How has dating changed over time? A brief history of courtship

The supposed ‘death of romance’ is a common lament in modern dating – particularly with the rise of apps such as Tinder and Bumble. But how romantic were the courtships of the past? And what did dating look like through history? Emily Brand explores how our ancestors might have wooed a potential suitor…

Two lovers embrace in this 18th century painting.

In western culture, where only marriage could produce legitimate offspring, the wooing of a spouse has been a fundamental part of human existence. The practice of courtship (ie with view to marriage) was often bound by particular rules, especially in the upper classes. Advice on the ‘art of love’ survives from ancient Rome, from medieval France, and continues to flourish today. But inevitably, as ideas and expectations about marriage have evolved over the centuries, so too have the rituals of courtship.

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For centuries the purpose of upper-class marriage was to forge an alliance beneficial to both families, whether that meant the acquisition of titles, fortunes, or the influential contacts of new in-laws. A match was often entirely negotiated by the couple’s parents, and the courtship swiftly orchestrated through chaperoned visits, correspondence and gifts. The roles were highly gendered; one 1670s matrimonial guide declared: “Modesty in a woman is required, Boldness in a Man.” Influenced by the rituals of medieval ‘courtly love’ (a perception of love that emphasised chivalry), expressions of devotion were made through poetry, music, or a well-timed sigh. As for gifts, gold was considered the “vanquisher of women”, though books, ribbons, locks of hair, and coins etched with hearts were also exchanged.

The later 18th century saw a huge shift, as marriage was increasingly linked to affection rather than alliance. Young couples were emboldened to reject parental control, and suitors increasingly expected to “fill her ears with themes of love”. Here we meet a favourite ‘golden age’ of romance for modern audiences: the highly-mannered but love-orientated fiction of Jane Austen’s era.

Advances in technology promptly ushered in new romantic opportunities. As soon as popular print developed in the 17th century, people began placing ‘lonely hearts’ adverts; as international travel improved in the 1800s, more ships of ‘husband-hunters’ set out for British India; reforms and restructuring of the postal service from the 1840s made it much easier to conduct a courtship by correspondence.

In the 20th century, expectations of courtship were transformed by the liberal social and sexual attitudes of the 1960s and ’70s, which initiated a gradual levelling of the power balance between the sexes, and placed romantic love on a pedestal even above the necessity of marriage itself. The recent development of instant messaging and dating apps has opened up what feels like an unlimited pool of potential partners, and often reduces the earliest stage of romantic correspondence to a right-swipe and a brief exchange of messages. And in an age where women are no longer prizes to be caught, the centuries-old advice to “haunt her like a shadow” until she relents is increasingly criticised.

Though many look nostalgically at the etiquette of old, by letting go of the redundant rituals of the past we have gained independence, choice, and perhaps a better chance at finding a loving partnership.

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Emily Brand is an author and historian specialising in the long 18th century, especially the trials and tribulations of romantic (and not-so-romantic) relationships in England. Her new book, The Fall of the House of Byron, is due for publication by John Murray in April 2020 and is available for pre-order now