Age of Marriage under Christian Law

Auther : Ibn Al-Hashimi

we have shown how the jewish encyclopedia says that under jewish law girls can marry at the age of twelve or even younger than that; let us now see what the catholic encyclopedia says of christian laws with regards to marriage. the catholic encyclopedia says:

the marriageable age is fourteen full years in males and twelve full years in females, under penalty of nullity (unless natural puberty supplies the want of years [i.e. if puberty occurs before the age of twelve])… the canonical age holds in england, spain, portugal, greece(ionian isles excepted, where it is sixteen and fourteen), and as regards catholics even in austria. while in some parts of the united statesthe canonical marriage age of fourteen and twelve still prevails, in others it has been enlarged by statutes.

(catholic encyclopedia,

elsewhere, the catholic encyclopedia says:

by the common law, the age at which minors were capable of marrying, known as the age of consent, was fixed at fourteen years for males and twelve years for females. marriages under the age of seven years for both were void, but between seven and the age of consent [14 for males, 12 for females] the parties could contract an imperfect marriage, which was voidable but not necessarily void.

(catholic encyclopedia,

although twelve was the general guideline, christian fathers were allowed to marry their daughters off even before that. we read:

medieval christianity continued to maintain the age of twelve as a minimal age for females to enter into marriage. however, even this low age limit was not absolute. using natural law logic, catholic authorities argued that the decisive factor which determined a child's readiness for marriage and sexual relations was the onset of puberty, and not necessarily age as such. according to one catholic scholar, “if it could be satisfactorily proved that puberty . . . was actually attained by the boy before the completion of his fourteenth year, or by the girl before the completion of her twelfth year, then . . . the party could enter upon a valid marriage.” [1]

(mark e. pietrzyk,

similar to jewish law, christian law differentiated between the minimum age of marriage and the absolute minimum age of marriage. twelve years old was the minimum age of marriage, called the age of consent; in other words, a girl had to be twelve years old before should could arrange her own marriage. but the absolute minimum age of marriage was in fact seven years of age, during which time her father could arrange her marriage without her permission. in the journal of psychology and human sexuality, we read:

age of consent: a historical overview

age of consent throughout history has usually coincided with the age of puberty although at sometimes it has been as early as seven…the roman tradition served as the base for christian europe as well as the christian church itself which generally, essentially based upon biological development, set it at 12 or 14 but continued to set the absolute minimum at seven. in the past century there has been a tendency to raise the age of consent but the reasons for the change have not always been clear and the issue has been further complicated by the reluctance of many contemporary historians to recognize what the actual age of consent in the past has been. this failure has distorted the importance of biology on age of consent in the past.

(age of consent: a historical overview, 3mklpc82lujnkc41u5&id=87429)

saint thomas aquinas, considered by catholics to be the greatest theologian of all time, wrote in the summa theologica:

if the parties are betrothed by another person [i.e. the father] before they reach the age of puberty, either of them or both can demur; wherefore in that case the betrothal does not take effect, so that neither does any affinity result therefrom. hence a betrothal made between certain persons by some other takes effect, in so far as those between whom the betrothal is arranged do not demur when they reach the proper age, whence they are understood to consent to what others have done.

(the summa theologica of st. thomas aquinas,

in other words, pre-pubertal marriages arranged by the father are recognized by the church. once the girl reaches puberty, she has the option of nullifying the marriage.

however, there is a big catch to this: if the man has sex with the pre-pubertal girl, then she can no longer nullify the marriage. catholic popes argued that even if marriage took place before twelve years of age and before puberty, then such a marriage would still be binding by the law. we read:

sexual intercourse which took place before marital age limits or puberty was not necessarily illicit or sinful. on the contrary, some popes ruled that intercourse below the age of twelve/fourteen had the effect of sealing a marriage contract, as long as such intercourse took place after the age of discretion, which was seven. [2] once intercourse had taken place, the marriage could not be annulled.

(mark e. pietrzyk,

this is a very important point, and shatters the glass house that the christians live in.

the popes—who, due to the backing of the holy ghost, are considered infallible when they issue such religious edicts—ruled that a girl could be married off after the age of seven, before the age of consent. in other words, she could be married against her will.

if the husband had sex with her (even against her will), then this sealed the marriage and the girl could not annul the marriage. in the twelfth century, pope alexander iii ruled:

if a girl of tender age is betrothed and delivered to her husband, and afterwards desires to marry a different man, her petition is not to be granted if her husband swears that he has had carnal knowledge of her even at the early age of eleven or twelve. [3]

the christian scholars ruled that even if a seven year old girl had sex before reaching the age of puberty, the fact that she had sex proves that she was mature enough to be married. in other words, the minimum criteria to marry a girl is that a man can have sex with her. when a man wants to marry a young girl, all he has to do is marry her and then have sex with her. in a very circular logic, the sex he had with her will validate his marriage and prevent an annulment. christian law therefore dictates that it does not matter how young a girl is, or whether or not she has attained the age of puberty; all that truly matters is that her husband can penetrate her and have sex. once he does this, nobody can oppose or annul the marriage.

c. yandell writes in “carpe corpus: time and gender in early modern france”:

in canon law, puberty normally determines marriageable age, although the minimum age for marriage is seven years, "the age of reason", when a child is deemed capable of consent. the lawyer estienne pasquier notes that the digest compiled by justinian specifies fourteen years for men, twelve for women, but, he adds, if one is capable of carnal cohabitation before this age, marriage is permitted.

