Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Medieval Marriage & Childbirth

From a specifically female point of view, marriage and childbirth were an important aspect in the life of a medieval girl or woman. The risks associated with childbirth, however, were quite high at the time due to a number of factors: age; health and illness; birthing complications; and death.

For many noble-born or royal women, marriage could and often did take place at a young age. There are many instances or very young girls being betrothed and married under the age of 10 years old. This did not necessarily mean that the marriage was consummated. However, there was a perception that once a girl began her period that she was considered to be of marriageable age. And so the male could begin his almighty pursuit for an heir.

So, typically, when did a young medieval girl embark on the road to “womanhood”:

  • Puberty is the process of change that takes place as you grow up and become physically mature and capable of having children.
  • Puberty (and thus menstruation / periods) usually takes place between the ages of 10yo and 16yo.
  • "Most girls start their first periods at about 12 or 13; however some girls may have periods by the age of 8 and still others may not have a period until they are 14 or 15."(Source: About Women's Health).
  • At the time when we have our first period or "menarche", we are crossing the line from girlhood to womanhood.

Now, marriages of noble and royal women were usually for political and dynastic consideration. So, at what age did a young noblewoman enter into marriage.

It is more common for a young woman to have been married early, though not to have had her first child until she was much older. It is agreed that the most common age for a young woman to have given birth to her first child is from 16yo.

  • In Italy the average age for marriage was 17; in France it is 16yo; and in England and Germany 18yo was the average age - all for first marriages. (Source: “Medieval Households” by David Herlihy, Harvard University Press, 1985).

However, the following examples are exceptions:

  • Bianca of Savoy, Duchess of Milan was married aged 13yo (1350), and aged 14yo when she gave birth to her eldest son, Giangaleazzo (1351).
  • Theodora Comnena was aged 13yo when she was married King Baldwin III of Jerusalem (1158).
  • Agnes of France was 12yo when, widowed, she was married to Andronicus Comnenus, Byzantine Emperor (1182).
  • St Elizabeth of Portugal was aged 12yo when she was married to King Denis of Portugal and gave birth to three children shortly thereafter.
  • Caterina Sforza was betrothed aged 9yo, married aged 14yo, and gave birth aged 15yo.
  • Lucrezia Borgia was married to her first husband aged 13yo and bore a son within a few years.
  • Beatrice d'Este was betrothed aged 5yo and married aged 15yo.

But what of young women who were not noble or royal - at what age did they marry and have children.

The consensus is that young women of middle or low status married and gave birth at a much later age for a number of reasons:

  • They did not need to marry for dynastic reasons.
  • They tended to contribute to the family income whilst they remained unmarried and still living within the family unit.
  • Girls were often employed in service for a “fixed” term before being paid out and released from service.
  • And in some cases, a “fee” was required to be paid upon the marriage.
  • “Church law forbade child marriage and allowed young brides and grooms to repudiate the marriage once they reached the age of puberty, which was officially set at 12 for girls and 14 for boys”

So, the most common age for a young woman of middle or low status to marry was from the age of 22 years old. Thus we can conclude that this young woman would have given birth to her first child before she was 25 years old.


Unknown said...

The statement you made about girls often being betrothed and married before the age of 10, could you please send me the reference(s) for this statement? I'm trying to settle an argument with a chauvanistic friend of a friend who believes no man would marry a girl he could not copulate with/impregnate immediately. He knows marriages are by alliances but refuses to believe child marriages were a common practise.

Anonymous said...

Hey I was wondereing if you could give me a reference for your statment at the end of this piece. The one about women not getting married until they were c.22. I'm trying to write an essay on early medieval female lifecycles and this will help me argue against this historian who believes its unrealistic to expect that medieval women waited until after their late teens. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

It might be worth saying that the age of puberty has declined over the last few hundred years. About two hundred years ago, most girls got their first period at the age of 15-18, while girls nowadays get theirs when they're about 13 years old. That might explain why they got their first child "so late".

prom limousine nj said...

