Beyond History Blog

Coming of age - then and now

Heike Leiacker - 24. June 2022 - Genealogy, General, Germany, Hamburg, Historical Documents, History, Knowledge

Finally being an adult and thus beeing self-determined! The age of majority is often longed for. In Germany, for example, you have then full legal capacity to conclude contracts of all kinds, the ability to legally buy alcohol and tobacco products, to go to nightclubs, to vote, to freely determine your place of residence, and to marry without the permission of your legal guardians or a family court. However, you also have to live with the consequences of your own actions.

To be considered legally as an adult has therefore advantages and disadvantages (even if there are still transition periods e.g. in the criminal law). In the last 150 years or so, the legal age of majority in Germany has been lowered several times. Today it is 18 years.

For genealogy the age of a person and especially the age of majority play a not unimportant role, too. Depending on the age of a person, other sources may become relevant for the research. Also additions like "volljährig" (of full age), “grossjährig” (of “great” age), "majorenn" (from Latin majorennis which comes from maior annis, meaning greater in years), "major" or, in contrast, such as “minderjährig” (minor), “halbwüchsig” (half-grown), "minorenn" or "minor" can also help to determine the approximate age of a person and thus, for example, to find out (or at least to find a hint) which of potentially several persons with the same names a particular one might be.



Volljährig, mündig, grossjährig or majorenn?

The term “mündig” (being capable, meaning being entitled to perform certain legal acts) is sometimes used synonymously with being of age. However, it does not necessarily mean the same thing. “Mündigkeit” (capacity) and “Volljährigkeit” (legal age of majority) are usually linked to certain age limits, which often coincide (at least when it comes to the actual full capacity). In most German states, however, "Mündigkeit" (in the sense of a limited capacity to act) occurred before 1875 at the age of 18, but "full capacity" was then achieved only with the later legal coming of age. Being capable to marry does not necessarily have to coincide with the legal age of majority either.

In addition, persons may also be declared “capable” before the specified age under certain circumstances, or they may be declared “incapable” after the age of majority. The information "mündig" on old German documents should therefore not necessarily be equated with coming of age.

In church books you can also often find the term "grossjährig". This usually is a synonym for coming of age. Other terms that can indicate majority in old documents are "majorenn" (Majorennität; or also majorennis in Latin writings) or "major".



Coming of age in Germany before 1975

In the Federal Republic of Germany you come of age with 18 years since 01 Jan 1975. In the German Democratic Republic (GDR) adulthood already started with 18 years from 1950 onwards.

For a long time the individual countries, sometimes in individual provinces, principalities and counties had quite different age limits for coming of age. Before the introduction of the uniform age for coming of age with 21 years in the German Empire starting from 01 Jan 1876 it was mostly at 25 years (on the basis of the reception of Roman right). However, there were exceptions. In Baden, Bavaria and Saxony, for example, people came of age at 21, and in Oldenburg at 24. In Prussia, too, people came of age at 24 until 1870 (according to the general law of the land), but then at 21 as early as mid-1870.

In some cases, men and women were measured differently. In our hometown of Hamburg, a man came of age at the age of 22 until 1870, a woman at the age of 18 - and from the middle of 1870 both at the age of 21.

In the Middle Ages, on the other hand, the age limits were usually much lower.

Which age was valid can become quite relevant for the own genealogy research, e.g. to be able to estimate the age of a person better or also to know from what age onwards the examination of certain documents might be helpful. Often, for example, civil rights and military obligations were tied to the age of majority.



Other countries, other customs

In many other countries, other age limits still apply, but most of them are now between 18 and 21 years. What one is allowed to do as an adult and what is possible before or even later can differ considerably.

For most of France, the age of majority of 21 years was already valid from 1792 (since 1974 it has been 18 years). The age limit of 21 also applied in Limburg and Alsace-Lorraine and until 1975 in Luxembourg.

In Austria, the age of majority has been 18 since 2001 (previously it was 19 from 1973, 21 from 1919, and 24 from 1811). In Switzerland, on the other hand, the age of majority has been 18 since 1996; previously, it was 20.

In the US, the age of majority is mostly 18, although certain rights are not acquired until the age of 21.

But there are also some countries that set the age of majority much lower. Examples are Yemen, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam, where the age of majority is 16. There are also still countries that apply different standards with regard to gender (often at least partly to “allow” women to marry earlier): In the Philippines, women come of age at 18, men not until 21, and in Iran, since 1981, the age of majority has been 15 (lunar) years for men and 9 (lunar) years for women.

An overview of different countries today can be found for example here.



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