6 Historic Sex and Dating Rituals You’ll Be Glad Died Out

It’s fair to say that the social norms around love and sex have gotten a lot more complicated in the past few decades. If you want to go on a date these days, you’ll need to spend upwards of 17 hours finding the angle from which your face looks the most attractive, and then master the fine art of responding to incoming flirtation. Respond too quickly and you look like a desperate loser, but respond too late and you look like an asshole. That said, although pursuits of romance were simpler back in the olden days, they weren’t necessarily better. Not when an argument with your significant other could lead to a perfectly legal deathmatch, or when getting a divorce from your husband meant being sold at auction.

6

Marital Disputes Were Occasionally Settled Via Fights To The Death

There’s a lot of advice about how to resolve arguments with your partner. One school of thought is that you should be like the stream and let everything but the most heinous stuff float away. Another suggests you should jack-jaw about every conflict, sitting down and talking everything through like rational adults so that resentment doesn’t build over time. Of course, there’s always a third option, courtesy of the 13th century: entering into a no-holds-barred battle to the death.

Throughout the Middle Ages, it wasn’t unheard of for disputes to be negotiated via trial by combat. This method wasn’t just restricted to royalty or the upper classes; anyone could participate and just, like, wail on whomever did them wrong. And although they weren’t an everyday activity, fights between husband and wife aren’t uncommon in the historical record. In 1200, for instance, there was a battle between a husband and wife in Bale, Switzerland, whilst another battle in 1228 resulted in a (literally) crushing defeat for the husband, in what must have been some extremely heavy petting.

In one of the few moments in history in which women weren’t being dunked on by the system, the husbands were handicapped during such fights by having to fight from inside a three-foot-deep hole dug into the arena floor using only clubs. Oh, and if they touched the sides of the hole, one of their clubs was confiscated. The wife, meanwhile, was free to wander around the arena picking him off from a distance with, we shit you not, rocks in a sack:

It was such an … interesting … setup that one artist of the day was able to fill an entire book with fighting styles that either side could employ to victory. Victory, of course, is a term here meaning “killing.” Which is probably why we don’t do things this way any more.

5

Spending Your First Night Together Meant Being Sealed In A Sack

Teenagers have forever been easily combustible sacks of hormones and body fluids. These days, we deal with this by encouraging them to wear tight clothes and drink, because we’re incredibly cool. But previous generations weren’t so accommodating.

For instance, in the 17th century, teen couples interested in spending the night together were wrapped in burlap sacks and left to lie next to each other. Known as “bundling,” this practice was incredibly popular in rural areas of England and Wales. It worked like so: When a teenage couple were to spend the night together, the girl would have a sack tied around her waist in order to ward off any intruders. The dehornified couple would then be tucked into bed, and just to make sure that no nonsense happened, they were separated further by a wooden plank.

The objective wasn’t all-out psychological warfare (although that was a bonus). It afforded the couple a chance to spend the night together whilst simultaneously allowing the parents to spend the night without worrying they’d have another mouth to feed in nine months. It was kind of sweet, in a way — one of the first steps toward allowing young people to pick their own partners rather than have them thrust upon them.

Bundling proved such a successful method of boner-foiling that it soon made its way to New England, where the situation reportedly got even weirder. Supposedly, if a passing traveler needed a bed for the night, the wife and daughter(s) of the house might be bundled and made to share a bed with them. Whether this is merely a prurient rumor or not is a little hard to say, but bed-sharing did happen a lot more back then, and craftsman were selling beds with built-in bundling boards. So it’s possible. And certainly one way to boost your Yelp reviews.

4

You Could Carry Creepy, Intense Talismans Of Your Lover’s Eye

If you love someone, you’ve probably spent a fair amount of time gazing deeply into their eyes, lost in the starburst patterns around their dilating pupils (often a green light for smoochin’!), or their flecks of gold, or their cat irises or whatever. Now how would you like to have that to carry around with you forever?

Politely disinterested? Entirely weirded out? Oh.

Well, we got it for you anyway.

These little pictures were called Lover’s Eyes, and were en vogue in Western Europe around the start of the 19th century. Legend has it that they got their start when the future King George IV fell in love with a Catholic widow of two husbands, Maria Fitzherbert. After a lengthy and generally fruitless courtship — including a faked suicide attempt, an illegal proposal, and Maria fleeing the goddamned country — George finally hit on a winning formula. He sent a painting of his eye, with the postscript: “I send you a parcel, and I send you at the same time an eye. If you have not totally forgotten the whole countenance, I think the likeness will strike you.”

Something about this struck her (possibly the futility of trying to escape a persistent prince), because she came back to England and married him in a secret ceremony on December 15, 1785. This creepy love story was the beginning of a creepy love trend, and while it faded out quickly, experts suspect that some 1,000 of these little paintings exist to this day. It’s all but impossible to identify them without an inscription though. The subjects, and certainly the depth of meaning of these objects, were clearly intended for one person alone. Which, while still incredibly creepy, is kind of romantic.

Also they let you lie pretty easily about who your lover might be, which is fun.

3

You Had To Get Birth Control Advice From Illicit Pamphlets

In 1968, students at Montreal’s McGill University had a problem: They wanted to crush some ass, but had little knowledge about birth control or pregnancy or whatever bizarre STIs they have in the Great White North (that might indeed be the name of one). This was all thanks to stringent laws that outlawed the dissemination of such forbidden knowledge. But as there’s no problem that students won’t solve if it allows them to bone or drink, they hit the books, went underground, and mass-produced their own pamphlet, inventively titled The Birth Control Handbook.

