Writing the Middle Ages


I didn’t start this blog to write about writing, but I thought it might be interesting to discuss some of the difficulties of writing historical romances set in the Middle Ages when you want to get the details as accurate as possible.

One of the main problems is the ages of the protagonists. I have usually taken the easy way out and made them older than they would have been in the fourteenth century, although I’ve been vague about the heroine’s age in a couple of cases.

Most women of the class and status I write about would have been betrothed at a young age. Recently I read about a noblewoman who was betrothed at the age of three. Her husband was of a similar age. The marriage would not have been consummated until she was fourteen or fifteen, but that seems to be unacceptably young for the heroine of a romantic novel.

In order not to offend sensibilities my female protagonists tend to be in their late teens or early 20s and the males in their early to late 20s.

This is old for the Middle Ages. Many women had had two or more children by then. Edward III’s wife, Queen Philippa, was a few days short of 16 when she had her first child. I’ve just started reading a book by Christine de Pizan who was married at the age of 15 in 1379. By the time she was widowed ten years later she’d had three children.

When the heroines are older than they should be I have the problem of explaining why they’re not already married.

In a couple of the novels the heroine’s father has used her dowry for something else and she grows older without a husband. Two were betrothed before the start of the novels, but the betrothed husbands went off to fight for a couple of years. One of them was betrothed as a young teenager and more or less abandoned by her much older husband before the marriage could be consummated. The other was betrothed to a man she loved who died in France, allowing her to fall (gradually) in love with another man.

One of my heroines is a nun, removed from her convent just before she can take her vows, and one of them lives as a man. I’m not quite running out of ways to explain away the heroines’ single status when they’re past marriageable age, but it’s something to be considered with each novel.

With the men there is less of a problem. Unless they were the oldest son and going to inherit everything from their father, fourteenth-century men had to find some way of securing enough money to buy property so that they could marry. This would take time.



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life, Medieval Marriage, Writing

25 responses to “Writing the Middle Ages

  1. That’s a dilemma for romance writers who set their stories in the Middle Ages that I’ve never thought about.

    I guess the absence of parish records makes it impossible to get much idea of what the average age (across the whole population) of first marriage was. Though I also guess that the further up the social scale you were, the earlier you were likely to marry. And vice-versa.

    Will you be posting anything from Christine de Pizan? I’ve only read excerpts from her in other books, usually ones on the historical status of/attitudes to women.

    One of my go-to books is ‘Not in God’s Image’ edited by Julia O’Faolain and Lauro Martines. It’s a series of excerpts from historical texts about women, and Christine appears there – though of course most of the content is from men. I bought it years ago, and am so glad I hung onto it, because the internet often makes the early writings they quote from accessible.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I think they married at an older age lower down the social scale. There’s an average in one of my books, if I can find it again. I can’t remember if they said how it was calculated.

      I shall be writing about Christine de Pizan on my other blog, even if I don’t write about her here. It depends on what I come across while I’m reading.

      I wasn’t aware of ‘Not in God’s Image’. According to a Goodreads review it’s a rather depressing read.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Depressing? That’s an odd description. I find the depiction of women in many modern TV shows way more depressing than anything any medieval monk wrote.

    It sounds like the average age of first marriage in medieval times might not have differed much from the Early Modern period: i.e. late teens for the aristocracy, early to mid-twenties for the middling sort, and thirty-ish for the others – who would have been the majority of the population. Plus, a significant number never married at all.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’ve had a very quick skim through the first chapter of ‘Women in Medieval Society’ edited
      by PJP Goldberg and it seems to indicate that most servants of both sexes were married by 25. Some were married younger, and very few were older. I’m not sure how this conclusion is reached, but it’s an academic book, so there will be a proper explanation.

      The first third or so of the book is about marriage. I didn’t get very far when I tried to read it before, but the time might have come to give it another go.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s an interesting point. With increasing longevity we’ve lost track of how short life would have been even for the more privileged classes. For them betrothals would have been about politics and property hence the early arrangements presumably.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. That’s interesting – as usual! A further indication of the trouble you go to in order to achieve accuracy. But, then, the conundrum of what is acceptable to the modern reader. I did read somewhere that people matured more quickly in the middle ages – not sure if that’s true, or not; but if it is, it might get round the difficulty of putting meaningful words into the mouths of pre-pubescent characters 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shaunn Munn

      I’m thinking the risks to one’s mortality & the need to get food on the table & keep shelter over one’s head caused many young folks to be more serious about things. While stories of rash youth abound in medieval literature, I’m thinking the well-off usually spawned such people.

      Others had to knuckle under & settle down or starve! Way fewer options.
      Even outlaws in the woods had to be serious about their life choices. As Ms. Munday pointed out, the upper crust might get away with things, but it was pretty bleak if the lower sorts were caught!

