It’s been 4 months since my A History of Marriage – Part 1, but I’ve finally gotten around to the second part. In Part 1, I discussed marriage traditions of pagan/superstitious origin, and the origin and history of marriage licences. In Part 2, I’m looking at marriage age, cousin marriage, and avunculate marriage (marriage of a man to his niece, or a woman to her nephew).
(Note: the following is intended purely as a neutral history lesson – I’m not endorsing or condemning anything.)
Today, we become adults at 18, and for many that is (or should be) the minimum marriage age. Has that always been the case?
In ancient times, minimum marriage/adult age (if there was one) varied. Among the Israelites/Jews, it was generally considered to be around 13, although even that wasn’t standard – as evidenced by the following Biblical passages:
In the seventeenth year of Pekah the son of Remaliah, Ahaz the son of Jotham, king of Judah, began to reign. Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. And he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God, as his father David had done, (2 Kings 16:1-2, ESV)
In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah, king of Israel, Hezekiah the son of Ahaz, king of Judah, began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he began to reign, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah. (2 Kings 18:1-2, ESV)
So, King Ahaz was 11 when he had Hezekiah. (Note that he was 11 when Hezekiah was BORN – so it’s possible that he was 10 when Hezekiah was conceived!)
And Peleg lived 12 years and fathered Reu. (Genesis 11: 20, RET; note that other translations give older ages)
In Jewish oral tradition, men cannot consent to marriage until they reach the age of majority of 13 years and one day and have undergone puberty. With no signs of puberty, they are considered minors until the age of twenty. After twenty, they are not considered adults if they show signs of impotence. If they show no signs of puberty or do show impotence, they automatically become adults by age 35 and can marry. The same rules apply to women, except their age of majority is 12 years and a day.
In Ancient Rome, it was very common for girls to marry and have children shortly after the onset of puberty. Roman law required brides to be at least 12 years old. In Roman law, first marriages to brides from 12 to 24 required the consent of the bride and her father; by the late antique period, Roman law permitted women over 25 to marry without parental consent. The Catholic canon law followed the Roman law. In the 12th century, the Catholic Church drastically changed legal standards for marital consent by allowing daughters over 12 and sons over 14 to marry without their parents’ approval, even if their marriage was made clandestinely. Parish studies have confirmed that late medieval women did sometimes marry without their parents’ approval.
In western Europe, the rise of Christianity and manorialism had both created incentives to keep families nuclear, and thus the age of marriage increased; the Western Church instituted marriage laws and practices that undermined large kinship groups. The Church prohibited consanguineous marriages, a marriage pattern that had been a means to maintain clans (and thus their power) throughout history. The church also forbade marriages in which the bride did not clearly agree to the union.
Interesting that control over marriage age (and incidentally, I do believe there should be a minimum marriage age) began as a thing of reducing the size and influence of families/clans. Mandating the woman’s consent was a definite bonus.
After the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, manorialism also helped weaken the ties of kinship and thus the power of clans; as early as the 9th century in northwestern France, families that worked on manors were small, consisting of parents and children and occasionally a grandparent. The Church and State had become allies in erasing the solidarity and thus the political power of the clans; the Church sought to replace traditional religion, whose vehicle was the kin group, and substitute the authority of the elders of the kin group with that of a religious elder; at the same time, the king’s rule was undermined by revolts by the most powerful kin groups, clans or sections, whose conspiracies and murders threatened the power of the state and also the demands by manorial lords for obedient, compliant workers. As the peasants and serfs lived and worked on farms that they rented from the lord of the manor, they also needed the permission of the lord to marry. Couples therefore had to comply with the lord of the manor and wait until a small farm became available before they could marry and thus produce children; those who could and did delay marriage were presumably rewarded by the landlord and those who did not were presumably denied that reward. For example, marriage ages in Medieval England varied depending on economic circumstances, with couples delaying marriage until their early twenties when times were bad, but might marry in their late teens after the Black Death, when there was a severe labour shortage; by appearances, marriage of adolescents was not the norm in England.
In medieval Eastern Europe, on the other hand, the Slavic traditions of patrilocality of early and universal marriage (usually of a bride aged 12–15 years, with menarche occurring on average at 14) lingered; the manorial system had yet to penetrate into eastern Europe and had generally had less effect on clan systems there; and the bans on cross-cousin marriages had not been firmly enforced.
