In honor of Valentine’s Day, I decided to explore a few odd love rituals of the past. Being stuck in a long line to buy flowers or trying to make last-minute restaurant reservations on the night of February 13th is a cakewalk compared to some of the things people of the past had to go through just to court someone.
Courtship with Knives
Can you imagine someone interested in marrying you coming up to you with a knife? That’s exactly what happened centuries ago in some Nordic countries such as Finland. In a ritual filled with sexual innuendos, a girl who was available for marriage would wear a girdle with a sheath, and a potential suitor would place his knife into her sheath if he liked her. If the girl was interested in marrying the suitor, she would keep the knife. If she was not interested, she would give the knife back to him.
This ritual sounds simple enough if the girl had only one suitor, but what happened if two or more suitors were interested in the girl at the same time? Was there a “one knife at a time” or a “first come, first served” policy? What happened if the girl could not decide which suitor she was interested in? Unfortunately, I could not find the answers to these questions.
Bundling for courting couples was in vogue in many parts of Europe and America during the 16th and 17th centuries, although it was practiced as late as the mid-19th century. In this love ritual, couples were allowed to lie down together in a bed fully clothed or dressed in their underwear and talk together through the night with some sort of physical barrier between them to keep them separated. There were different variations on the material used for this barrier:
- Bundling board: This was a piece of wood that fit lengthwise across the bed, turning one large bed into two half beds. You can see a picture of a bundling board at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation website.
- Bundling bags: Each person slept in a separate sack, or the couple slept in a sack for two with the middle sewn up.
- Bundling stocking: An article called “Massachusetts Marriage Ways: The Puritan Idea of Marriage as a Contract” notes that “sometimes the young woman’s legs were bound together in a ‘bundling stocking’ which fit her like a glove.”
According to Kimberly Powell in “Romance Through the Ages: Customs of Love, Marriage, & Dating”, the idea behind bundling “was to allow the couple to talk and get to know each other but in the safe (and warm) confines of the girl’s house.” Was bundling really a good idea? Did these people really think that a wooden plank and a few strategically placed layers of cloth would keep two young lovers apart if they were determined to have sex? For further insight into this love ritual, it is fun to read this excerpt from an anonymous popular ballad of the 1780s that makes a less than convincing logical appeal about the virtues of bundling:
Nature’s request is, give me rest,
Our bodies seek repose;
Night is the time, and ’tis no crime
To bundle in our cloaths.
Since in a bed, a man and maid
May bundle and be chaste;
It doth no good to burn up wood
It is a needless waste.
Let coat and shift be turned adrift,
And breeches take their flight,
An honest man and virgin can
Lie quiet all the night.
Source of the ballad: “The Art of Bundling” by Dana Doten
Besides the probably ineffective bundling board, bundling sacks, and bundling stockings, another odd device used by lovers during the same era was the courting stick (photo). “Massachusetts Marriage Ways: The Puritan Idea of Marriage as a Contract” describes the courting stick as a “hollow pole six or eight feet long, with an earpiece at one end and a mouthpiece at the other.” With this stick, a courting couple could whisper to each other while other family members stayed (and probably listened) in a nearby room.
I have a rhyming question about the courting stick: If the walls of the house were thick, how could the family members tell if the couple was actually using the courting stick?
Photo Description: Welsh lovespoon (Background removed) Date: 2008 By Jongleur100 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lovespoon2.jpg
A more dignified love ritual in Wales, Germany, Scandinavia, and parts of eastern Europe was giving the gift of a lovespoon to express romantic interest. A lovespoon is an ornate wooden spoon carved with various symbols, such as a cross representing faith, a heart representing love, and a horseshoe representing good luck.
While giving the lovespoon was easy, making it required some effort. The suitor was expected to carve the lovespoon himself. Rhagor, the National Museum of Wales website, notes that the “simplest of tools, such as pocket knives, were traditionally used to create the spoons, if possible, from a single piece of wood.” Some of the popular materials used for lovespoons were “closed-grain woods, such as sycamore, box and fruit woods.”
For the suitor, the pressure to create a beautiful lovespoon was high. He hoped to impress the girl and her family with his woodworking skill. According to Wikipedia, the girl’s father looked at the lovespoon as evidence that “the young man was capable of providing for the family” if the young man wanted to marry the girl. A shoddy lovespoon might put the girl of his dreams out of his reach.
Carving, courting stick wooing, bundling, and knife exchanging—love was complicated back then! Perhaps people put so much effort in courting because there was more social pressure for young people to get married and have families back then than there is for young people now. I wonder what future generations of people will think when they look back at our love rituals today. Will they be bored or amused by our heart-shaped boxes of candy, bouquets of long-stemmed roses, and desire for romantic getaways?
I hope you have a Happy Valentine’s Day! ♥
“Bundling (tradition)” – Wikipedia
“Colonial Courtship” – hillcrestweb.com (.pdf file)
“Courtship, Sex, and the Single Colonist” by Andrew G. Gardner – The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
“Lovespoon” – Wikipedia
“Massachusetts Marriage Ways: The Puritan Idea of Marriage as a Contract” – austincc.edu (.pdf file)
“Romance Through the Ages: Customs of Love, Marriage, & Dating” by Kimberly Powell – About.com
“The Art of Bundling” by Dana Doten
“Welsh lovespoons” – Rhagor: The National Museum of Wales website
“9 Strange Courtship Rituals from around the World” by Ethan Trex – mentalfloss.com