|These 18th century ladies,|
Lady Georgiana Cavendish,
and Elizabeth Foster Cavendish
both married at 17.
While this is true--despite the wince it causes--innocent teen girls were not married off to grumpy elderly men (or youthful teen boys to robbing-the-cradle elderly ladies) as often as you might think.
|When Elizabeth--or Bess's--husband|
died, she moved in with Georgiana and
shared her husband whom she married
after Lady Georgiana's death.
Medievals may have been callous (debatable), but they weren't stupid. If you wanted kids, you waited for maturity to hit. (During the divorce between Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine, those against the divorce argued that Catherine's prior marriage to Arthur, Henry VIII's brother, was never consummated. This is not unlikely: Arthur was sickly and may not have undergone puberty despite Catherine and Arthur both being approximately 15 when they married.)
However, while not condoning marriages to early adolescents (and not all parents of the past did), the denouncement of the act as perverse would have confused anybody up until the 20th century. When middle-age is 35, old-age is 50, and princes are leading armies at 18, getting married at, say, 13 wouldn't seem quite so strange and icky as it does now.
It still wasn't the norm. As suggested above, marriage, at least for the nobility, was as much a political maneuver as a sexual one. Mr. B's sister marries "up" by marrying a lord despite the fact that Mr. B is far wealthier than all the other characters both in Richardson's novel and in my adaptation. For you Pride & Prejudice fans, Darcy is a step up from Elizabeth--whose mother's family comes from trade--and from Bingley--whose father was in trade--but not as far up the scale as someone with a title.
Even without titles, the landed, untitled gentry of the 18th and early 19th centuries considered themselves, justifiably, to be far more powerful and far more respected in their small enclaves than the average aristocrat. This would change by the mid-19th century after which dozens of wealthy Americans would pursue English marriages on behalf of their daughters for titles rather than for land or money. None of them were 13 although Consuelo Vanderbilt was 18 when her mother forced her to marry the 9th Duke of Malborough.