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Statue representative of courtship rituals.

Romantic Love: The Evolution of Courtship Rituals


Courtship rituals have existed as long as the concept of romantic love. Such rituals exist to allow couples to get to know each other, and to allow an intimate relationship to develop. In modern, Western-influenced societies, a ‘date’ may be regarded as a form of informal courtship ritual. Nevertheless, many courtship rituals around the world are more formal in nature. Some of these courtship traditions have survived till this day while others have died out.

The Rape of the Sabine Women by Peter Paul Rubens (Public domain)

The Rape of the Sabine Women by Peter Paul Rubens (Public domain)

The History of Forced Coupling in Ancient Societies

In ancient societies, marriage was not always by choice, but by capture and abduction. One of the most famous examples of this type of forced marriage is the Rape of the Sabine Women. According to Roman mythology, the rape occurred shortly after the founding of Rome. At that point of time, the followers of Romulus were mostly men. Due to the shortage of women, the Roman men abducted women from other cities, in the surrounding region, so that they could begin to increase the population of Rome.

It is thanks to the Romans, that we have the phrase ‘to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve’. According to one account, the Roman Emperor Claudius II decided that unmarried men made better soldiers, and therefore made marriage illegal. He did, however, encouraged temporary coupling. Therefore, on a festival honouring the goddess Juno, Roman soldiers would draw names to decide which woman would be theirs for the rest of the year. The name of the woman would be worn on the sleeve of the man for the rest of the festival.

Detail of a miniature of ladies watching knights  (Public domain)

Detail of a miniature of ladies watching knights  (Public domain)

Middle Ages: The Start of a More Civilized Courtship?

Others, however, have argued that the idiom dates not to a Roman courtship ritual, but one from the Middle Ages. During the Medieval period, jousting was a popular sport amongst the nobility. If a knight jousted, he could dedicate the match to a woman he loved. He would tie something that belonged to the woman, for instance, a handkerchief belonging to her, on the sleeve of his shirt / tunic so as to display his loyalty to her. It was also during the Middle Ages that the famous notion of chivalry developed, and many modern courtship rituals originated in this Medieval concept. Examples of such rituals rooted in the concept of chivalry are wooing a woman with poetry or buying dinner for her.

Medieval Peasant Woman  (Vagengeym /Adobe)

Medieval Peasant Woman  (Vagengeym /Adobe)

Medieval Times: A Fruit for Your Love?

There are, however, some courtship rituals that have not survived till this day. As an example, a rather unusual courtship ritual, in Medieval England, involved women soaking an apple in their sweat and offering the fruit to the man they desired. If the man were to consume the apple, he would be exposed to the woman’s scent. This ritual supposedly lasted until the Elizabethan era. In rural Austria, however, this courtship ritual is recorded to have been practiced as late as the 19 th century. Instead of a whole apple, however, only slices of the fruit were used. The apple slices would be place in the woman’s underarms during balls. At the end of the ball, the sweat-soaked apple slices would be offered to the woman’s partner.

Right half of the Chinese artist Wang Juzheng's handscroll The Spinning Wheel  (Public Domain)

Right half of the Chinese artist Wang Juzheng's handscroll The Spinning Wheel  (Public Domain)

Bonfires and Blankets: Rituals that have Survived

Not all ancient courtship rituals have died out or modified according to the changing times. In China, for example, the Dai people (who inhabit the southwestern part of the country) continue to practice courtship rituals passed down by their ancestors. In one of these rituals, single men and women from the village would gather at night around a bonfire. The women would wear billowing skirts and turn their spinning wheels. The men would be draped in red blankets and would begin to circle the group of women, serenading them with various musical instruments. If a man fancied a particular woman, he would approach her directly. If a woman was interested in a man, she would offer him a stool to sit on. The men would wrap their dates in their blankets and the couples would talk.

Top image: Statue representative of courtship rituals.    Source: Lucian Milasan /Adobe

By Wu Mingren


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dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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