“Things were different then.”
It’s amazing how much there is to unpack in such a small, vague sentence. It seems impossible to me that these words can say so much when they say nothing. But they’re used often when we’re talking about fiction, and they speak volumes.
Things were different. This implies that in the work of fiction we’re reading, we can see the progress of a society from what they were to how they are now, when this book is taking place. That we as readers can see the growth of a civilization. I always love when an imaginary world is so fully realized that I can reflect upon its societal changes throughout the course of a book, don’t you?
Of course, folks don’t mean the fictional world was different, they mean the imagined life of a period in Earth’s past comparable to that world–particularly medieval western Europe. We have a bizarrely strong, consistent mass delusion about life in medieval/Tudor/Renaissance time periods that provides a fascinating look at how mythologies get made. We’ve dreamed up our own mythical retelling of our history, and use this to compare with “imaginary” worlds, which is just such a beautifully convoluted thing.
I’ll talk about that more in a minute. The other element of this vague sentence is that it’s never about the lack of air conditioning or the intricate dances everyone seemed to know even though the musicians didn’t actually say anything about when to wibble and subsequently wobble, or when to cha-cha real smooth. No, it’s always about misogyny, power structures, abuse.
That’s fascinating to me. One, I’m led to believe that actually most people got a lesson pretty early on on not stealing, abusing, or raping folks. Several millenia old documents feature this pretty heavily. So, even if definitions change a bit, the overall concepts weren’t, I think, wholly unknown. Surely it’d come up once or twice. I have a hard time imagining a parent looking at a 12 year old and saying “you’re not getting any younger. I’m 24, I need grandkids.” Even in cultures that really highlight the “coming of age” as young as 12, such as in Judaism, bar mitzvah isn’t the conference of full adulthood. Indeed, though bar mitzvah generally takes place at 13, the Talmud says that marriage is appropriate between ages 16-24, (or 18, depending on interpretation). So, adulthood and puberty have been separated for much longer than our kinder, gentler modern era.
But more than that, in genre fiction, it’s all made up. I really hope I”m not ruining Christmas here, but someone wrote these books. Furthermore, unless you’re reading gothic romances, or a few classics, the large majority of speculative fiction that features pre-industrial worlds has been written by post-industrial humans. And that changes everything.
So let’s start in the beginning. Why do we think fourteen year olds were getting married, having babies, and being deflowered all over the countryside? Because lifespans were so much shorter and life was so much harder, right?
Human lifespan was actually about the same as today, it’s jut that you had a higher risk of mortality early on. People regularly got to their 60s and 70s…but they also died a lot more before the age of 10 because, you know, no vaccines. People were not telling 5 year olds to freeze their eggs or sperm, much like we don’t tell at risk populations today they’re considered older than their more-protected counterparts. It’s not that their lives were shorter. Their lives were just cut short. So, the “lifespan” of less than 30 years we see is skewed data and includes infant mortality in the average. If you correct for that, again, we see very little variation from modern humans.
It is true that high nobility did tend to get married younger. Not for fear of running out of time to procreate so much as the immediate need to shore up alliances, secure dynasties, and, if life expectancy was involved in the decision, it was war or sickness, and the ties that could be formed before someone bit it in the next plague or border skirmish.
But normal people? Or even lesser nobility? Hell, even high nobility in times of peace and health?
People didn’t get married that much earlier than we do now. In the 1500s in western Europe, the average age of marriage was 21-23, and it sort of got later from there until the next set of big wars. Were there people who got married younger? Yes. But not by a ton.
“Allison, how can you say that with such certainty! You weren’t there either!”
I’m pretty confident about the age of marriage not just because of church records, but because of biology. You see, in our modern era of plenty, girls can hit puberty by 11 or even earlier. But due to various health issues, girls went through puberty later in the medieval times–3-5 years later. So, fertility wasn’t even possible before 13, and possibly not until 17 or 18. Now, here’s another secret of the feminine, menstruating doesn’t mean that you’re ready to have kids, either mentally or physically. The systems (menarche) take another several years after puberty to really kick into gear. Pregnancy before all that settles down is not only uncommon but extremely risky. And even if we didn’t share morals with our forefathers (which I doubt to an extent! See: the concern of sending daughters to big cities, away from protective family circles) we do at least share the ability to notice patterns, and that it’s very hard to keep the population from going extinct if half of the baby-making folks die off every time a new baby is attempted.
Well fine, but certainly all the marriages were between war-weary soldiers and their nubile, blush-cheeked brides?
Sorry. Like today, most people not selling their fidelity for national security managed to find someone closer to their own age. Men got married 21-24, women 18-22, with a few regional exceptions. The biggest consistent gap I’ve found is about 12 years age difference, between an average bride age of 19 and a husband of about 30.
“Okay,” I hear you say. “But the laws about marriage say you could be wed at 12.”
Mhm. Yeah. Sure. It’s 18 in most US states. How many 18 year olds do you know getting married? In Alabama, if the parents agree, 14 year olds can marry. And some do! But it makes national news when that happens. Sound familiar? It should–we hear all about the young royalty who get married from “olden times.” We hear very little about the marriage rites of merchants and farmers. But think of it this way.
We probably learned about the great majority of young marriages in school. All those kings and queens you heard about? That’s a pretty large part of all marriages before 18 in the 1500s-1700s.
