Sunday, August 25, 2013

Was marriage traumatic for children in Middle Ages?

In the course of discussing child abuse the issue of child brides has been brought up a number of times. While it is clear from Torah and Talmudic sources that a girl can be married while she is a child by her father - we have a clear statement by Rav (Kiddushin 41a) that it is prohibited because she needs to be able to decide who she wants to marry her - and that is not possible for a child. Prof. Grossman has a very informative discussion of the subject (parts excerpted below. It is highly recommended that the chapter as well as the book be read.] You will notice that what we today as child abuse, was clearly not viewed as such by society - including the Christians and Muslims). While apparently largely driven by social and economic factors, it seemed that child marriage was very common. There seems to be no discussion of the practice being overwhelming and traumatic - as we would automatically assume today. This reinforces the thesis that I have raised that psychological abuse is a function of the nature of expectations and that in fact in previous times child marriage did not in fact produce trauma. Abuse today is largely the result of betrayal of a child by adults. A child in the middle ages would apparently have been upset if she hadn't been married by the age of 13. The negative consequences of not having child marriages at that time clearly were greater than having child marriages.
Excerpts from "Pious and Rebellious" Chapter II by Prof. Avraham Grossman
[...] Several Talmudic sages counseled that a person should marry his sons and daughters at a young age, and the Talmud and Midrash even contain clear tes­timony of the marriage of children. On the other hand, there is also strong opposition in the Talmud to the marriage of young girls who have not yet attained intellectual and emotional maturity, and who are unable to judge for themselves the suitability and character of their intended husband, even though from a purely formal halakhic point of view the father is allowed to betroth his underage daughter and such a marriage is considered entirely valid. The Talmud (Niddah 13b) states that: "Those who play with female children delay the Messiah." This is an expression of clear opposition to sexual relations with girls who are not yet able to bear child, which are understood as "playing" rather than as marital relations. There is no mention there of the exact age of such girls, but it more or less overlaps the age of puberty at twelve, as mentioned above. In any event, the expression "play with female children" indicates the extent to which the phenomenon was understood as negative and deserving of condemnation.

In the name of the amora Rav - or, according to another tradition, in that of the Palestinian amora R. Eleazar - it is said: "A man is forbidden to marry off his daughter when she is underage, until she grows up and says, 'I want so­ and -so,' ." This unequivocal formulation ("is forbidden") clearly indicates the opposition to the phenomenon of marrying off immature children and its total rejection from the moral viewpoint, even if it is legally valid. Moreover, the reason given for the prohibition - namely, the girl's right to express an opinion onthe choice of her intended husband and to give her consent-carries impor­tant implications for the woman's status in the family and in society.

Intense opposition to the marriage of young girls is brought in the name of R. Shimon bar Yohai, that "Whoever marries off his daughter when she is   There were many cases of child marriage in Spain. The responsa literature ofthe twelfth and thirteenth centuries preserves dozens of testimonies to this,most of them mentioned in passing in the context of the testimony of a person  simply describing a situation, from which we may infer even more strongly the  large number of such marriages. [...]

Another important testimony is preserved in the words of the Tosaphists. In  their discussion concerning the above-mentioned statement of Rav that it is  forbidden for a father to marry off his daughter when she is a minor, the Tosafot  state that in their day they were not strict about this prohibition:
But now we are accustomed to marry off our daughters even when they are minors. This  is so, because every day the exile becomes stronger. Thus, if a person is able to provide  his daughter with a dowry, perhaps at some later time he will be unable to do so, and  his daughter will remain a spinster forever. 
Another reason was that offered by R. Peretz ben Elijah of Corbeil (second  half of the thirteenth century) in the name of R. Meir of Rothenburg. In his  opinion, the prohibition against marrying small children was only in force in  Talmudic times, "when there were many Jews in one place. But now that we are  few, we are accustomed to betrothing even a small child lest "the prospective  bridegroom be taken by another," In this case, too, we cannot determine  exactly what the rabbis meant by saying "we are accustomed to ... ," but it seems  clear that this does not refer to the practice of unusual individuals alone, a read­ing for which there is support also from other sources. The fact that R. Meir of Rothenburg did not deal with this issue in a purely theoretical manner, but  married off his own daughter before she was twelve years old, certainly influ­enced many other people: "And so did I do with my small daughter. I said to  her: 'My daughter, accept your qiddushin if you wish."' If the greatest Ashke­nazic scholar of the thirteenth century behaved in this way, why should others  take heed of Rav's admonitions not to marry off a "minor"? Rabbenu Tam like­wise testified that in his family they married off "minor" girls, that is, less  than twelve years old. One may assume that the practice of prominent figures  in the community influenced others. The desire to emulate the behavior of the  elite group in society is a well-known and accepted social phenomenon.

