The lives of medieval people were generally tougher and shorter than ours, so their approach to marriage was pragmatic. But people courted, fell in love, and had ‘commerce’ (sex). Love did play an important part in the medieval mind and to quote Thomas à Kempis, German monk and writer of the period:
'Nothing is sweeter than love, nothing higher, nothing stronger, nothing larger, nothing more joyful, nothing fuller, and nothing better in heaven or on earth'
Dating is tough in every era, especially in the dark ages, but how did medieval folk go about finding love. Check out these top tips to find out how.
Tip 1: Dater collection – scope out the scene!
Were there many single people in medieval England? Yes. Women from the ‘lower’ classes would often have to work a few years to save up for a dowry (a marriage payment from the bride’s side), having, therefore, a longer and perhaps freer ‘maidenhood’.
Aristocratic singletons, though, didn’t tend to be unattached for long, and in fact, many married in their teens. Their marriages were arranged and often the king or queen would get involved, as they had a big say in the marital lives of the nobility. Lucy of Bolingbroke (1074-1136), after the death of her third and final husband, paid King Henry I 500 marks for the right to remain single.
Tip 2: Don't be a knave: Beware of young lovers!
Young medieval daters had to be cautious. Many people would typically grow up in an environment where there were other unrelated single people close by. An apprentice living with his master and her daughter, farmhands gawping at milkmaids, young lords dallying with servant girls – these are cliché today but were the reality for many people in the Middle Ages.
If the families approved of the match, it would often lead to marriage, but secret flings were frowned upon, to say the least, and were often seen as a sign of potential trouble – hence the English ballads that would warn of ‘knaves’ preying on young ‘fair maids’ at country fairs.
Tip 3: Be romantic - with letters and sinks!
Medieval marriages tended to be negotiations, particular around the dowry, but it wasn’t all about money.
Perhaps the oldest Valentine’s letter in the English language was written by Margery Brews (d. 1495) to her fiancé John Paston (1444-1504) in February 1477. In her passionate letter to her ‘well-beloved Valentine’, she says that her father is not going to increase her dowry but that if John loves her he should still marry her. A deeply heartfelt and personal letter, Margery implores John to share the letter with no other ‘non-earthly creature save only [him]self’.
Love tokens were commonly exchanged between people during courtship. Andreas Capellanus, the 12th-century author of De Amore, a guide to courtly love, listed several love tokens in common use, including purses, rings, mirrors, girdles, and washbasins.
Tip 4: Show them your lance!
Courtly love and chivalry were important facets of medieval society and culture. The centrepiece for this culture was the tournament.
Tournaments came about in England in the 12th century. They typically consisted of jousting and melees. Melees were big, organised fights between knights that were not expected to be dangerous but occasionally resulted in serious injury or death.
Tournaments were considered a ‘respectable’ place to meet people, or, in modern parlance, to be ‘on the pull’. It was a place where heroic knights jousted and paraded themselves while noble maidens looked on adoringly. Some contemporary conservative commentators, however, complained that tournaments were places of frivolity and lust.
Tip 5: Remember to look at the ceiling when you burp!
If a medieval singleton was invited to the family home of their potential mate they would be well to remember the following genuine Middle Ages etiquette:
Keep your hands clean – don’t stroke the dog or cat! Be sure to wipe your fingers on the tablecloth instead of licking your fingers.
Bones are not to be gnawed and don’t pick your teeth with a ‘sharp iron’.
Don’t eat with a fork! (Forks were used to prepare food, but most medieval Europeans thought forks were an odd thing to eat with.)
Don’t eat with a knife, either! (Many people carried a knife with them on their belt to carve up food before eating.)
OK, if it’s liquid, use your spoon! (People tended to eat with their hands for everything else.)
Don’t sit too close to the salt cellar! (Salt was expensive and associated with prestige – so a good dating tip at a big dinner would be to see who is sat closest to the salt cellar.)
You can burp – but look at the ceiling as you do so!
And remember, you must not urinate at all in the host’s premises unless you are staying overnight and it’s before bed.
Tip 6: Look for beauty, family – and riches
John Balbi’s 1286 book Catholicon advised women to care about the following in a potential husband: ‘manly virtue’, ‘family’, ‘beauty’, and ‘wisdom’. A husband should look for the following in a potential wife: ‘beauty’, ‘morals’, ‘family’, and ‘riches’.
Tip 7: Dress to impress – but not too much!
Medieval women getting ready for a date should wear their tallest steeple hat and their best dress (perhaps the one with the detachable sleeves, as was common), topped off with their finest linen wimple. This helped to elongate the neck - a long neck on women was considered beautiful.
Men should remember on a date to wear their best gown and hose (tights). Don’t dress too posh, though – the ‘sumptuary laws’ of late medieval England, such as the Statute Concerning Diet and Apparel of 1363, tried to ensure that citizens did not dress, or consume, above their social ‘status’. These rules included what kinds of fur trim could be worn and by whom.
Tip 8: Stock up on stale sheep’s urine and bull’s blood!
Here are some beauty tips for women stepping out on to the medieval dating scene:
- Pluck your eyebrows and move your hairline back! (A high forehead was considered attractive. One hair removal recipe was a mixture of vinegar, ant eggs, and ivy.)
- Whiten your face! (Paleness was considered beautiful, and to achieve this some women would apply mixtures to the skin such as white lead powder mixed with sheep fat.)
- Hide those birthmarks and moles with homemade concealer! (These ‘blemishes’ were sometimes associated with witches in the Middle Ages. One popular concoction was a face mask of bull’s or hare’s blood.)
- Go blonde with organic hair dye! (Flaxen hair for women was considered the most beautiful. Women who were not blonde could try a hair dye made from stale sheep’s urine and saffron!)
Tip 9: Guys, read up on Daniel of Beccles!
Daniel of Beccles wrote a popular 13th-century etiquette book. Regarding appearance, he said that a man’s hair should be neatly styled, with a beard that was neither long nor shaggy, nails should be attractive, and teeth should be kept clean.
One recipe for teeth cleaning in the Middle Ages was to mix sage leaves with salt, roll into balls, bake them into a powder, then rub into the teeth. Sage advice indeed!
Tip 10: Hemlock for your privy parts, sir?
While the medieval church made it clear that sex outside – and for some clerics, inside! - marriage was sinful, literary and documentary evidence suggests medieval Brits were randy as rabbits.
The naughty bits from Chaucer, such as the teenage wife Alisoun of The Miller’s Tale cuckolding her older husband and then tricking a young man into kissing her ‘naked ers’, were, like all of The Canterbury Tales, intended to be read aloud!
If a medieval couple did get frisky, then, they may want to take precautions. In his book The Treasure of the Poor, 13th-century author Peter of Spain provided some ballsy contraceptive advice – the man should put a plaster of hemlock (a poisonous plant native to Europe) on the testicles before sex!
The writings of Persian physician Abū Bakr Muhammad Zakariyyā Rāzī (854-925) became popular in Europe through later translations. Among his contraceptive advice included applying cedar oil onto the nether regions before intercourse for a man or after for a woman. He also said that if the woman jumps backwards after sex ‘the seed will fall out’.