Paedophilia and the history of the Age of Concent
The term paedophilia is used for individuals with a primary or exclusive sexual interest in prepubescent children aged 13 or younger.
Age of concent above the age of 12 is relatively recent (history is filled with paedophilia - where did all that sexual interest go?, did we just suddenly change our sexual interests overnight?).
In the 12th century, Gratian, the influential founder of canon law in medieval Europe, accepted the age of puberty for marriage to be around twelve for girls and around fourteen for boys but acknowledged consent to be meaningful if both children were older than seven years of age. There were authorities that said 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, or if they had already consummated the marriage. Judges sometimes honored marriages based on mutual consent at ages younger than seven: in contrast to established canon, there are recorded marriages of two- and three-year-olds.
The first recorded age-of-consent law dates from 1275 in England; as part of its provisions on rape, the Statute of Westminster 1275 made it a misdemeanor to "ravish" a "maiden within age," whether with or without her consent. The phrase "within age" was later interpreted by jurist Sir Edward Coke (England, 17th century) as meaning the age of marriage, which at the time was twelve years of age.
The American colonies followed the English tradition, and the law was more of a guide. For example, Mary Hathaway (Virginia, 1689) was only nine when she was married to William Williams. Sir Edward Coke "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.
In the 16th century, a small number of Italian and German states set the minimum age for sexual intercourse for girls, setting it at twelve years. Towards the end of the 18th century, other European countries also began to enact similar laws. The first French Constitution of 1791 established the minimum age at eleven years. Portugal, Spain, Denmark and the Swiss cantons initially set the minimum age at ten to twelve years.
Age of consent laws were, historically, difficult to follow and enforce: legal norms based on age were not, in general, common until the 19th century, because clear proof of exact age and precise date of birth were often unavailable.