Again, not that it never happened. But it’s certainly not so different from the way it works today. Extreme needs bend societal norms, but they did not create them.
So. Young/mid-teenaged brides weren’t historically accurate in the 1500-1800s in western Europe outside of nobility in dire need. Some speculative fiction does tend to focus on court intrigue and royalty, so maybe some of that is more “accurate,” and certainly in historical fiction or alt history, some amount of this is inescapable.
But as much as we see? I don’t tend to go for torrid affairs much, but the 15 year old wed to the 40 year old is just all over the place.
Yeah, I’m not buying it. Quite literally, I try not to buy these books.
But why? Why am I so harsh towards this trope?
Well, it’s not largely accurate, and in worlds where there’s sorcery or horses that can gallop nonstop through the night, or meddling gods, it’s not really necessary, either. If it’s not there for the truth of it, and we have no rules to worry about breaking, what is it doing in the book? It’s a choice. Why did the author make that choice?
I think the answer is mostly laziness. Who wants to read about happy, age-appropriate marriages?
We have this idea that this this Was The Way It Was and it wasn’t. So, it’s just art imitating art. I find it boring. And harmful. Boring because it means we’re just telling the same story someone else told us. Harmful because it creates a narrative of acceptance. When we see things over and over, we begin to think of them as more truthful–it’s how propaganda works, for example.
What do we normalize when we retell this same story over and over?
Do we today find legal age to remove all suspicion from a relationship? If a 50 year old person is hanging around the sorts of college bars that don’t require ID, looking for hook ups, are we all like “welp. Can’t be arrested. Blessings on you both.”
I’m sure not. My friends and I, when it happened to us, sure weren’t. And yet it’s still fairly accepted behavior, right? “Oh, them.” *eyeroll* “Just chasing what they can’t get.” Where the “things they can’t get” are people who look like minors but won’t bring about the same consequences as someone who was only a few months or days younger? Are we really sure that legality is the benchmark we use to condone all behavior?
I feel very strongly that legal is not the same as moral. Legal is, and has always been (with a few reactionary exceptions), the absolute bare minimum. Think about it. Who makes laws? Why do they make laws? Whose interests are always protected–the people with lesser authority? Or the powerful folks who want to have what they want?
So that’s not an excuse, for me. The law sets a low bar to protect those in power to the exact extent that those protections will not cause the general populace to revolt. Age of consent has at most been viewed the same as it is now, where we say to the would-be victims “grow up fast, because someone’s going to make a decision for you if you don’t, and you’ll have to deal with the consequences.” All, of course, while doing nothing more than shake our heads and purse our lips at the adult who knows better than this. And, for comparison, even though 12 was the age of consent in “medieval” times for women (and 14 for boys! Now, isn’t that interesting…) marriage age was still another 8-12 years out in the future. Even in those benighted ages when things were so different, age of consent still did not mean socially accepted norm.
Okay, age of consent laws don’t mean moral acceptance by society at large. Remind me again, why are we telling these stories?
I think it’s the same reason we make laws–because there’s power in it. We’ve fetishized the exceptions, or use them to show how vile someone is, wielding the power of disgust to tell a story for us. But the problem is, aside from emphasizing the power imbalance and how commonly it occurs, it then also serves to mask the people who would actually act on these fetishes, or as we often like to call them, abusers.
When we perpetuate the idea that there’s no way men could control themselves around pubescent girls, that it’s hot when older women agree to sex with a boy, when we normalize the myth that grown adults can’t tell the difference between a child and an adult, we give abusers a cultural out. We teach younger people that it’s fine for adults to get grabby–that it was a mistake because the minors looked so mature, or if not a mistake, then “just the way it is.”
Some things we can’t change. But we can learn and grow from those things. We can’t tell nobility long dead that it’s really unhealthy, just in a purely biological sense, to have kids at 14. We can, however, realize that now and work to fix the perception of the feasibility (and agreeableness) of that act in our writing.
It’s weird for me to see grown people in modern books attracted to people clearly considered very young. Noticing someone’s pretty? Sure, having eyes isn’t bad. But seeing a life or at least a night with them? Who sees a 14 year old and doesn’t know they’re not 30? Even in a hard life, they wouldn’t look like a 30 year old. And unless they’ve had a horribly abusive life, they certainly wouldn’t sound 30.
Now, there’s some room for maneuvering, and exceptions and whatall. But not as the standard. Not as the sign of the times. Not as the basis of a myth we’ve created for ourselves.
I think we can do better. Does it need to kill a book? No. But like with trauma, culturally sensitive things should be handled, well, sensitively. I’d like us all to examine what it is we seek to accomplish with characters that look half the age of their hopeful-lovers, and ask if there’s enough in that goal to warrant the potential harm in teaching children who read these stories that adults can’t be held responsible for romantically treating minors like adults, and in immunizing adults from the things we as society know to be inappropriate, regardless of what the laws say.
If we’re imagining worlds to take us away from this one, let’s not forget to evaluate what we think our new-version of humans would find acceptable for their partnering, and if we can’t imagine it for ourselves, let’s at least use something other than exceptional historical circumstances guide us. Some people juggle geese. But most people marry someone around their age or experience level, and that age is well after puberty strikes.