Wednesday, March 28, 2007

What was the marriage age for girls in Shakespeare's England?

Who's asking: An anonymous Google searcher from the U.K.

I should not look at the search strings that bring people to this site, because all it does is worry me. I've talked about this before. It still worries me.

I suspect that this question was someone's homework, but since I find it interesting -- and since Claire is performing Shakespeare this very weekend -- I will answer it. Also, it dovetails nicely with Karen Olson's latest post over at First Offenders, so maybe she'll chime in.

Average life expectancy for women in Tudor England was about 30. At least half of all women died in childbirth (not necessarily on the first child, but in the absence of meaningful birth control, six children in six years was no rarity). Infectious diseases were basically untreatable, and people died from things like tooth decay.

So the average age of marriage was 14 or 15, which shocks us now but made perfect sense to the Elizabethans. Adolescence is a relatively new concept; back then, you were a child or you were an adult. Once you were an adult, you got a job, got married, and set up your own household.

Therefore, the high school student's argument for young love -- "Juliet was only 14!" -- doesn't play in 2007. At 14, Juliet had every reason to believe that she was almost halfway through her life. Life expectancy for an American woman in 2003 was 80.1 years. By comparable standards, I should only have been dating for the last two or three years (and Claire, you should not be dating at all). If 40 is the new 30, 14 is the new ten and a half. (I did the math.)

Five Random Songs

"Basket Case," Green Day. Not everything popular is bad.
"Swinging Down the Lane," Frank Sinatra. It's springtime in Washington, and that always means Sinatra to me.
"Te Busque," Nelly Furtado featuring Juanes. A gift from my friend Joanne. Still not sure what I think of this record, but it's got a beat and you can dance to it.
"Train in Vain (Stand by Me)," The Clash. I never owned a "Train in Vain" t-shirt. If I tried to wear one now, that would probably just be sad. Life is full of these missed opportunities.
"Candy's Room," Bruce Springsteen. Man, I love this song. Turn it up.


Claire said...

We opened last night to a sizable audience and an excellent reception--I'm looking forward to seeing the reviews. (I guess it's no shocker that everyone I talked to sounded surprised about liking the show. It's not exactly popular.)
As for not dating...I'll think about it.

mike said...

Not bad, I was thinking about 13. Maybe that was Chaucer not Shakespeare...

Anonymous said...
1566-1619 27.0 years
1647-1719 29.6 years
1719-1779 26.8 years
1770-1837 25.1 years

Part of what made Romeo and Juliet tragic was the fact that they were far younger than 'society norm' at the time of writing for love and marriage. Early marriage and birth would have given problems of survival past the first birth, not a very good survival tool though I'm sure it happened it's not one that would be biologically aggreable (you want mother and baby to live.)

Plus, this mean age of marriage is given based on actual birth/death/marriage records.