A nun at the alleged birthplace of Christ. His mum Mary or Miriam, was generally thought to have been about 12 at the time.

A nun at the alleged birthplace of Christ. His mum Mary or Miriam, was generally thought to have been about 12 at the time. Photo: AFP

I HAVE been watching with bemusement the horrified reactions of ordinary decent Australians to the news that a 12-year-old Australian girl underwent a form of marriage with a 26-year-old man, on account of which an array of people - including her husband, father and religious leader - have been charged. The girl herself has been placed in some sort of institution, perhaps for the ''crime'' of being neglected or exposed to moral danger.

The enormity of the case is such that any old person - indeed, even myself - is allowed to opine freely, in the course of doing so giving vent to many of our fears and our prejudices about wogs, foreigners, Muslims … people from different cultures and ''alien'' moral value systems. The sophisticated who appreciate the greatest proportion of informal irregular unions are on Aboriginal settlements are also allowed to parade not only their moral superiority to Aborigines, without actually referring to race, but the urgent need to take them into hand to make them live out the superior values and customs of our Judaeo-Christian civilisation.

That's a civilisation, incidentally, having something to do with the birth of Jesus Christ to a young married woman called Mary or Miriam generally thought to have been about 12 at the time. According to the gospels and tradition, her marriage to her husband Joseph had not been consummated, but the context makes it perfectly clear that there would have been nothing remarkable if such a marriage had been. It also makes it clear that she is regarded as a person who was capable of making up her own mind.

A good many of the problems that beset Henry VIII, leading to the establishment of the Anglican Church, flowed from the fact that his father had arranged a marriage for Henry's older brother Arthur to a Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon. They were betrothed when she was three. She was handed over at the age of about 15. Poor old Arthur died within weeks of all of the ceremonies and she always claimed the marriage was unconsummated. Soon after, she was married on to the younger brother, who later came to think he had sinned by marrying his brother's widow and wanted a divorce, which he could not get from the Pope in Rome.

Catherine was by no means the youngest of Henry's wives to sit on the throne. Matilda was about three when betrothed, and 12 at formal marriage. Mary, Queen of Scots, was only days old when betrothed to the king of France; her actual wedding took place when she was aged about 14. I bet I could readily find many more cases.

There were no priests, parsons, ministers for children, community welfare or whatever proclaiming that these were impossibly young ages for making commitments, or for sexual relationships, impugning the consent of partners, suggesting that the husbands (often no older) were dirty old men, or were paedophiles or predators, or any of the remarks we have been hearing over recent days. No shock jocks seem to have called for the fathers, celebrants or others participating to be put in jail, or hanged, or both.

All of those comments might have been made, of course, but they would have sounded very strange in the societies in which the people lived. (Heavens, to say that smacks of moral relativism.)

In the censuses among the Australian states in 1881, there were 19 married girls aged 12, 13 or 14. These were all formal, legal marriages - there were hundreds more people living in established and long-term relationships not recognised by law. None involved Aboriginal women (who were not counted) and few, if any, would have involved Muslims or people of Asian background. Almost all lived in cities, not in rural or regional areas.

There were 47 married women aged 15 (some of whom would have married earlier), 158 aged 16, and 617 aged 17.

By the first national census 30 years later (when the population had more than doubled), there were also 19 married women aged 12, 13 or 14. There were 93 married women aged 15, 347 aged 16, and 1067 aged 17.

The average age of the husbands of the 12, 13 and 14-year-old girls was about 23, and 26 for the girls aged 15 or 16.

I think 12 is far too young to marry, now or ever. In this modern world, 20 might be, too. I would doubt the capacity of such young parties to give real consent, let alone to understand and appreciate what they were letting themselves in for.

The sexual aspect of the relationship is a factor, but only one, given that the evidence suggests there are many young girls who are sexually active, usually with boys of much the same age. Just as important would be issues of education, economic future, capacity to manage children and life's crises and so on.

To my mind it is not, primarily, a moral issue. And in making it also a criminal issue, we are simply imposing our norms on others, with no particular proof that our norms are justified even by our own history.

The same considerations do not necessarily apply when people enter marriages in other societies where everyday life and realities are so much different. A person giving consent may have a far better idea of what she is letting herself in for, if only because it is much the same as women in that society have lived for hundreds of years.

I do think informed consent is very important, and I do think that in many tribal societies, including some Muslim ones, not enough attention is paid to it. But I do not condemn such a marriage from first principle, if only for fear of offending the blessed Virgin Mary.

One does note, of course, that the more the average age at first marriage increases in such a society (and partly as a consequence the average number of children per family decreases), the higher the average standard of living. This is by no means a coincidence.

Incidentally, the 1911 census report - a document of international significance given its pioneering of so many statistical techniques - records that Australians 100 years ago were no great slouches at reproduction either, even as they enjoyed the highest standard of living in the world.

The census reports 49 families in which the one woman had 21 children or more. There were 27 where there were 20 children, 49 families of 19 children, 130 of 18, and 271 of 17. There were 674 of 16 children, 1380 of 15, and 2743 of 14. In 5358 families, the mother had had 13 children; in 9329, there were 12, while 13,478 had 11, and 20,229 had 10 children.

Also, there were 89,064 couples without any children, and 105,019 with only one child. About 65 per cent of married couples ended up having five children or fewer. The proportion of families that ended up with 10 or more children was 8 per cent in NSW, Queensland and South Australia, 7 per cent in Victoria, and 5 per cent in Western Australia.

As with most matters associated with conjugality and fecundity, Tasmania headed the list with 9 per cent.