Child Brides: Medieval girls and early marriage

Yesterday I read a report about interviews which have been conducted with teenage girls in Syria who have been married between the ages of 13 and 16, often to men much older than themselves.

Many of the girls who were interviewed talked about their despair at the lack of any personal choice in who they married. They longed to return to school and continue to learn and spoke about how their lives have been cut short by early, arranged marriages.

Some mention abuse at the hands of their husbands or their husband’s mothers and their revulsion at being forced to have sexual relationships with much older men before their bodies or minds are ready to take on this aspect of adult life. They fear pregnancy and domestic servitude which will be their lot for the rest of their lives and long for their lost childhoods. Many have already been traumatised by war and forced to flee their homes. Some have had to deal with bereavement as children as well and many are struggling to live in poverty.

We are told not to project contemporary views onto the past. There is much debate currently about the role of women in the middle ages and how many different interpretations can by made from the existing source evidence about the variety of opportunities open to women during this large and disparate period of history. There is constant reappraisal of the evidence available to us and debate about how much power, influence, freedom and constraint applied to various female figures who we do know a small amount about and how that might be projected onto the wider lot of girls and women in their societies, about which we often know far less.


We are encouraged by historians to set child marriage into the context of the times and the social mores of the societies in which it operated. People died younger and therefore child marriage was a practical response to ensure the next generation was born before the previous one died off. Early marriage provided security and stability for the girls as much as for their birth family as they were safely settled within a household before their parents died and freed other siblings from the burdens of providing for them if they remained at home and were not able to practice a trade themselves.

Girls were generally not educated in the same way as their male peers and therefore needed to find a husband who could provide for them through his profession or trade, outlets not usually open to a woman, while she counter-balanced this by keeping the household, rearing the livestock, preparing the food and bearing children. Many women also took on much more than this as part of their wifely duties, including brewing or running a grain mill, involvement in the preparation of goods and materials, keeping the household accounts, managing servants, running estates and defending the family property when their spouses were absent. Some even took up arms and organised troops and undertook much diplomatic work on behalf of their family, acting as intercessors and negotiators with neighbours and local landowners.

Many young brides in the mercantile class were also taught about the family business and involved in many aspects of this without any formal recognition or salary. This enabled their husbands to travel on business for sometimes extended periods in the knowledge that their core business was in safe and reliable hands and could feel confident that no secrets were being divulged or goods hived off because their wives were dependent on the business for their sustenance too and were working in common to raise the family up for the benefit of their children.

Poorer families tended not to marry their girls off at very young ages either. Many girls were fully grown women in their twenties when they married, rather than the child brides of the elite class.

Dynastic alliances were essential to the way that international politics functioned. Parents loved their children but often lived apart from them in the elite social classes and didn’t develop the same ‘bond’ that we think exists between modern parents and their offspring. Childhood is extended too far in modern western society – people coddle their children and continue to provide for them into their adult years which stifles their ability to stand on their own two feet and make their own way in the world etc…

Nobody thought the Edward III and Philippa were bad parents for sending their daughter Joan off to be married even if she contracted the Black Death on the way and died an agonising death, far from home and family and possibly deserted by her attendants as well en route. It was just a tragic combination of factors and the will of God.

”We have placed our trust in God and our life between his hands, where he held it closely through many dangers” wrote her grieving father to her prospective family shortly after her death.


Joan of England who died of the Black Death aged 14 on the way to her marriage

I remember reading posts in a recent thread on social media concerning the marriage of Richard II to Isabella Valois when she was just six years old. Generally people were accepting of his relationship with her and the bond which developed between them but some were very uncomfortable about marriage between a fully grown man and a child who brought her dolls with her from France, even if there was no suggestion of intimacy between them. Isabella was a political pawn, without a doubt, but from what we can glean she was treated very well by Richard’s court and mourned his fall and death with a deep sense of personal loss. She was told that marriage to the English king would make her a very great lady and trained from her earliest years to expect just such a match. Her distress was magnified by her treatment at the hands of Henry Bolingbroke who wanted her to marry his son when still in mourning for her murdered husband and by her family who were desperate to get her back to France in order to arrange another dynastic marriage for her. Sadly she subsequently died in childbirth at an age that most of us would now regard as only just fully grown.


Meeting between Isabella of France aged 6 and her husband, Richard II aged 29

Times were harder then and women’s expectations were set at the level of helpmate and consort, wife and mother. They didn’t think about their personal development as our generation has been raised to. They were content to be the vessel for other people’s ambitions and were instructed by the Christian church to submit obediently to their lot in life. There were often harsh penalties for wanting more. Women who challenged convention could face being ostracised, abused, imprisoned and sanctioned by the church. Cases of ‘witchcraft’ are often now seen as a social response to women who challenged the social order. A means of control through fear and superstition.

Women did not have any rights to their own bodies after marriage. The example of Margery Kempe speaks volumes for this silent burden borne by so many women. Margery wanted to remain celibate and follow her vocation of a religious life but her husband forced her to carry on having babies for years and years against her will.


So what parallels can be drawn between the largely voiceless women of the past and the feelings of these modern child brides?

Firstly I was struck by the similarities of the social contexts within which these girls are living and the realities of medieval life. There is hardly a single era during the medieval period when war or the threat of war wasn’t hanging over a generation. Peace was a novelty for most people. For a child born into conflict and raised with the horrors of violence, dislocation, economic disruption and the trauma of fear, the same human responses apply regardless of the age in which they live.