(carpe corpus: time and gender in early modern france, by cathy yandell p.37,


we read further:

thus even for very young partners, the act of intercourse bound the two of them together for life. as one catholic scholar has written, “carnal relations between the parties seemed to indicate sufficient maturity and made up for the defect of years.” [4] sexual intercourse below the age of discretion (seven) was not a crime, but merely “invalid,” and thus, inconsequential, as under jewish law. [5]

parents arranged marriages for their pre-pubescent children during the middle ages for a variety of dynastic, economic, and cultural reasons. [6] such marriages were usually consummated at the age of twelve. although physicians warned of the dangers of impregnating very young girls and implored husbands to wait until the wife reached the age of at least fourteen, such warnings usually went unheeded, and the catholic church continued to bless marital bonds with twelve-year-old girls. [7]

although technically the consent of the child was necessary for a marriage to take place, the child was usually not in a position to challenge his or her parents and resist an unwanted union. this led to a number of abuses which went unchallenged by the church. in 1526, the dutch scholar erasmus complained,

“it is no uncommon case, especially in france, for a girl of scarce ten years to be married and a mother next year. . . . it seems portentous, and yet we sometimes see it, especially in britainand italy, that a tender child is married to a septuagenarian [i.e. a man in his seventies]. . . . yet church laws do not rescind such nuptials” [8]

in later centuries, some christian commentators would denounce sexual relations with young girls as being equivalent to rape. in the sixteenth century, canonist egidio bossi argued for this interpretation on the grounds that a child could hardly be considered as being in a position to give consent. however, he recommended that the age of consent be fixed at only six or seven years of age. [9]

at the council of trent in the sixteenth century, there was some discussion among the church leadership about possibly raising the age for marriage. cardinal charles de guise of lorraine, france, advocated raising the age of marriage for women to twenty and for men to twenty-five. the bishop of cordia, spain, argued for the ages of twenty for women and twenty-two for men. however, the majority of those on the council were opposed to raising the age for marriage on the grounds that adolescents would be tempted to commit fornication unless they were permitted to marry. the conservatives prevailed: the age limit remained at twelve for females and fourteen for males. [10]

(mark e. pietrzyk,

in a paper published at a symposium on byzantine studies, we read:

baptism, usually at birth, was the fundamental rite of incorporation into the body of christ and the church…betrothal, sometimes as early as the age of five, marked another stage in the child’s social incorporation.

(byzantine studies: 2006 spring symposium,

aisha (peace be upon her) was around the age of puberty when she married. christians criticize the prophet’s marriage to her on the grounds that she was too young. yet, christian law not only allowed girls to marry at the age of puberty, but rather it was encouraged by the church to marry at this young age. in an article entitled “the practice and theory of marriage in roman north africa”, we read:

other canons require that lectors, upon reaching puberty, should either marry or take vows of celibacy.

(the practice and theory of marriage in roman north africa,

in the article entitled “marriage: laws and customs”, we read:

legal age for marriage

roman law gave the minimum age for marriage as that of puberty which was 14

for boys and 12 for girls; these remained the legal age for marriage until the late 19th century in britain…there is however evidence that child marriages were reasonably common in north west england in the 16th century…

(marriage: laws and customs, http://www.isle-of-

in an article entitled “law, sex, and christian society in medieval europe”, we read:

ordinary people who chose not to devote their lives to ascetic observances were often advised that their best defense against the ever present urge to copulate was to marry early. for this reason, st. chrysostom warned parents to see to it that their children married soon after they reached the age of puberty.

(law, sex, and christian society in medieval europe,

when girls neared the approximate age of puberty, they were considered marriage material. these pre-pubescent and pubescent girls were routinely married off to men who were the same age as their grandfathers. we read:

christian canon law followed roman law in setting the minimum age of marriage at twelve for females and fourteen for males. the logic behind these marital age limits was that these were the approximate ages of puberty for both genders, indicating readiness for procreation. in ancient rome, among both pagans and christians, marriage at an early age was frequent. betrothals often occurred even before puberty, although the consummation of marriage through intercourse usually did not take place until after the girl’s first menstruation. very often, the age of discrepancy of marriage partners was great. according to one historian, “the matching of a man with a woman young enough to be his daughter or even granddaughter was generally accepted.” [11]

(mark e. pietrzyk,


[1]o'dea, 1-3; rush, 30-3

[2]rush, 32-34.

[3]quoted in john fulton, the laws of marriage (new york: e. and j.b. young, 1883), 112.

[4]o'dea, 8.

[5]for an example, see charles edward smith, papal enforcement of some medieval marriage laws (port washington, ny: kennikat press, 1940), 142-44.

[6]v.h.h. green, medieval civilization in western europe(london: edward arnold ltd., 1971), 184-85

[7]william j. fielding, strange customs of courtship and marriage (new york: the new home library, 1942), 166-68.

[8]quoted in g.g. coulton, medieval panorama (new york: macmillan, 1944), 639.

[9]“rape and marriage in the medieval canon law,” in james a. brundage, ed., sex, law and marriage in the middle ages (brookfield, vermont: ashgate, 1993), 67.

[10]o'dea, 4-6

[11]treggiari, 102; john c. o'dea, the matrimonial impediment of nonage (washington, dc: catholic university of america press, 1944), 1.

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