The first recorded age-of-consent law dates back 800 years. In 1275, in England, as part of the rape law, the Statute of Westminster 1275, made it a misdemeanour to “ravish” a “maiden within age”, whether with or without her consent. The phrase “within age” was interpreted by jurist Sir Edward Coke as meaning the age of marriage, which at the time was 12 years. In the 12th century, the jurist Gratian, an influential founder of Canon law in medieval Europe, accepted the age of puberty for marriage to be between 12 and 14, but acknowledged consent to be meaningful if the children were older than 7. Some authorities claimed that consent could take place earlier. Marriage would then be valid as long as neither of the two parties annulled the marital agreement before reaching puberty, and the marriage had not already been consummated. Gratian noted that “If one over the age of seven takes a prepubescent wife of less than seven and transfers her to his house, such a contract gives rise to the impediment of public propriety”. In spite of this, there are recorded marriages of 2 and 3 year olds: in 1564, a three year old named John was married to a two year old named Jane in the Bishop’s Court in Chester, England
The policy of the Roman Catholic Church, and later various protestant churches, of considering clandestine marriages and marriages made without parental consent to be valid was controversial, and in the 16th century both the French monarchy and the Lutheran Church sought to end these practices, with limited success. Before 1929, Scots law followed Roman law in allowing a girl to marry at twelve years of age and a boy at fourteen, without any requirement for parental consent. However, marriage in Scotland at such young ages was in practice almost unknown. In England and Wales, the Marriage Act 1753 required a marriage to be covered by a licence (requiring parental consent for those under 21) or the publication of banns (which parents of those under 21 could forbid).
In most of Northwestern Europe, marriage at very early ages was rare. One thousand marriage certificates from 1619 to 1660 in the Archdiocese of Canterbury show that only one bride was 13 years old, four were 15, twelve were 16, and seventeen were 17 years old; while the other 966 brides were at least 19 years old. Additionally, the Church dictated that both the bride and groom must be at least 21 years of age to marry without the consent of their families; in the certificates, the most common age for the brides is 22 years. For the grooms 24 years was the most common age, with average ages of 24 years for the brides and 27 for the grooms. While European noblewomen often married early, they were a small minority of the population, and the marriage certificates from Canterbury show that even among nobility it was very rare to marry women off at very early ages.
The American colonies followed the English tradition, but the law was more of a guide. For example, Mary Hathaway (Virginia, 1689) was only 9 when she was married to William Williams. Sir Edward Coke (England, 17th century) made it clear that “the marriage of girls under 12 was normal, and the age at which a girl who was a wife was eligible for a dower from her husband’s estate was 9 even though her husband be only four years old”. Reliable data for when people would actually marry are very difficult to find. In England, for example, the only reliable data on age at marriage in the early modern period come from records relating only to those who left property after their death. Not only were the records relatively rare, but not all bothered to record the participants’ ages, and it seems that the more complete the records are, the more likely they are to reveal young marriages, giving a biased sample. Additionally, 20th- and 21st-century historians have sometimes shown reluctance to accept data regarding a young age of marriage, and would instead explain the data away as a misreading by a later copier of the records.
In France, until the French Revolution, the marriageable age was 12 years for girls and 14 for boys. Revolutionary legislation in 1792 increased the age to 13 years for girls and 15 for boys. Under the Napoleonic Code in 1804, the marriageable age was set at 15 years for girls and 18 for boys. In 2006, the marriageable age for women was increased to 18, the same as for men.
In jurisdictions where the ages are not the same, the marriageable age for girls is more commonly two or three years lower than that for boys.
In Australia and many other countries, a couple can’t get married until they’re at least 18, although in exceptional cases, the High Court may allow a 16-year-old couple’s marriage with parental consent.
In the United States, in almost every state, the minimum age to get married without parental consent etc is 18 – the exceptions being Nebraska, where it’s 19, and Mississippi, where it’s 21. However, when restrictions such as parental consent are taken into account, two states – Delaware and New Jersey – have an absolute minimum age of 18, while 7 states (Florida, Kentucky, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Oregon, and Tennessee) have an absolute minimum of 17; 16 states (Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin) have an absolute minimum age of 16 (although South Carolina’s marriage age laws are disputed, with some legal experts claiming there is no minimum age); 5 states (Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland and Utah) have an absolute minimum age of 15; 2 states (Alaska and North Carolina) have an absolute minimum of 14; and 16 states (Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming) have no absolute minimum marriage age. You can find specifics about each state’s marriage age laws here:
And a list of marriage age by countries here:
(Note: the above disclaimer about being neutral in my presentation and not endorsing a position only applies to marriage age.)