      There were always wild wires throughout history. But I think your generalization might be on target. Good observation!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think they had to mature younger. Life expectancy was shorter and people died for the stupidest of reasons at any age.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I always think of this when someone says “so snd so was only..,when he invented…” I think yes, but his life was more than half over.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Shaunn Munn

    I can see your dilemma! One acceptable, although sad, option would be for the heroine (and hero) to have been widowed once, or more, by the age you require. It happened often. A quick one to mind is Katherine of Aragon, who was married to Arthur of Wales before she married Henry VIII. Though it’s a later example, it’s certainly not an uncommon one.

    Parents, guardians, even monarchs would break betrothals AND marriages! Changing alliances or better offers broke up many. Less important was the temperament of the groom-to-be. Even knowingly cruel or unstable men were espoused to little girls. The key was to control consummation. If it could be delayed, no betrothal was inviolable. Because consummation was the final, unbreakable act, couples were kept in separate households if the guardians had doubts. Some loving & caring parents insisted on the separation until their daughters seemed strong enough for child-bearing.
    Sadly, for Margaret Beaufort, such protections did not exist to keep her husband away. It is highly likely her one pregnancy, & its birth trauma, destroyed her ability to bear further children.

    Many things could carry away an unwanted espoused. First are the myriad of medical maladies — take your pick! Another is an accident; tournament injury, drowning (few knew how to swim), falling off a horse. There were mysteries; went to bed seemingly healthy, but never awakened. Went for a ride but the horse returned alone. No trace of the body ever found!

    But the most gruesome (yet most intriguing) would be murder. Jealousy, opportunities of fortunes, anger! Perhaps an avaricious & conniving father (or stepfather!) dies & the surviving wife wants to save her betrothed 12-year-old daughter from imminent nuptials with an evil man! She agrees to marry again if the new husband will do away with an ogreish soon-to-be son-law!

    And what’s wrong with the heroine being a consummated widow? That happened often. Does she always have to be a snow-pure virgin? If she were a virtuous wife & torn with emotion at the thought of a new marriage; wouldn’t that work? She could be fearful of men depending on the treatment meted out by the dead spouse. If he were mean or loving, either could make her apprehensive of the next guy. Would he be better or worse?

    The sure thing was that there WOULD be a husband, or off to the nunnery she went! Unless she escaped, attached herself to the tail of an army & became a harlot, the times demanded that women be married. Even elderly widows either needed a husband or attached themselves to a convent for the protection of their good names & to avoid being accused of things like witchcraft. Some could pull it off. Proud Cis of York (Cecily Neville) did, but she had great power & a huge household of minions to attest to her character. It helped that she spent her last years in pious pursuits.

    And it does seem that women in lower circumstances were older when married. This might be misleading. Often, women simply took up with a man & married later. In parts of Scotland all a couple needed to do was tell someone they were married, if they were even asked. That was all! When folks didn’t have much and were tied to the land of their lords, why the rush to the altar? If Mack & Mab took up together, it was generally for life. And if one didn’t have the money to pay the priest (some had to, others didn’t), neighbors usually understood & gave them leeway.

    Wealth was the key. The more you had, the more that marriage brokering mattered!

    You have plenty of options, Ms. Munday! Go for it! I haven’t yet been able to read one of your novels, but I KNOW you’ll succeed with your storylines! You’re a careful researcher, great at catching & keeping attention, and have a fertile imagination! I have no doubts of your ability to create great and believable stories! Heartfelt best wishes for your success!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shaunn Munn

      When I mentioned the idea of doing away with an ogreish future son-in-law, I am thinking the concerned mom might be only 25 years old herself! A great age for a protagonist! Second hubby could be the hero who finds a way to get rid of the espoused. Legally & aboveboard!

      Just thinking . . . . . . .

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Shaun. You’re right about widows. They tended to marry again, no matter how wealthy they were in their own right.

      You’re also right about people lower down the social scale getting together and marrying later. They usually waited until the woman was pregnant, demonstrating her fertility. They didn’t need money to pay a priest, though, as they didn’t need a priest to get married.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Blimey that was a thread and a half! For myself I quite like reading the reality, I am not offended by what happened in the past, tell it how it was, not how people think it should have been, we all think now that marrying young is wrong, but it wasn’t back then. But I’m just a reader and not trying to sell books so my advice may well be ignored. 😊

    Liked by 3 people

  8. I meant to add, but forgot because I was on my tablet, that not all readers are as mature in their attitude as you are and, yes, your views as a reader are very important.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shaunn Munn

      Yes, due to the proliferation of child abuse today, it doesn’t pay to rile the folk who don’t know, or care to know, how things were long ago. The mores of today are their yardsticks. We’re more confined in these modern days than one might believe! You’d probably have to provide a chapter-long, moralistic, explanatory prologue, and STILL not satisfy some!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. The heroine was under an enchantment and was twenty-seven before anyone understood that she wasn’t a frog?

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Very interesting to hear about some of the issues you face in writing.

    Liked by 1 person

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