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Diddims said...

Regarding the idea that Medieval peasant women did not marry until they were 22, that only applies to most of Northwestern Europe from about 1350-1800. Peter Laslett's book "The World We Have Lost" details a thousand marriage certificates issued in Canterbury from 1619 to 1660; according to the documents, about 85 percent of English brides in this period were at least nineteen years of age when they married and only one in a thousand was thirteen (or younger). The most common ages at marriage for women was 22 years, for men 24 years; the median ages were 22.75 for women, 25.5 for men; the average ages at first marriage were 24 years for women and 27.75 years for men. Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, plus Finland, Ireland, and much of Scotland looked more like non-European societies where virtually all women are married by age twenty.

Captain Nemo said...

What about marriage among the common and poor people in the middle ages?

You seem to focus on upper classes

Anonymous said...

Award wining book on Peter the Great shows that because woman needed to have 16 children on average common women started around 12. Huge number of children was because only one in four lived to adult hood true then and earlier in history. All ancient cultures and primitive tribes I have read about start around 12 or earlier because of the huge number of children needed (12 to 16 from sources depending on conditions at that time) Most common people did not get married in church in middle ages, common law (moving in together) was the rule till later.
This does not mean we should do the same but we have to remember the urge to fall in love/ have sex with anyone who has reached puberty is buried down in the instincts needed for a more primitive time.

Anonymous said...

I have a sincere question.... the reason I came to this site was to find out when girls from the middle ages get their periods. See I've been told animal hormones effect our cycles now and even our weight ... but back then those would not be an issue. So I ask is there any documentation on such an issue?

hebby said...

Anonymous interested in average age of puberty-- no stats from before the 1800s, but pretty good evidence after then. Wiki has a round-up here:

The assumed reason for the difference is a change in diet (more protein), better nutrition generally (more food, fewer periods of startvation, etc.

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Anonymous said...

Here's the list of BS myths about medieval times:
1. "they married as soon as woman would have menstruation". WRONG. Wealthy people did. You'd be shocked to know how big social construct it is today and how influential hollywood is... but rich folks married as soon as possible to make the most children. And they arranged marriages before hitting puberty as well. Various civilizations married at various age. Middle Ages had a first marriage age into 20s, on average, depending on circumstances. Some towns had women entering first marriages well into their 30s.

2. "women had 15 children on average and half of the children would die in first few years". WRONG. Average folks had 5-7 children on average and only 1-2 would die in infancy. Contraception methods existed at any age and people had various ways to avoid pregnancy even then.

3. "Population couldn't explode because only 1/4 of children would reach puberty due to illnesses to start reproducing, usually just to replace their parents". WRONG. Population didn't explode although more than two children of each sex would survive, but an extra number of male children/young adults would get killed or maimed due to harsh living/working conditions. You might think that it doesn't depend on male population because you might see woman as the reproductive bottleneck, but you're wrong again, read number 3.

3. "There were no women to marry for young men because rulers had their harems". WRONG. Given the occasional harems among the wealthiest folks, a significant number of women would stay unmarried, or widowed, because women heavily outnumbered men at any age group. Main issue for medieval population wasn't number of women, but resources (food and water) and housing. Many clans in Europe required dowry. Clans with male members often concluded that the bride doesn't give enough dowry thus they won't pick her. Society's success thus depended upon males in those limited resources, especially due to wars and constant shortage of male population.

4. "It was important to know the number of women to know determine the society's future growth". WRONG. There is a reason why population would generally count males only, and it's not simply because of military. In fact, obligatory draft for peasants was next to useless at the time. Number of male peasants was important because of working capacity to produce food and generally build stuff. We go back to square one, population growth depended on other things, bottleneck was providing food and housing, and then comes protecting the area.