Today, marriage between first cousins is taboo to many, often viewed as incest. It’s often claimed that marrying your cousin greatly increases the risk of having a child who is abnormal or has birth defects. However, the risk of 1st cousin couples having such a child is 4% to 7%, compared to a risk of 2% to 3% among non-cousin couples. In other words, if you marry your cousin, you’ve got a MINIMUM 93%+ chance of having a perfectly normal child. The risk isn’t non-existent – as evidenced by the actual cases of cousin marriages causing defects – but these represent a TINY FRACTION of the children of first cousin marriages. The risk is only very slightly higher than for regular couples, and it does NOT justify banning cousin marriage. Marrying your second cousin carries little to no increased risk of a deformity, and it’s even smaller – negligent, in fact – for more distant cousins. Just marrying within your race or even your town increases the risk for genetic defects. Should we enforce interracial marriage? “The National Society of Genetic Counselors estimated the increased risk for first cousins is between 1.7 to 2.8 percent, or about the same a any woman over 40 years of age.” Should we ban women over 40 from having children? Perhaps mandate contraceptives and abortions?
But wait a minute, doesn’t the Bible forbid cousin marriages? This is a common fallback. But, it’s not true – there is NO prohibition against cousin marriages ANYWHERE in Scripture! Many will point to Leviticus 18:6, “None of you shall approach any one of his close relatives to uncover nakedness. I am the LORD.” (ESV). However, the chapter then goes on to detail who God is referring to as a “close relative”, and cousin marriages are NOT on the list!
6 “None of you shall approach any one of his close relatives to uncover nakedness. I am the Lord. 7 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness. 8 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is your father’s nakedness. 9 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether brought up in the family or in another home. 10 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your son’s daughter or of your daughter’s daughter, for their nakedness is your own nakedness. 11 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife’s daughter, brought up in your father’s family, since she is your sister. 12 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister; she is your father’s relative. 13 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister, for she is your mother’s relative. 14 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother, that is, you shall not approach his wife; she is your aunt. 15 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your daughter-in-law; she is your son’s wife, you shall not uncover her nakedness. 16 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness. 17 You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and of her daughter, and you shall not take her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter to uncover her nakedness; they are relatives; it is depravity. 18 And you shall not take a woman as a rival wife to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive. (Leviticus 18:6-18 ESV)
It goes on to say:
19 “You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness. 20 And you shall not lie sexually with your neighbor’s wife and so make yourself unclean with her. 21 You shall not give any of your children to offer them[b] to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. 22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. 23 And you shall not lie with any animal and so make yourself unclean with it, neither shall any woman give herself to an animal to lie with it: it is perversion. (Leviticus 18:19-23 ESV)
Yep, that’s right – in God’s eyes, marrying your cousin – first or otherwise – is perfectly fine! You could search the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and you won’t find a single word against cousin marriage. You will find plenty of examples of cousin marriage – both before AND after Leviticus 18’s instructions were given – and there’s nothing negative about the portrayal. There’s the case of Zelophehad’s daughters:
27 Then drew near the daughters of Zelophehad the son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh, from the clans of Manasseh the son of Joseph. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. 2 And they stood before Moses and before Eleazar the priest and before the chiefs and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, saying, 3 “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin. And he had no sons. 4 Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.”
5 Moses brought their case before the Lord. 6 And the Lord said to Moses, 7 “The daughters of Zelophehad are right. You shall give them possession of an inheritance among their father’s brothers and transfer the inheritance of their father to them. 8 And you shall speak to the people of Israel, saying, ‘If a man dies and has no son, then you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter. 9 And if he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. 10 And if he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. 11 And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. And it shall be for the people of Israel a statute and rule, as the Lord commanded Moses.’” (Numbers 27:1-11 ESV)
36 The heads of the fathers’ houses of the clan of the people of Gilead the son of Machir, son of Manasseh, from the clans of the people of Joseph, came near and spoke before Moses and before the chiefs, the heads of the fathers’ houses of the people of Israel. 2 They said, “The Lord commanded my lord to give the land for inheritance by lot to the people of Israel, and my lord was commanded by the Lord to give the inheritance of Zelophehad our brother to his daughters. 3 But if they are married to any of the sons of the other tribes of the people of Israel, then their inheritance will be taken from the inheritance of our fathers and added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they marry. So it will be taken away from the lot of our inheritance. 4 And when the jubilee of the people of Israel comes, then their inheritance will be added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they marry, and their inheritance will be taken from the inheritance of the tribe of our fathers.”
