We hear a lot about the so-called "golden age" of dating — the early '50s and '60s, where men brought flowers, opened doors, and generally behaved as if their date was a piece of fine china without any agency — and how modern casual attitudes have made the process both less formal and less magical. But it's important to remember that taking a girl to a drive-in movie and sharing a milkshake on the way home, (while it might seem charmingly complicated and puritan to us), is actually pretty damn daring when you look at the history of dating and courtship. Throughout history, people have concocted all kinds of ways to express love and propose marriage in the confines of their societies — and they've had to get very inventive.
Yes, once you look at the hoops Victorians had to jump through to get hitched, you might even be glad for the relaxation of a Tinder swipe.
But courtship hasn't always been about the end game of getting up the aisle. Medieval romantic tradition, for instance, was dominated by courtly love, which required men to poetically idealize ladies who were completely inaccessible or out of their league (which usually meant either "married" or "dead"). They'd express their abject servitude to their lady at great length, and enjoy the dramas of an impossible love, without actually requiring anybody to do anything. And from 1740 to 1820, English literature was flooded with novels by women about how confusing courtship was, and how to do it properly. But other societies in Europe have enjoyed the rituals, twisting themselves into knots for the fun of it.
So here are six of the most hilarious archaic dating rituals in history. Think of these poor people with sympathy next time you casually add an "xx" to the end of a text.
1. Men Whittling Love Spoons
What do you do if you're a Welsh man who wants to spend some time with your prospective love? Why, you sit in her parlor with her family, keeping yourself busy by whittling wood into the shape of spoons/your sexual frustration, which you can then present with a winning expression. Welsh "love spoons" date back to the early 17th century, and were designed to be made out of a single piece of wood to demonstrate the carver's prowess.
The best bit? There was a language to these love spoons: Flowers, hearts and locks and keys were pretty self-explanatory, but a wheel meant "I will work for you," while putting a twist in the wood meant "togetherness 4ever." (You can still get these at tourist places in Wales, though they're vastly inferior.) If you were more practical, you could whittle your love a knitting sheath for her needles instead — with all the implications therein.
2. Year-Long Competitions
While women in ancient Greece and Rome had little to no say in choosing their husbands, the process by which their guardians selected one was probably quite entertaining for them. If things went well, suitors competed by offering bridewealth (cash money) — but, if the bride's father was a particularly sadistic sort, the suitors had to compete for her instead. Not in ways that meant anything about being a loving husband, obviously: tests ranged from chariot racing to singing and grueling interviews with the bride's family.
One of the most famous bride competitions, from the historian Herodotus, involved the king Cleisthenes, who made his daughter's suitors compete for an entire year (the favorite ruined his chances when he got drunk on the last day and did handstands at a party). Really.
3. Coded Fan Language
In the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe, a "fan language" developed for women to be able to communicate to interested parties without opening their mouths. Folding hand fans were used to send signals as various as "Do not betray our secret" (covering your left ear with an open fan), "You are cruel" (opening and shutting the fan), and "Do you love me?" (presenting a shut fan).
The diversity of signals was astonishing, and the sound of all the women in a ballroom rapidly rotating and shutting fans must have been amazing.
4. Sack Cuddling
This just seems highly practical: a practice called bundling appeared in the 19th century (supposedly in the Netherlands before spreading to Britain and Pennsylvania) involving putting prospective couples in two sacks and letting them "sleep" together. It was actually rather kind; rather than letting two strangers marry, each partner was put inside a sack, and they were allowed to get to know each other, talk, and even spoon — without any premarital hanky-panky.
We don't know how common this was, but it certainly seems to be nicer than being shoved down the aisle with a person you've never exchanged four words with.
5. Victorian Dance Cards
Nobody did regimented courtship like the Victorians. In a society so extraordinarily touchy about sex, unsurprisingly, the burgeoning of relationships between men and women was incredibly controlled and done entirely in public view. Going anywhere without a chaperone as a young woman? What are you, a prostitute?
At least young women had a bit of a choice, though. The most common courting ritual was the giving of cards at dances, which were the main mixing grounds for different genders among the Victorian English. Men filled out their names on a woman's dance card (basically a roster), which she wore delicately tied around her wrist, and left their personal calling cards if they wished to call on her at home at a later point.
If the woman liked what she saw, she gave him her card, and the courtship was on.
6. Sexy Belts
There was a trend in the Italian Renaissance for prospective lovers to give their lady friends erotically inscribed belts. Belts pop up in a lot of poetry of the time, as symbols of sexuality and beauty which women of all societal positions could wear and receive as gifts: at one point in Boccaccio's Decameron , a woman seduces a man by giving him her belt (via a friar, who thought he was returning an unwanted gift). There's a particularly famous belt from Italy which was presumably given to a woman, with a highly erotic poem embroidered on the inside; it begins "I will burn even as a phoenix/with the fire of your kisses/and will die."
Guys. Let's bring this back.
Images: Informant Media Beachfront Films Forthcoming Productions; The British Museum, Wikimedia Commons, Don Rittner, BBC