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“One of the reasons I wanted to do this with HBO is that I wanted to keep the sex. We had some real problems because Dany is only 13 in the books, and that’s based on medieval history. They didn’t have this concept of adolescence or the teenage years. You were a child or you were an adult. And the onset of sexual maturity meant you were an adult. So I reflected that in the books”—GRRM
Today’s topic is the age at which people would be considered adults in the medieval era and whether there was such a thing as adolescence. This is a fairly important point within the series, since children and what we would consider teens are married off, fight wars, and wear the crown in the series.
Any number of experts on the medieval family and children would argue that GRRM is categorically wrong. In fact, his argument has been disproved for over 50 years. The idea that the Early Modern world invented childhood and adolescence was first put forth by Philippe Ariès, a French historian of the family and children. Centuries of Childhood (1960) made childhood a serious field of study—no mean feat—but its conclusions and his methods have been heavily and rightly criticized. Nevertheless, this notion of the child or teen as adult seems to be an entrenched stereotype in the popular imagination.
So, what was the reality? Let’s consider the sources.
According to medieval medical and moral treatises, the stages of childhood began with infancy, which lasted until 2 years of age. Those aged from 2 to 7 were considered to be in a higher stage of infancy. It was only at age 7 that childhood actually began. At this point children could be educated or apprenticed in a trade. Higher childhood extended from age 12 to 21. Until the age of 21 the child remained under the guardianship of its parents or some other authority. Sound familiar? This is the stage we would call adolescence. The sources relate that you could expect young people in this stage to be rowdy, lusty, irresponsible…you know, teenagers. Trust me, we didn’t invent being a teenager; we just perfected marketing stuff to them.
Therefore, real responsibilities, adult responsibilities were not undertaken until age 21. Members of the clergy, for example, could not take vows until they had reached 21. The same is true for marriage, which was not undertaken at age 13, which leads me to believe Daenerys and Sansa might have preferred living in medieval England.
John Hajnal, an academic of economics, and others since him, have proven something known as the Western European Marriage Pattern using statistical analysis of Church registers. In Western Europe prior to the modern era, women married at about age 23 and men at 26. In fact, the Catholic Church required that couples younger than 21 have the consent of their families in order to be married. Moreover, a significant number of women didn’t marry for the first time until their 30s or 40s.
The reason for this was the relatively bad economy: people couldn’t afford to set up homes too early in life and they certainly couldn’t afford a dozen children, which would have resulted from a woman marrying at the point of her sexual maturity. (Given poor nutrition, women didn’t always go through puberty at age 12 or 13, so establishing that as the age of sexual maturity might be spurious.) Even nobles didn’t typically follow early marriage patterns, because what was born out of necessity for the masses created the cultural norms shared by all. If you want to get into child brides of the nobility married to old dudes, look to the 16th or 17th c., not the medieval era.
And since people didn’t marry until roughly the same age on average as people in the United States do today, there is ample evidence adolescence not only existed, but that those teen years were about as extended as they currently are. Are you 24 and living with your parents? You’d be in good company in 13th century France.
So, was there adolescence in the Middle Ages? Yes. Would a historical Daenerys have been married off at age 13? Probably not. Would Ned Stark have claimed little Bran was on the verge of being a man? Nope. This is simply one case in which the stereotype doesn’t hold up.
If the series better reflected the realities of medieval life in regards to the age of adulthood, how do you imagine it would change the narrative?
*Meta Monday will appear every Monday. Feel free to follow me or the tracked tag: Meta Monday.
**Today’s topic was suggested to me. If you have a topic you’d like to see addressed by a medievalist, please send me an ask.