Mary Beard kindly replied after Heretic TOC queried by email the accuracy of her radio statement that the age of consent in England was 12 for many centuries. The eminent classical scholar conceded that “what happened between 13th and 19th century is complicated”, adding “and how far driven by LAW is not clear”.
Yep, no argument with that. Thanks to excellent work by reader Peter (see comment to Mary, Mary, wonderfully contrary) we can now refer to important information in Carolyn E. Cocca’s book, Jailbait : the politics of statutory rape laws in the United States, which goes back to the English origins of those laws. On page 10 of that book, Cocca wrote about the Statute of Westminster of 1275. She says:
This newly drafted law constructed the crime as sexual intercourse with a female under 12, who was regarded as unable to consent. The offence was made a capital one in 1285, and the age was lowered to 10 in 1576, “if any person shall unlawfully and carnally know and abuse any woman-child under the age of 10 years, every such unlawful and carnal knowledge shall be a felony.
However, it seems the Statute of Westminster was not explicitly repealed by the later Act, so 12 arguably continued to be the age of consent. But if the girl was 10 or 11 years old an offence against her would count only as a misdemeanour, not as a felony. In other words, it was to be considered a less serious offence, punishable “only” by prison rather than by death.
So basically Mary could well have been right, but for centuries the law was hardly crystal clear. The late historian Vern Bullough was of the opinion that the English AOC was raised from 10 to 12 by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861; then to 13 in 1875 and to 16 in 1885. (Bullough, V.A., Children and adolescents as sexual beings: a historical overview, Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am. 13(3), 447-59, July 2004).
Whatever! What we can be sure of is that for centuries the AOC was a hell of a lot lower than it is now. Also, as readers have pointed out, the AOC in question was solely an age at which girls could give valid consent to sex with a male. Unless “sodomy” was involved, any other age and gender combination might well have passed muster throughout most of history.