In Italy, too, the marriage of young girls was common practice. From the  responsa of R. Isaiah of Trani, it follows that in his day (the thirteenth century),  young girls in Byzantium wcre betrothed at the age of four and five. For many  years, Sicily was under Muslim rule, and traces of this rule were felt in Jewish  society there even after it returned to Christian hands in 1091. The widespread  practice in Muslim society, of marrying young girls to older husbands, influnced the Jews of Sicily as well. [...]

Another testimony of the ignoring of Rav's prohibition against marrying off  a young girl may be found in the halakhic codes of the twelfth and thirteenth  century sages. The "theoretical" pesaq literature is by nature closer to the for­mulations of the Talmud. It follows that these testimonies are of great value.  Thus, for example, Maimonides chose a less binding formulation than that given  by the Talmud:
Even though the father has the right to betroth his daughter when she is a minor or  when she is a maiden [...i.e., ages 12 to 12.5 ] to whomever he wishes, it is not fit­ting that he should do so. Rather, the Sages commanded that one should not betroth his  daughter when she is a minor until she matures and says, I want so-and-so. It is like­  wise not fit that a man should betroth a minor girl, nor should he betroth a woman  until he sees her and she is fit in his eyes, lest she not find favor in his eyes, and he will  divorce her or lie with her even though he hates her.
The phrases, "the Sages commanded" and "It is not fitting," are less forceful than  the original language used in the Talmud, "it is forbidden."  [...]

The marriage age for young boys or men goes beyond the framework of our present discussion. Some sources have also preserved evidence of marriage of "minor" males, but this phenomenon was rarer than in the case of girls. As a  rule, that age was also brought forward. It would seem that the sages' admo­nitions to advance the age of marriage bore fruit. But we must exercise great  caution in relying upon admonitions of this type. Just as one ought not to deter­mine the actual age of marriage in Palestine during the Mishnaic and Talmu­dic age on the basis of the dictum, "Eighteen years of age to the marriage canopy,"  so is it difficult to entirely ignore the impression left by this statement on  people over the course of generations. The same holds true for the similar call  of sages in the Middle Ages to advance the marriage of boys. For example: the  statement by R. Yitzhak ben Shmuel, one of the leading Tosaphists, that a  man should take care to marry his son "close to his maturation." Similarly in  Sefer Hasidim, we read, "Take a wife while you are a minor, and likewise for your  son ... and make sure once they reach maturity that they are married, and find  them a woman to marry; for if you delay, perhaps they will lie with the wives  of their fellows or with alien women ... " "But as for the boys, you should  marry them off before they are grown, lest they say like Samson: 'Take that one  for me, for she is comely in my eyes."' R. Yitzhak Aboab stated that: "The best,  most suitable, time for a match is as early as possible, before he is overwhelmed by his Urge." In these words he relied upon various Talmudic sources, from  which he found support for the view that one ought to bring forward the mar­riage age of men. He also explained why there is no contradiction between this  statement and the advice to first devote time to study of Torah.[...]

The conclusion that follows is that the usual age of  marriage of girls in Jewish society was between twelve and sixteen, while many  girls married at an earlier age, and there were even those who were given in mar­riage by their parents while they were still literally small children. [...]

The reason given  by Rav, "until she grows up and says, I want so-and-so"-which lay at the basis of the prohibition against marriage of minors-was no longer in force. In the  reality of medieval Jewish society, this reason no longer had any significance,  as the parents chose the destined bridegroom themselves, without asking the  girl. Her agreement was a purely formal act, lacking in all practical significance.  This was the case even after the age of twelve. There is abundant evidence for  this phenomenon, discussed at length below, in the next chapter. [...]

The phenomenon of marriage at an early age led to deleterious results in several areas of family life.

One consequence was the absolute dependence of the young couple on the  parents for a considerable period, including total involvement of the parents in  their personal life. [...]

Childbirth at an early age, before the young mother was prepared in either  a physical or an emotional sense, could be another negative factor. It is never­theless doubtful whether this sufficed to increase the number of children in the  family in a significant way, due to the high infant mortality rate in the Middle  Ages. Indeed, pregnancy and childbirth at an early age increased the number  of mothers who died in childbirth. Initial sexual relations at an excessively young  age likewise harmed the woman's health, as was already noted by the Tosaphists:  "and several minor girls are ill from this." [...]

The phenomenon of beating wives may also have been exacerbated by mar­riage of girls at an early age. The fact that at times the wife was extremely young  led the husband to relate to her as he would to his daughter. This was particu­larly true in those places where young girls were married to husbands signifi­cantly older than themselves, which was, as we have seen, a common phenomenon in Jewish society, and particularly in Muslim countries. Moreover, it may well be that the beating of the wife, which was a part of the life of the young couple, also continued thereafter. [...]


  1. It seems to me that your introduction and the article is confusing several issues.

    1) Marriage

    2) Rape/abuse which is usually extra-marital, and often same-sex (Male-Male).