Within, students could find information on everything from the menstrual cycle to contraception to sex positions. With regards to birth control and abortion, it gave students everything they could possibly need to know, from information on procedures to broaching the subject in conversation to price guides and reviews of local clinics. As one reader makes clear, “women were desperate for this information, so starved for information … you wanted it, in as much detail as you could get, as graphic as it could be made.”

The publication of the pamphlet was made possible by donations from students, as well as secret funding from Princeton University and the University of Maine, and boy did they do a lot with it. Between 1968 and 1975, they’d distributed a staggering three million copies of the handbook — a figure boosted by horny students in the U.S. writing to get their hands on this mythical book that they’d heard about via whispers in sexual backrooms.

There was another illicit sex guide before this. In the 1830s, The Fruits Of Philosophy informed sex-havers everywhere about the science of birth control. Although most of it is hilariously antiquated, it was one of the first publications to espouse the benefits of vaginal douching with a spermicide post-sex. Unlike the Canadians, the author of this pamphlet, Charles Knowlton, was found out by The Man, fined $50 for flouting obscenity laws, and sentenced to hard labor. You’ll be glad to know though that this didn’t hurt his cause, because his cause was awesome. Case in point: Not only did a member of the jury that convicted him ask for a copy of the book, so did the prosecutor and the judge. It turns out that while they were duty-bound to impose the law, they didn’t agree with it.

They also probably liked to fuck.

2

Finding A Partner Was All About Disgusting, Vomitous Love Potions

When the ne’er-smooth path to love went super off-road in the old days, romance’s four-wheel drive came in the form of love potions. Horrifically disgusting love potions:

The Pitt Rivers Museum/University of Oxford
Feeling roused yet?

That’s ambergris, a “growth” found in sperm whale intestines. In the Middle Ages, they used to make love potions with ambergris mixed with gypsum (found more commonly today in walls), wax, and labdanum (a resin you can pick out of the fleece of passing goats). Is that making you musky? If not, consider the version of love potion recommended by Pliny the Elder, made of hyena eyes. And Cleopatra was said to have imbibed pickled pearls — that’s mushy oyster ooze-grit and vinegar — to keep her, uh, milkshake frosty.

Moving right along the dark tunnel of old-timey love, we see that love potions in France were once made up of natural herbs, natural flies, and natural menstrual blood. And the 1500s love potion of choice was a mixture of periwinkle, leeks, and earthworms.

Raphael
Love and fish-killing are two activities not normally so closely related.

Now, beyond the fact that these potions don’t work (presumably, ingesting this stuff would actively make a person decidedly unappealing), the production and consumption of these things didn’t always end well for either party. In New Mexico during the days of Spanish control, women making love potions — made of fried or mashed worms, milk, bodily fluids, and powdered shells, since you’re asking — were reportedly rounded up as witches. Which ended in the usual theatrical murder of unpopular women, in this case at the hands of men who we’re going to go out on a limb and call unsatisfied customers. Which honestly doesn’t seem fair. If someone hands you a plate of jizz-worm meal and you eat it and suddenly no one wants to kiss you, at least some of that has to be on you, lover-boy.

1

Ending A Marriage Meant Being Sold At Market (If You Were A Woman)

Marriage used to be simple. Two people vowed to live their lives together, angry, on a farm, facing none of the risks posed by extramarital sexting, or extramarital streaming, or one of them taking up vaping. And while that sounds delightful, one upside today’s lovebirds have is that there are options for escaping a doomed relationship other than “selling your ex-partner like an unwanted exercise bike.” Which was something which actually happened.

Up until the 1850s, getting divorced in England involved navigating a complex annulment process or petitioning parliament into drafting a law to allow it, which essentially invited the government to cross-examine you on your erectile dysfunction. In absence of either the money or mutual hatred necessary to put themselves through such a process, it used to be commonplace for couples in rural areas to offer themselves for sale to other potential suitors.

Wiki Commons
This may still be occurring in some of the shadier parts of Craigslist, come to think of it.

And by “themselves,” we mean “the wife.” Although this was a mutually agreed-upon process, there was never any question of the wife putting the husband out to someone else’s pasture. One person walked away single and rich, the other walked away with another husband, and that was that.

Mind you, the wife had some control over this process. In the event that her husband was on the cusp of selling her off to a drunken psycho, the wife had the option to veto any sale that she wanted, thus affording her some hope of being paired off with one of those long-haired lotharios who are always buying women at the market.

And how much could you buy a bride for, you ask, checking your wallet? Well, that all depended on the husband. If he was a businessman, he’d certainly try to get a good price, if only for the sake of his own reputation. But if the husband was a drunken wretch, he’d sell her for whatever pocket change someone had … or a pint of beer, as one wife in 1862 found to her dismay.

When they aren’t ruining history like two drunkards with a time machine, Marina and Adam can be found on Twitter. Adam also has a Facebook page, but that’s only for the cool kids. Uncool kids will appreciate that Marina is behind the times and still needs one — please help her. Thanks again for enduring the punchy puns of Team Marinadam! See you next time!

Also check out 7 Ways Dating Used To Be A Horrifying Game Of Roulette and 6 Reasons Online Dating Will Never Lead To Love.

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