5 And Moses commanded the people of Israel according to the word of the Lord, saying, “The tribe of the people of Joseph is right. 6 This is what the Lord commands concerning the daughters of Zelophehad: ‘Let them marry whom they think best, only they shall marry within the clan of the tribe of their father. 7 The inheritance of the people of Israel shall not be transferred from one tribe to another, for every one of the people of Israel shall hold on to the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers. 8 And every daughter who possesses an inheritance in any tribe of the people of Israel shall be wife to one of the clan of the tribe of her father, so that every one of the people of Israel may possess the inheritance of his fathers. 9 So no inheritance shall be transferred from one tribe to another, for each of the tribes of the people of Israel shall hold on to its own inheritance.’”
10 The daughters of Zelophehad did as the Lord commanded Moses, 11 for Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah, the daughters of Zelophehad, were married to sons of their father’s brothers. 12 They were married into the clans of the people of Manasseh the son of Joseph, and their inheritance remained in the tribe of their father’s clan. (Numbers 36:1-11 ESV)
A similar incident:
22 Eleazar died having no sons, but only daughters; their kinsmen, the sons of Kish, married them. (1 Chronicles 23:22 ESV)
A royal Biblical example:
Rehoboam married Mahalath, who was the daughter of David’s son Jerimoth and of Abihail, the daughter of Jesse’s son Eliab. … Then he married Maacah daughter [actually granddaughter] of Absalom… (2 Chronicles 10:18, 20 NIV)
And a final one:
And Caleb said, “I will give my daughter Acsah in marriage to the man who attacks and captures Kiriath Sepher.” Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s brother, took it; so Caleb gave his daughter Acsah to him in marriage. (Joshua 15:16-17 NIV)
Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother, took it; so Caleb gave his daughter Acsah to him in marriage. (Judges 1:13 NIV)
(“Caleb’s younger brother” is referring to Kenaz, making Othniel Caleb’s nephew and Acsah’s 1st cousin.)
Quite simply our taboo of cousin marriages is unfounded. Some people say that “you don’t have to be Einstein to know cousin marriage is bad”. Einstein married his first cousin. Matter of fact, she was his double cousin – 1st cousin on his mother’s side, 2nd on his father’s side. And his parents were cousins as well. Here are some more famous examples (including Charles Darwin, Jerry Lewis and Edgar Allen Poe):
(Note: some Christians circulate the story that Charles Darwin’s children by his first cousin had heaps of problems. That is an absolute lie.)
Current studies indicate that cousin couples have a lower ratio of miscarriages — perhaps because body chemistry of cousins is more similar. The verdict is still out.
It is estimated that 20 percent of all couples worldwide are first cousins. It is also estimated that 80 percent of all marriages historically have been between first cousins!
The following is Wikipedia’s map of cousin marriage’s legality around the world:
Laws regarding first-cousin marriage around the world.1
First-cousin marriage legal
Allowed with restrictions or exceptions
Legality dependent on religion or culture2
Statute bans first-cousin marriage
Banned with exceptions
No available data
1For information on US states see the map below.
As one can see, cousin marriage is legal in the vast majority of jurisdictions around the world – with the United States being one of the few (and only Western) examples. And that’s only in some states – not all. You can see where each American state stands on cousin marriage here:
I’ll close the cousin marriage section with the following thoughts from CousinCouples:
Looking at the number of states that ban cousin marriages in the USA, one can easily conclude that most states prohibit cousin marriages. If we consider the population of each state, however, we find that most people in the U.S. can marry their cousin.
How close is too close to marry? This elementary question has a tremendous range of opinions along with strong emotional attachments. At one time, the Roman Catholic Church prohibited cousins to marry even if they were only sixth-cousins. Moreover, Pope Zacharia (A.D. 471) insisted that marriages were prohibited whenever any relationship could be traced.
Today, the opinion of cousin marriages is still a hot button topic. Even with science clearly on their side, cousins fight to be accepted by their family and, sometimes, ill-informed doctors and lawmakers.
Why shouldn’t cousins be allowed to marry? Opponents of cousin marriage generally cite the Bible or genetic birth defects. As we have learned, the Bible loves cousin marriages. So what about birth defects? The facts show that first-cousins have the same increased risk of having a baby with birth defects as a woman over 30 or 35. If a lawmaker even thought of passing a law that would prohibit women from having children after they reach age 35, the lawmaker would be ran out of town. This is confirmation that marriage restrictions against cousins are based only upon faulty presuppositions and prejudice.
