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.Modern historians have sometimes shown reluctance to accept evidence of young ages of marriage, dismissing it as a 'misreading' by a later copier of the records.
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.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.The investigative journalist William Thomas Stead of the Pall Mall Gazette was pivotal in exposing the problem of child prostitution in the London underworld through a publicity stunt.In 1885 he "purchased" one victim, Eliza Armstrong, the thirteen-year-old daughter of a chimney sweep, for five pounds and took her to a brothel where she was drugged.It has sometimes been used with other meanings, such as the age at which a person becomes competent to consent to marriage, but the meaning given above is the one now generally understood.
It should not be confused with the age of majority, age of criminal responsibility, the voting age, the drinking age, the driving age, etc.
A general shift in social and legal attitudes toward issues of sex occurred during the modern era.
Attitudes on the appropriate age of permission for females to engage in sexual activity drifted toward adulthood.
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.
While ages from ten to thirteen years were typically regarded as acceptable ages for sexual consent in Western countries during the mid-19th century, Several articles written by investigative journalist William Thomas Stead in the late 19th century on the issue of child prostitution in London led to public outrage and ultimately to the raising of the age of consent to sixteen.