Friday, January 4, 2013

Fun Friday Facts #58: Dating Customs in History

Recently, my friend Christina (now 10% less bitey) blogged about some of the weird gifts she’s received on first dates, including a weird little Thai voodoo doll thing made from nails tied together. It has a ball of yarn for a head and a cute little bow in its… “hair.” It’s really an original piece of creep, you should head on over there and check it out.

This post sparked a lot of discussion about whether it is appropriate to bring a gift on a first date, and, if so, what sorts of gifts are acceptable. I, personally, have been the recipient of, on one occasion, a single red rose (was nice, but I didn’t think much of the guy and wound up throwing it away), and, on another, a small stuffed animal (I’m too old for toys, a fact that escapes many. My friend’s kid really liked it though). Neither of these gifts swayed me one way or another in my feelings toward the giver. Neither, however, seemed designed for use in syncretic folk-magic rituals, so there’s that.

1) According to some people, the origins of modern dating go back to the medieval European tradition of courtly love. Marriage in that time and place was used as a type of business transaction, intended to further both families’ financial interests, as well as a way to cement political alliances between families. Love had nothing to do with it. But you knew all of that, because you’re so smart.

The principles of courtly love stated that true love happened outside of marriage, and must be conducted in secret between lovers who would adhere to a strict code of conduct as the relationship progressed through various stages to “consummation.” There is some scholarly debate as to whether courtly love was actually a thing that people did in real life, or whether it was just an artistic convention used in poetry and song. There is still more debate as to whether courtly love was, in fact, used as a cover for adulterous affairs, or whether it was a means of chastely expressing one’s spiritual admiration of a beautiful lady. I don’t know about you, but I, for one, am absolutely certain that, just like lovers of today, lovers of the Middle Ages were content to exchange declarations of love and tokens of devotion without ever dreaming of doing something as awful as sex.

Not pictured: Sexy times. Probably.

2) Dating as we know it today didn’t begin to evolve until after 1700. That was when people the world over began to move away from the belief in marriage as a necessity and in wives, in general, as a form of property. While it would take a few centuries for women to gain equal rights to own property and work, and while women today still don’t earn as much as their male counterparts, people slowly decided that freedom of choice was crucial to deciding when, whether, and who to marry.

While most people think of 18th and 19th century dating as a courtship ritual in which young ladies receive young men at home with the supervision of their mother or another older female chaperone, this was common practice only among the upper and aristocratic classes. The lower classes, whose homes were less suited for entertaining, went right ahead and just went out together like the regular, not-snooty (snootless?) people that they were.

3) Bundling was a tradition that is believed to have originated in Britain or the Netherlands, in which a courting couple were allowed to share the same bed, ostensibly so that they would have time to get to know one another without being forced to stand around outside in the cold. A “bundling board” would sometimes be placed between the erstwhile lovers to keep them from sexing it up. Sometimes the young people were wrapped up tightly in sheets or quilts. It may also have been acceptable to tie the young lady’s legs together.

"Why has the rope been cut?"

From about 1750 to 1780, bundling was a very popular custom in colonial America, where it was practiced not just among courting couples but among travelers and their hosts. Families would allow travelers to bundle with their wives and daughters, using the practice as an excuse to rent out half a bed and thereby earn some extra money. The practice was especially common among the lower classes, who saw it as a way to save candles and firewood without necessarily having to put a stop to the evening’s socializing, and who also couldn’t afford that many beds anyway.

In no way did these travelers take advantage of the ladies whose beds they shared, wink  wink, nudge nudge. Nineteenth century author and historian Washington Irving claimed “that wherever the practice of bundling prevailed, there was an amazing number of sturdy brats born . . . without the license of the law, or the benefit of clergy.” An old man, speaking to his grandchildren about the practice, is said to have remarked, “What is the use of sitting up all night and burning out fire and lights, when you could just as well get under kiver and keep warm. Why damn it, there wasn't half as many bastards then as there are now!”


4) In olden times, suitors presented their intended brides with intricately carved wooden spoons known as “lovespoons.” The lovespoons were intended to display the suitor’s practical woodworking skills to the intended and her family, and, in some cultures, to serve as wedding gift or a symbolic part of the bride’s trousseau. Though the oldest known lovespoons date back to the late 1600s, it is believed that the tradition may be much older. Though the lovespoon tradition appears to be most famously tied to the Welsh culture, it also appears in many other cultures all over Europe and Africa. In France, people wore wooden spoons to weddings. In Romania, Scandinavia and parts of Africa, two decorative spoons are carved from one piece of wood, with a wooden chain linking them together. These linked spoons may form part of a traditional ritual in which both partners eat from the same bowl to symbolize their union.

These spoons are Irish. ~Immanuel Giel

In Wales and other parts of Europe, lovers carved traditional symbols like four leaf clovers, horseshoes, lover’s knots, anchors (which were preferred by sailors), keyholes or locks, vines, birds, sheaths of corn, acorns or oak leaves. My personal favorite, a German spoon from 1664, has little people on it:

Fuck yeah Germany! ~B. Deneke

5) Here’s one I really didn’t believe, but appears to be true. Puritan lovers used “courting sticks” to speak to each other while courting in the presence of the girl’s parents and all seventeen of her siblings. They were kept strictly separated and forced to whisper to one another through a six to eight foot long hollow wooden tube, for fuck’s sake.

This 1954 newspaper column hilariously calls for a resurgence of the courting stick as a means of getting teenage girls off the telephone for a change. It also seems to suggest the courting stick as a means for family members to talk to each other while watching television, so that they don’t disturb anyone else.

I couldn't find a picture of one, so here's the spoon again.