something new.

Marriage in the Ancient World

Let's start by looking back into our ancient history. It's difficult to know exactly what the average ages of marriage were in the ancient world since not everybody kept extensive written records about such things. But there does seem to be a trend where marriage was often connected with sexual fertility, meaning that marriage before puberty was very rare.

In many ancient societies, marriage was acceptable once the bride and groom had hit puberty. This may seem young, but it's also important to remember that life expectancy in most ancient societies was between 30 and 50 years.

Still, while marriageable age was rather young, not everyone married at that exact age. For instance, in ancient Rome, a society who did keep extensive written records, someone was considered eligible for marriage at age 14. For many families, this was the perfect time to arrange a marriage for your daughter and son, but for some families, there could be an advantage to waiting. If a child had political, social, or economic opportunities, there could be advantages to holding off on their marriage for a few years until they achieved a greater political, social, or economic position. So, ages of marriage varied widely across the modern world, but on average were still young by our standards.

The Medieval and Modern World

As time progressed, people's ideas about marriage started to change. Some of this change seems to have been from a growing awareness that the average age of marriage was different between the sexes. While women often married in their teens, men married after pursuing educational or career opportunities that were only available to them.

One of the first times we see a major concern about the age difference between couples is in England in 1275 CE. In a law prohibiting rape, it was also declared illegal to 'ravish a maiden' within a certain age, with or without her permission. That age was determined by jurist Sir Edward Coke to mean the age of marriage, which at the time was 12. This still seems young, but it's one of the first times we see a strict age limit placed on marriage or sexual interaction. This was the beginning of our modern association between the age of marriage and age of consent.

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