Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What's Love Got To Do With It?...18th century courtship and marriage

"The Judicious Lover" 18th century after Hubert Gravelot
In the early 18th century, whether you married for love or money was often a matter of socioeconomic class. As in ladies’ fashions, the higher your social status, the lower your ability to do as you pleased. For the upper class, marriage was an arrangement made by parents seeking to cement the foundations of their wealth and power in the community. Any notions of romance were seen as secondary and, in truth, detrimental to such pairings. It was a thoughtful business decision set apart from the mercurial passions of the young people. Love, as such, was something one might grow into as the couple lived out their respectable, marriage contract. (Or…attained outside the bonds of marriage.) Young women, especially, had little to say in the matter and knew, once they were married, any small amount of independence they currently enjoyed was put to an end as their husbands would have complete legal control over them. If a young man’s attention was independently drawn to a particular lady, he would first have to receive the permission of his own father who, if he approved of the potential match, would send a formal request to the young lady’s father. The two patriarchs would meet and discuss the financial arrangements and if a 
"Conversation in a Park" (1768) Thomas Gainsborough
satisfactory deal was made, the son was given permission to court the object of his affections prior to the agreed-upon marriage (whether or not the young lady had any interest at all.) If a young couple fell in love without the approval of their fathers, their only choice was to dissolve all financial ties and rights from their families, losing any inheritance they may have expected, and set out on their own. In today’s world of modern love and independence, that choice may seem a no-brainer but it was a very difficult move in the early 1700s. In some areas, the unapproved suitor could be sued by the young woman’s father for inveigling her affections, gaining her love through trickery. It was not until the mid to late 18th century that parental control diminished and young people of the upper classes were freer to court and marry based on romantic love.

"Haymaker and Sleeping Girl" (1785) Thomas Gainsborough
Now of course, if you were born into a lower rung of the societal ladder, your choices for courtship and marriage were much broader since wealth and status were not part of the
equation. That did not mean, however, families felt no responsibility for their children's welfare. The practice of “bundling” in which a courting couple were allowed to sleep in the same bed, fully clothed with a bundling board or bolster between them in the young lady’s family home, served a dual purpose. In many lower income families, everyone slept in the same room, and it was a means in which not only the young lovers could get to know each other better but also as a way of proving the identity of the unborn baby’s father if things progressed, as they so often would, despite the physical barriers.

 In this more relaxed attitude toward courtship and marriage, there were varied forms of marriage agreements in the early 1700s, not all dependent upon a minister or magistrate. One of the more prevalent means was “handfasting” or “spousal” in which the young couple, with or without witnesses, simply held hands and promised love and loyalty, declaring themselves married. These personal ceremonies were held anywhere the couple chose and in Colonial America
"Young Girl Listening to Conversation Between Two Lovers"
(1789) by Michel Garnier
were often performed over an anvil in a blacksmith’s shop, symbolizing the strength of their bond. Some were held right in the bedroom just prior to conjugal bliss. Since a number of those husbands disappeared by morning’s light, the bride would sometimes hide her friends in the closet as witnesses to
the ceremony. For spousals that were sincere, the couple often gave each other the gift of a half a broken silver sixpence which each kept until death did them part. Another custom was called “spousal de futuro,” which was an announcement of engagement, but if a baby was conceived in the interim, the status was automatically elevated to “spousal.”

"The Joys of Motherhood" (1752) by Jean-Honore Fragonard
Remember this old chant from your childhood?  “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes (insert name of choice) with a baby carriage.” As you can see, in the early 18th century, the order of events could take any number of variations and, come to think of it, that’s not so different from today, after all!

Have a good week, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...Y'all come back now!


Bevan Wasserman said...

Very interesting! I'm glad some things have changed since then!

Kathryn Louise Wood said...

You and me both, Bevan! Thanks for reading. :>)