The map on the previous page perpetuates the cousin marriage myth. This map is not indicative of fact or reason. The states that prohibit cousin marriages should reconsider their marriage restrictions. Most of these laws were passed before modern genetic knowledge, and are in fact, baseless. Case in point: Maine now requires genetic counseling before allowing cousins to marry. The old law prohibiting cousins to marry was amended in 1987. New Hampshire based this on current findings. Requiring cousins to undergo genetic counseling is quite restrictive. Perhaps all couples should undergo genetic counseling before marriage, as non related couples have only a slightly lower chance of having birth defects anyway.
Genetic counseling is a valuable option for any couple concerned with birth defects. This begs the question: should genetic counseling be required for cousins as a prerequisite to marriage? If the purpose of such a requirement is to reduce the number of birth defects, the government should start by requiring genetic counseling for all couples that have an elevated chance of having children with birth defects. Cousin couples are a very small segment of our population with a slight increase risk; however, cousin couples appear to catch the brunt of our ill-informed lawmakers attempt to reduce birth defects. Marriage prohibitions and restrictions for cousin couples defy common sense.
The 31 states, which do not allow cousin marriages, are still in the dark ages. It is evident that states resist change to civil laws. Consider the law that prohibited interracial marriages:
Loving v. Virginia Richard and Mildred Loving were married in 1958 in Washington D.C. because their home state of Virginia still upheld the anti miscegenation law which stated that interracial marriages were illegal. They were married, and then lived together in Caroline County, Virginia. In 1959 they were prosecuted and convicted of violating the state’s anti miscegenation law. They were each sentenced one-year in jail, but promised the sentence would be suspended if they agreed to leave the state and not return for 25 years. Forced to move, they returned to Washington D.C. where, in 1963, they initiated a suit challenging the constitutionality of the anti miscegenation law. In March of 1966, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the law, but in June of 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled the law unconstitutional. Thus, in 1967 the 16 states which still had anti miscegenation laws on their books were forced to erase them.
I must liken cousin marriages to interracial marriages here. These types of marriage restrictions were born out of the Eugenics Movement. It’s the movement that brought us segregation sterilization, strict immigration restrictions (i.e. cousin marriage restrictions), and finally the Holocaust. These laws were based upon “solid” science at the time and supported by top scientists..
Interracial marriages are still considered odd, and is another cultural taboo (in the US anyway) . The good news is that laws rooted in bigotry and ignorance can and must be changed! Perhaps laws banning cousin marriages are one of the laws that must be challenged as in the Loving v. Virginia case.
Love is an intoxicating gift. Love will cause people to do things they might not do normally. For instance, cousin & interracial marriages. Love sees through cultural boundaries. Love doesn’t care what someone else may think. The “normal” boundaries seem insignificant when you are in love.
Everyone reading this has first-cousins in their family tree. If there were any truth to the myth of cousins and birth defects, we would all be in wheelchairs — if we could figure out how to make them.
Avunculate marriage is marriage of an aunt/uncle to his/her niece/nephew. Avunculate marriage has an interesting history, and hasn’t had the same stigma as sibling marriage. I’m not sure what the scientific opinion is on the likelihood of an abnormal child. The Bible only forbids some avunculate marriages:
“‘Do not have sexual relations with your father’s sister; she is your father’s close relative. Do not have sexual relations with your mother’s sister, because she is your mother’s close relative.'” (Leviticus 18:12-13 NIV)
Relations with your nephew is forbidden, but (heterosexual) relations with your niece aren’t mentioned – and therefore allowed. Here’s Wikipedia’s (short) history of avunculate marriage:
Marriages between such close relatives were frequent in Ancient Egypt, at least among members of ruling dynasties.
In societies adhering to Jewish or Christian faiths, such marriages were sometimes allowed. The Talmud endorsed marriages between uncles and nieces; although some early Jewish religious communities, such as the Sadducees, believed that such unions were prohibited by the Torah. Amongst medieval and especially early modern Christians, a marriage between a woman and the sibling of a parent was not always interpreted as violating Leviticus 18; this was especially so amongst the royal houses of Europe and, in Catholic countries, a papal dispensation could be obtained to allow such a marriage.
Avunculate marriage is currently legal in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Finland, Malaysia, The Netherlands and Russia. It’s illegal in most other countries, although in 2014 a New York judge ruled an individual half-uncle, half-niece marriage legal, due to the fact that she was the daughter of his half-sister (and didn’t share the same father) and the genetic relationship was therefore about the same as that of first cousins (and first cousin marriage is legal in New York).
Marriage has a very interesting history (and our taboo of cousin marriage is unfounded).