5. "Women didn't do any work, they sat home while their husbands traveled to work". WRONG. This era starts with industrialization of societies. Some societies still didn't go through this phase. Before industrialization we had a feudal era, vast majority of European population stayed within the same place. Marco Polo is an exception, just like other merchants and occasional soldiers. Most folks were obliged to stay on their landlord's property. And both men and women either ran household chore, farm works or private businesses. Currency for most population were natural resources. Taxes were generally paid this way as well. Due to physical and biological differences, jobs were differentiated accordingly.

Anonymous said...

6. "Main job for a wife was cooking". WRONG. Not the cooking you fools. You know why they didn't invent microwave or the fridge before those lame devices you see in museums? Because sewing and knitting were very lucrative jobs and there were various artworks done with those. Aristocracy often taught their daughters how to sew and knit with various techniques and materials, just in case they become poor. Knitting and sewing could earn you more than a blacksmith could earn, thus even men held such professions. But an average woman would usually not have expensive materials, she'd generally make clothes for herself and whole family. You had several women in the house making clothes. Try making a shirt, pants or a sweater and then you'll see that it's a full-time job for any medieval woman.

7. "Women were generally dying due to excessive childbirth". WRONG. First pregnancy was generally the most dangerous pregnancy and other pregnancies had less than 1% of chance of dying. Given the widespread diseases and unhealthy conditions of living, pregnancy would be considered in the realm of today's season flu. In fact, season flu epidemic in Medieval Age would cause far more deaths than pregnancies would in years to come. Dying due to childbirth was more common among royalty due to genetic diseases AND excessive childbirth. Other women were breastfeeding their children by themselves, which would generally lower the chances to get pregnant, increase gap between pregnancies to give mother's body time for recovery, and heavily affect the number of total babies being born.

8. "People were dying young, into their 20s on average". WRONG. This includes number of folks who would die in infancy, wars, diseases, pregnancy, living and working conditions or simply due to general mistreatment, that was an age of savageness and slavery institution was very present around the world. But people who would bypass those hardships could live past their 50s easily, well into their 60s on average.

9. "Abortion and contraception didn't exist until modern era". WRONG. We simply have much more reliable methods for contraception and abortion existed even in our ancient history. It's just that it would cause indifference or would be frowned upon, depending on historical circumstances. So-called witch hunt is generally believed to mostly consist out of chasing people who made "witchcraft to kill unborn or poison the adult". Yet, due to sensational few hundreds of most controversial trials, modern society decided to give an alternative version how medieval folks believed that they killed millions of broom-flying witches during the times of inquisition.

10. "People believed that the Earth was flat until Columbus discovered America and spanish church tried to stop him". WRONG. Not only that the church financed his journey, but Columbus knew that the earth is round. Just like many societies before him. He almost failed because he miscalculated the distance, or it's rather that he misunderstood the maps and calculations done by Arabs and Romans. It is also believed that Romans probably discovered America before Vikings and that some settlers came even before them.

Anonymous said...

I studied the medieval and Tudor time periods and it was quite common for a girl to be very young when married.So they would wait until she was older and could produce heirs and hopefully sons to her husband's family. During this time it was very common for the young man or boy to have a mistress. and yes peasants for the common people did usually wait to get married till their late teens or early adulthood to get married and have children.

Anonymous said...

I have studied the medieval times as well as Tudor and yes girls were married off that young usually to a man twice their age of some years older. however the marriage wouldn't be consummated until she had reached the age when she could give him a heir. during this time it was very common for a man to take on a mistress. The commoners married during their late teens or during early adult hood most likely since the wouldn't be in such a rush to have children as people with titles.

Anonymous said...

sorry sent comment twice

Skuld The Norn said...

To Anonymous June 8, 2013: Thank you for posting ACCURATE information. I'm so tired of seeing misinformation being passed off in attempts to excuse an attraction for minors (and you'd be amazed how often it's done).

Shirleymac said...

I'm currently reading "A Time Travelers Guide to Medieval England". It says that girls married around age 12 but didn't co-habitate until age 14. They were expected to have 6 children by age 25. 21 was considered middle age. People seldom lived beyond 40.

