The age of majority in Italy (for working, marriage, emigration)
The age of majority is the chronological moment when minors cease to legally be considered children and assume control over their persons, actions, and decisions; it is, without the legal control and legal responsibilities of their parents or guardians. The age of majority assumes discernment and full capacity to act, except in some cases of disability.
Greater rights, privileges and opportunities are acquired, but also greater responsibilities and obligations. In Italy, men and women, in the late nineteenth century were adults at 21 years of age. This situation continued until 1975 when the reform of family law was approved.
“Social” age of majority (marriageable age and working age)
A different aspect is the social maturity, the age at which young women were able to marry. In the mid and late nineteenth century it was considered that girls were already fully women at 16 years of age, while today they are not considered in the same way. At that time, the expectancy of life was significantly lower than today; the social integration of women was poor, and they had a very poor level of education, being segregated to the authority of their fathers or their husbands. Women in that society quickly arrived to the “age of marriage”, because that was the ideal, the goal of the whole family: it was absolutely necessary to give them a good marriage. Approximately at her 12 years of age, a young woman was physically developed, and considering that the average age of life was about 50 years (in the Middle
Ages was lower, about 38 years), she married early to give birth to children as soon as it’s possible. That was the reason of a woman’s life at that time: to get married and to have children. The age of majority of women was not important, because they had no civil rights. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the average age of marriage was between 15 and 25 years in rural areas of Italy and between 19 and 26 years in urban centers.Men, meanwhile, were able to work at 15 years of age2, starting their first steps in a profession, but they began working years earlier in familiar tasks. If they had the opportunity to work in rural areas, in daily tasks, under the supervision of the family, they could start to work from age 14. Socially a man was of marriageable age when he was 21 years old, although it could happen that he could marry before. At age 20 a young man was participant in an event that marked his entrance to adulthood: the medical examination for military recruitment. Men had to go through this instance and if not performed military service, they were sometimes enlisted in army categories that did not allow the marriage for a certain period of time.
The minimun age for marriage
Under current Italian law (and also in ancient times), the minimum age for marriage is 16 years of age for men and 14 for women, except in special dispensations authorizing the marriage of boys who have reached 14 years of age and girls who have reached 12 years of age. Before that age the marriage is unacceptable.
But the real capacity to act and make decisions in the past, was not really acquired until the death of the father. Until 1975 women in Italy could marry after 14 years of age, but needed permission from the father, who held the power, which could use based in both situations (his daughter is under legal age, but old enough for marriage ) to establish marital ties between their children and the children of related families, for social or economic convenience.
Even men needed parental permission to marry in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Marriage was, for a long time, more a contract between families rather than an act of love. That’s why parental consent of both spouses was always required.
Couples formed by older men and young girls were frequent, because young virgins were seen as “precious commodities”. These young women were not in charge of their houses. Several generations could live under the same roof and new wives received instructions from their mothers-in-law, from their husbands, and from their fathers-in- law.
Age of majority for emigration
Age of majority for emigration: application to “nulla osta” (“nihil obstat“ or “nothing hinders”)
In Italy, to legally emigrate, a man required the “nulla osta”, a written statement, issued by an official authority, which is the declaration of no objection to the initiative of someone’s emigration. The fundamental requirement was to have fulfilled their military obligations: going to the preliminary medical examination and to have served the conscription or have been exempted of service. In Italy, compulsory military service applied to all male citizens from twenty to twenty-one years of age (during the First World War they were pulled out from the ages as young as 18).
Young males between 16 to 19 years of age also needed the nulla osta to emigrate. Otherwise, they couldn’t get their passports. It was the father who had to apply before the communal authorities for that nulla osta for his children, still in age of minority and not having yet served the conscription. According to the Italian law, they could have been exempted reporting a vital necessity of emigration and having brothers or relatives being capable to compensate the exemption with a permanent service to the Italian Army. In general, the father signed an agreement that guaranteed that his son, at the time of his military enlistment, would be submitted to the Italian consulate into the area where he lived for the fulfillment of the necessary procedures for the enlistment.
In the archives of the Italian communes often we found such documentation containing statements of those who wanted to be exempted from military obligations, to migrate, and children who follow their parents to the New World before their conscriptions, motivated by the need to follow their families and for specific economic reasons. There are many communal archives that preserve, too, copies of nulla osta, extended in simple letter as “proven the poverty of this emigrant”. Another method adopted was the request for an extension of the date of enlistment. All of these situations were presented, evaluated and approved by the Consiglio di Leva (Council of Recruitment).