The Concept of Age of Majority
in Roman Catholic Marriage Records

This is part of an article that I originally wrote for the Island Register.

After the last posting concerning dispensations of consanguinity, I thought it might be useful to briefly touch on "ages of majority" as well. This is another subject usually noted in the Catholic marriage records that can help to provide some insight into our ancestors, either helping to confirm other sources or giving some clues where the information can not otherwise be found.

Like the dispensations of consanguinity, there are some differences in usage or definition, which could vary by priest or diocese. However, in most cases, it is fairly consistent. Also, the accuracy depended both on the priest and the person giving him the information. Again, it might take some practice working through a few to determine the exact definition and accuracy for each priest.

In general, the age of majority for females was 18, and that for males was 21. Where one or both was under the age of majority, the priest required the permission of the parents before performing the marriage ceremony. Over the age of majority, no permission other than that of the bride and groom was required. I believe that some Irish priests used 25 for both males and females. Also, some of the records indicate that permission of the parents was granted even though both the bride and the groom were over the age of majority (conversely, no mention of the parent's permission is made in some cases where one or both were below the age of majority).

Many (although not all) of the Catholic marriage records do note whether or not both the bride and groom had reached the age of majority. This might be written as "son/daughter of (not of) age", "major (or minor) son/daughter", or, in the case of French records "fils (or fille) majeur(e)/mineur(e)".

Obviously, we can use this notation to get a rough estimate of a person's age. If a woman was married in 1818 and she was under the age of majority (under 18), she had to have been born c. 1800 or later. Conversely, if she was over the age of majority, she had to have been born c. 1800 or earlier.

When the marriage records are complete and accurate, they can provide a lot more useful information than just names and dates. Along with the dispensations (giving clues into lineage and relationships) and the ages of majority (giving clues to age), they often include: the names of parents, place of residence and/or place of origin, occupation, and, in some instances, the relationship of the marriage witnesses to the bride and groom. Unfortunately, these supplementary facts are all too often overlooked by researchers. Or, where a researcher only has access to transcripts of the records, it might be well worth the effort to view the original documents, to see what information may have been excluded from the transcripts/extracts.

This is not necessarily an easy subject to address, and I will not claim to be an expert on the matter. I do hope that I have provided some explanation to your question. And, I welcome any comments from others who might have more knowledge of, or more experience with, marriage dispensations.