Tania O’Donnell, A History of Courtship: 800 Years of Seduction Techniques (Pen & Sword; Barnsley, 2017).
Have you ever wondered why we give flowers to people we like? About the origins of the rhyme ‘Roses are red, violets are blue’? How people in the past dressed to catch the eye? Why the girls in costume dramas always have to have an older lady in tow? Or generally how our forebears went about signalling their intent and making a move? If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’, then Tania O’Donnell’s History of Courtship may be the book for you.
O’Donnell focuses on, mainly British, sometimes American, and certainly Western, courtship, from the development of courtly love in the twelfth century up to (and including) the nineteenth century. The twentieth century is avoided on the basis that its sweeping technological and social changes made courtship a very different game, which is perhaps true, but I would have loved to see the story taken from Tristan and Isolde to the early rock’n’roll which retold their tale so many times.
Nevertheless, A History of Courtship leaps nimbly between periods, from the court poets and troubadours of Europe in the Middle Ages to the dangers of Tudor England, and from the grubby London of the Restoration to the more familiar romantic settings of Regency ballrooms and Victorian studies. The book gives only a superficial sense of how courtship may have changed between these periods but this is understandable given its thematic, rather than chronological, organization. It may even be justified given O’Donnell’s awareness that people themselves change rather less than customs over time and that even some of these have a cyclical existence.
Thematically, A History of Courtship illustrates an impressive range of romantic tropes (love at first sight, childhood sweethearts, kidnapping, elopement, proposal, marriage, scandal) using an equally impressive range of sources (clothing, cosmetics, legislation, letters, songs, poems, plays, diaries, sermons, gifts). The book is well illustrated with apposite selections, which speak to the depth of the author’s immersion in, and the breadth of her knowledge on, her subject. Although this is a slender, accessible volume, these provide something unique the more academic reader can appreciate as readily as the more casual. I found the intricate “lover’s knot” created by a hapless nineteenth century Pennsylvanian Quaker for the unrequiting object of his affections particularly intriguing.
O’Donnell, however, does not concentrate purely on the sweeter side of courtship at the expense of its, sometimes more visceral, reality. Regular readers of this blog will be quite satisfied with the quantities of scandal, prostitution, venereal disease, and ‘Vinegar’ Valentine’s cards in evidence. There is even a lengthy extract from the works of our late patron, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Whilst not entirely alleviating the biases of the more traditional sources, O’Donnell’s approach also helps to draw out some of the leaner evidence on illiterate, poor or gay courtships.
Finally, O’Donnell offers a way of looking at the past that might help shed some light on our own lives. With the benefit of a little perspective, she seems to suggest, perhaps we should not rush to judgement in the present. Certainly, we should be grateful for the relative freedoms we enjoy today and should be cautious of viewing the past through rose-tinted spectacles. Above all, we should celebrate our courtships and not let them end at marriage. Seductive arguments.
Dr. John V.P. Jenkins