    3) Forced or arranged marriage, whether above or below the norms of its day.

    A forced marriage can be traumatic, whether or not it is above eh age of consent or the norms of its day.

    So there are several sets of data you need to research in order to support the thesis that abuse is a function of expectations. Forced marriage still takes place in many Muslim and Indian communities, for example. But there were times when it was much more widespread and "normal". However, that does not mean it was without trauma.

    Child abuse is quite different from the cases of marriage below the age of consent - since in a substantial number of cases, the husband would act decently towards his young wife. That is not the case with child abuse, as we knwo it today.

    Then there is the question of measuring trauma. How can we measure trauma of what happened several hundred years ago, when we have no ability to do so, and there is no evidence of what was taking place?

  2. Eddie - you are correct that the definitive study has not been done. It is not clear that there is data that it can be done. I just wanted to point out that observed through the lense of the rabbinic literature in the Middle Ages child marriage was viewed as normal in all societies. Child marriage is viewed today as abuse.

    Therefore a number of people have criticized the halachic Jewish position as a sign that Judaism tolerates or even encourages abuse of children.

    Regarding your observation "Child abuse is quite different from the cases of marriage below the age of consent - since in a substantial number of cases, the husband would act decently towards his young wife. That is not the case with child abuse, as we knwo it today."

    Many cases of child abuse - the child in fact develops affection or even love of the abuser. This was an issue raised in the Weberman case, the Kolko case as well as the Levy case and many others. In ancient Greece it was considered normal for a young boy to have a mentor who had sexual relations with him. Many pedophiles in fact view themselves as mentors - not abusers. The process of grooming is exactly developed this way with the abuser being supportive, nurturing and building self-esteem. Look at Jerry Sandusky of Penn State.

    Regarding measuring trauma, I am simply noting that contemporary observers did not mention that there was an issue. We don't need a scale for something which apparently didn't exist.

    1. Also, in the Persian community, almost 200 years ago, when there was a shmad, ie forced conversion to Islam, Jews were forced to take religion underground, and to avoid marrying muslims, would have to make very young shidduchim amongst themselves. This went on for a century. There was a long "engagement" period, which would take the form of marriage at around bar/batmitzvah age. Now, I would agree with you that under such circumstances, compared to relative freedom today in US, Uk, Israel, expectations are quite different. Expectations then were a) to survive, and b) not to be forced to marry a Muslim. Whether psychological trauma existed, and how much of this was due to the marriage vs. due to living a double identity as marrano Jews and outwardly muslim, is not an easy thing to do, even as descendant of those.

    2. Or in Russia where the military draft exempted married men, then at the height of the cantonist system, 12 year olds were taken.

      So perhaps we could say: halacha give us the possibility of child marriage when external circumstances make it the least bad solution.

  3. The problem with you people is that you are confused as to WHO IS A CHILD.

    A child is a person UNDER 13 years of age.

    An adult is a person over 13 years of age.

    Now carry on your discussion. But keep in mind that if the persons are over 13 years old they are adults.

    The ages of 16, 18 or 21 as demarcation points are of recent vintage and are not the normative historical definition of child/adult ages.

  4. In New York State the youngest age a person can marry, with parental/judicial consent, is age 14.

  5. It seems to me issues are still being confalted. being "married off" at age 3 or 13 is not always the same as consumating the marriage then (especially re: marriage in early childhood). It sounds like the historical evidence of true child brides (pre pubescent) is generally of betrothal.
    as for trauma, people had fewer choices in general, and lack of choice in marriage partner was normal.
    that said, it doesn't mean everything was hunky dory for naive girls with little or no instruction in sexual matters married off to much older men, especially at the beginning, especially in a world where the only protection against marital rape was the husband's good will. i believe reports of contemporary women from cultures where child marriage is normal (whether to young or old husbands) bear this out. but if everyone has the same experience, and it's just another one of the ways its bad to be a woman, would it count as "trauma"? and would it even register with observers (especially the males ones whose voices are most often recorded in writing)? that something is widespread does not mean that it doesn't cause problems for participants, just that those problems are either ignored or not seen as as important as other considerations

    [on the contemporary realities of child brides even in cultures where it is "normal," see (e.g. "According to a study by The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), girls in some Indian states who were married before 18, were twice as likely to report being beaten, slapped or threatened by their husbands than girls who married later.") or: ("Young brides often show symptoms of sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress.")]

    1. I was thinking along the same lines. If the rabbis of that time admitted that girls were getting hurt as a result of "playing" with them before they are mature enough, and the very real possibility of physical trauma (just look up "obstetric fistula" to understand how horrible this trauma is) didn't stop the practice of early marriage, why would the possibility of emotional trauma become an obstacle? Even in societies where very early marriage is normal and expected, there are plenty of women traumatized by this both physically and emotionally.


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