Can we imagine that it was any less harmful for a medieval child to experience all this in their formative years than it is for these Syrian girls to have grown up during a time of war? It is easy to pass off the psychological traumas of war on medieval children. It was just the way things were. People didn’t know about PTSD but it still existed and had profound effects on those who struggled to live with it. It coloured their responses to threats and their relationships and it had a profound effect on their psychological outlook but it is difficult to say to what extent this should be taken into account when set against the experience of everyone else in society.

Imagine the conversation between a young daughter of the aristocracy and a peasant girl living at the same time. One might recount how sad she was to be parted from her mother and sold in marriage to a stranger in a foreign land at the age of 12 while the other might recall her terror of growing up in a village which was preyed on by the local lord’s men, of being cold and hungry and afraid of the next famine or the dangers of gathering firewood in the nearby wood.

However real and terrifying the prospects of childbirth were for all girls and women regardless of class, their male siblings also faced the horrors of war on the battlefield, the abuses of heavy-handed tutors and masters and the arbitrary judgements of the law if they were caught poaching.

The case of Margaret Beaufort springs to mind here. Most of us feel revulsion and sympathy for her facing a long and traumatic birth at the age of 13. Later she wrote advising that her own granddaughters should not be married too young for fear of the damage early pregnancies might inflict on their bodies. Just because a girl has had a period does not mean that her body is able to withstand the huge demand of pregnancy and childbirth. We know now that early pregnancy is more dangerous for both baby and mother and requires careful monitoring. It is impossible to know whether Margaret was a victim of her husband’s desire or, perhaps more likely, that he was desperate to get an heir and risked his wife’s long-term health by sleeping with her several years before most girls might expect to carry a child. The strain of being widowed at seven months pregnant and the political situation in which Margaret found herself probably did  nothing to ease her psychological state as she attempted to give birth to her only child either.


Margaret Beaufort who gave birth to Henry Tudor at the age of 13

Similar stresses may well have contributed to the dreadful experience of Isabel Neville, who gave birth to a stillborn baby at sea off Calais as her family fled England during her father’s rebellion against Edward IV.  You would need a heart of stone not to feel empathy and sadness at the treatment of these young girls by the families who were supposed to protect and care for them. We can only guess at how many girls suffered like this during the momentous events which shaped the course of medieval history. Girls who found themselves in no man’s land between warring armies or deserted in plague villages, who were forced to abandon their homes and hide from chevauchee campaigns or caught up in sieges and starved and bombarded into submission whilst trying to carry a baby to full term .

Then there is the religious and social context. Tradition and religious doctrine may impose a particular set of rules and social mores but a child still thinks and feels and understands in a broadly similar way. The lack of personal testimony from medieval children shouldn’t negate our appreciation of their experience of confusion, fear, despair, frustration, anger etc… Does it really take such a leap of imagination to reconstruct their mental processes at being sold in marriage to a stranger who would control their every movement and have the power of life and death over their bodies? Many child brides were sent off on dangerous journeys through hostile territories and exposed to risks and threats before they even met their intended husbands. Their attendants were sometimes sent back leaving them isolated and vulnerable to the will of their new relations in a strange environment and without the comfort of friends and childhood contacts such as nurses or servants who they had developed relationships of trust with. Sometimes they didn’t even speak the language of their adopted country and were even more isolated.

Despite social conditioning and societal mores, don’t we all inwardly long to rebel and break free from the constraints of our own existence and wasn’t that always the case? How can we accept the mentality of the men and women who rose in rebellions or fought for better rights or were prepared to die a hideous death for their faith on the one hand yet fail to acknowledge a shared experience when it comes to an issue like child marriage?

We read the Declaration of Arbroath and feel the stirrings of national pride and personal liberty expressed so eloquently in the wording. If there were men then who felt so passionately about these things and were prepared to lay down their lives for them then didn’t their mothers and sisters and wives and daughters also share these emotions too even if they were swallowed up and silenced by convention and the tide of history?

Perhaps the answer is that we don’t want to acknowledge the realities of their experiences because it would be too painful, too desperate, too unbearably sad to contemplate, so we distance them and de-humanise their experience in order to ‘normalize’ it within the historical context. We do this all the time in our own society – look at the Jimmy Saville case for one example of how we are prepared to block out horrors within our own society so it seems perfectly possible that we do this at a collective level where it comes to the past.

There will be those reading this blog that will disagree with my views on child marriage. Some may see it as perfectly acceptable in their culture and I have to accept that as I believe in freedom of thought and expression. There will be others who disagree with any attempt at comparison between contemporary issues in our world and the experience of girls and women living more than 500 years ago. I have to accept that as well.

Comparative history is always problematic because there are as many ‘contrasts’ as there are comparisons. However, if the testimony of contemporary child brides is true and honest and yet their voices are not heard, their feeling not accounted for, their life experience not considered to be important then I would argue that the same applies to girls who lived long ago. They felt all those things but their experience was ignored and side-lined in just the same way by their own society and no one thought to ask them or listen to their stories.

We can’t do anything about their experiences now except bear witness to them and remember when we read about one of them, just what they might have been thinking and feeling about their lives.

Misuse of the Word “Medieval”: Most Girls Married Old Guys



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