Milferd Jones said...

I drew on a heavily referenced way more than one source Pulitzer Prize winning book "Peter the Great his life and world" by Robert K Massie that shows the need for 16 average in depth and covers the age of sexual activity, most peasants did not officially marry with multiple references. The Roman census records are not disputable with a age of 12 and health conditions got worse not better later. Any claim it was higher based with the Gauls based on one roman's statement ignores how little the Romans knew about the Gauls and assumes a much better infant survival rate.
Consensus age of Mary mother of Jesus is approximately 14 meaning she was roughly 12 to 14 when she got pregnant.

I recall reading several sources on the people involved in raising the age once the mortality rate of children went down. Why this need to rewrite history with poorly sourced articles throwing under the bus all the people in the past few centuries who made the efforts to move the age up once sanitation and medicine improved.

Anonymous said...

Yes, please provide references and evidence.
@Kai, perhaps you should remind your friend that people thought about life way differently back then and there may well have been superstitious, religeous, social, or even physical reasons for marrying but waiting to consummate it until later. Maybe many people thought that trying to have kids too young would kill the woman (and maybe they were right), or maybe menstruation happened at a later age back then. Either way, there are many different reasons and good things about marriage besides sex, and we can't argue that people would not have been able to wait just because that's how we are.

Seaearth pony said...

Sorry, but Jewish girls were usually married around 15-17, so that's a lie.
Also, it said that two years have passed since the angel's visit, so that makes Mary around 14-16 when she got pregnant.

Seaearth pony said...

I read about that too. I mean most girls don't ovulate on their
period. Matter of fact tend to occur a few years after puberty.

Seaearth pony said...

I forgot to post this along woth my relpy.

Seaearth pony said...

That would be impossible. Why? Because as I said before, most girls don't ovulate on their first period. It happen until a few years later (Funfacts:Less then 10% of girls start their period before 11. Fact#2: 14 and 12 was the age of menarche). Some girls can get pregnant before their period, but they if give birth too young (like under 15, 16 ot 17. Idk) then it cause them to not bare anymore childern. I'm not for sure if people of the antiquity and the middle ages know that giving birth at 12,13 and 14 can cause infertility. Luckily sex mostly occurs a few years after puberty.

Seaearth pony said...

Thank you. Your comment should be number one.

Seaearth pony said...

Another thing is mothers under 14 are very rare. I read it from Teen motherhood on cross-culture perspective.

Seaearth pony said...

Another thing is mothers under 14 are very rare. I read it from Teen motherhood on cross-culture perspective. Also, will you show me those books that claim such a thing. Thank you and sorry for the double post.

Seaearth pony said...

I'm sorry, but it's over 12 (more like 14), not under. I could not found any source that claims that tribal women gave birth 12 and under. I did found something like this> and this and this

Seaearth pony said...

Sorry, but you need to re-read that sources again. It did not say that Mary was 12-14 when she conceived, but was 14-16.

Seaearth pony said...

Sorry, but puberty is a phase that takes several years to finish. Why do think that sources will be saying that girls finish puberty around x or y or z? Because puberty is a slow transation. Also most girls don't ovulate until 1-3 years after first menarche. It takes about 2-5 years for a girl reproductive organs to mature after first period.

Anonymous said...

Isabelle of Aragon, queen of Germany 1315-1330 seemt to be only 11 when she had her first child if Wikipedia is correct:,_Queen_of_Germany

Anonymous said...

Puberty ends around 25 years old, but there are records of Women whom did not even finish puberty "stage 5" by 25 years old because they come from the lower class and have insufficient nutrients during their youth.

Unknown said...

Nowadays, the average age for a girls first period is around 12.

Kathryn said...

A man may not willingly be celibate, but might wait to consummate the marriage. That doesn't mean he wasn't having sex with other women whilst waiting. Adultery has been common across the ages.