19th century painting man proposing to blushing girl

9.1 Will You Marry Me? (and other proposals)

If you are a member of modern Western society, then you likely have a definite idea of the traditional marriage proposal, even if you yourself have chosen to ignore portions of it. But the traditional proposal is not all that old. Several of its elements are very recent. One is even a deliberate invention of the bridal industry, and many a historic couple would have been surprised or possibly horrified at the whole idea. In this episode, I explore the marriage proposal as it existed in ancient China, Icelandic sagas, and English literature until we arrive at our modern sentimental age where love generally does have something to do with it.

This episode is part of Series 9: The History of Getting Hitched.

Full Transcript

Welcome to Her Half of History. My name is Lori. Before I begin today, a shoutout to my new Patreon supporters Andrew, Teresa, Michelle, and Maria. If you would like to be as intelligent, good-looking, and all around fabulous as them, head over to patreon.com and look me up as Her Half of History or click on the link in the show notes.

The current series is the History of Getting Hitched and this is episode 9.1 Will You Marry Me? (and other proposals).

If you are a member of modern Western society, then you likely have a definite idea of the traditional marriage proposal: Boy meets girl. Boy likes girl. Some awkwardness ensues. Friends and neighbors make a lot of bad jokes. After a suitable period of courtship, boy buys a diamond ring, picks a romantic location, goes down on one knee to declare his everlasting love, and pops the question: “Will you marry me?” Girl pretends to be surprised, blushes, maybe even giggles before saying yes. Or no. But probably yes, and then it’s all excitement and expense and still more expense until the wedding day.

As a modern and enlightened couple you and your significant other (if any) may have deviated from this script a little. The genders, ages, sequence order, or exact wording might change. You may, for example, have been as eloquent as my 12th grade English teacher, who told us he proposed to his wife in the old college dorm one day by saying, “Yeah, so I’m about to graduate and I need a new roommate, you wanna get married?”

You might think that an English major could plagiarize something a little more romantic, but the point is that he and you most certainly had that traditional proposal in the back of your mind, even if you deliberately chose to break with tradition in one aspect or another.

What’s interesting is that the traditional proposal is not all that old. Several of its elements are very recent. One is even a deliberate invention of the bridal industry, and many a historic couple would have been surprised or indeed, horrified at the whole idea. So let’s break it down a little.

The unspoken but absolutely solid assumption behind the script is that both participants are in fact still breathing. In ancient China that was not a given. During the Shang dynasty (over 3,000 years ago), diviners did sometimes ask whether two deceased ancestors should get married. And they asked this even if the dead lady in question had been married to someone else during life (Hinsch, 10).

Shang dynasty oracle bone (Source)

Ancient China also provides us with a truth that will be almost universally acknowledged throughout history: low status women get more choice in this matter because if there isn’t any property or title to be exchanged anyway, people don’t care as much who you marry. So in ancient China neighboring villages would have annual festivals where boys and girls would meet for some official ogling of the eligible partners. The exact customs varied but in the state of Zheng, they picked flowers, held singing contests, and then exchanged the flowers, which meant you’re now engaged (Hinsch, 16). And I have to say, that sounds eminently more sensible than some of the elaborate modern proposals.

But there are reasons why for a very large number of historical women things were not as simple as that. One is the property, as already mentioned. The other reason is the whole purpose of marriage. Our modern age is extraordinarily sentimental, with the idea that all you need is love and that is the one essential criteria for a successful marriage. Most of historical humanity (and indeed a portion of modern humanity), would have said along with Tina Turner, what’s love got to do with it?

Generally speaking, marriage was a legal status that existed to ensure legitimate children and clear property divisions. Legitimacy was important for property rights and sometimes citizenship or social status. Depending on time and place, marriage might also be a religious status. A proposal of marriage was the way to announce that both parties were ready to take their places as contributing adults. They were ready to fulfill the roles society needed from them: economic, religious, and child-producing. Love was not a prerequisite, nor a post-requisite for that matter. In some societies it wasn’t even desirable in the marriage state. So it is no wonder that our entire traditional proposal script needs to be tossed out the window. None of it applies for most of history.

Instead let me read you a very different proposal. This is technically fictional, but its author was a 13th century Icelandic bard telling a hero’s saga. While the exact details may never have happened, fictional accounts do tell us what the author thought a good proposal should be like, and we’ll be relying on fiction for later proposals as well. Here we go:

It happened once that the brothers, Hauskuld and Hrut, rode to the Althing, and there were many people at it. Then Hauskuld said to Hrut, “One thing I wish, brother, and that is that you would improve your lot and get yourself a wife.”

Hrut answered, “That has been long on my mind, though there always seemed to be two sides to the matter; but now I will do as you wish. Where shall we look? “

Hauskuld answered, “Here there are now many chiefs, and plenty of choice, but I have already chosen for you. The woman’s name is Unna, and she is a daughter of Fiddle Mord, one of the wisest of men. He is here at the Althing now, and his daughter too, and you may see her if you wish.”

The next day, when men were going to the High Court, they saw some well-dressed women standing outside the booths of the men from the Rangrivervales. Then Hauskuld said to Hrut—

“There is Unna, the one I told you about. What do you think of her?”

“Good,” answered Hrut, “but I do not yet know whether we should get along well together.”

After that they went to the High Court, where Fiddle Mord was judging as usual, and after he had done he went home to his booth. Hauskuld and Hrut rose and followed him. . . After they had talked much of this and that, at last Hauskuld said, “I have a bargain to speak to you about; Hrut wishes to become your son-in-law, and make an offer for your daughter, and I, for my part, will not be sparing in the matter”.

Mord answered, “I know that you are a great chief, but your brother is unknown to me”.

“He is a better man than I,” answered Hauskuld.

“You will need to lay down a large sum with him, for she is heir to all I leave behind me,” said Mord.

“There is no need,” said Hauskuld, “to wait long before you hear what I give my word that he shall have. He shall have Kamness and Hrutstede, up as far as Thrandargil, and a trading-ship besides, now out on her voyage.”

Then said Hrut to Mord, “Bear in mind that my brother has praised me much more than I deserve for love’s sake; but if after what you have heard, you will make the match, I would like you to name your terms.”

Mord answered, “I have thought over the terms; she shall have sixty hundreds down, which you are to increase by half again, and if you two have heirs, you shall go halves in the goods.”

Then said Hrut, “I agree to these terms, and now let us take witness.” After that they stood up and shook hands, and Mord betrothed his daughter Unna to Hrut, and the bridal feast was to be at Mord’s house, half a month after Midsummer.

(Schulmann 300-301, Dasent chapter 2; the words here are my compilation of these two translations)

Right, so let me draw your attention to a few points in here so you see just how thoroughly it deviates from the later script. First, boy did not meet girl. Not only is this not the bride’s idea, it’s not even the groom’s idea. He had thought about marriage as a generic concept, but he did nothing about it until the senior member of his family thought the time was right, and said senior member chose the girl. The groom is allowed a glimpse of her, presumably because if he thinks she’s ugly the whole deal might be off, but there’s no awkwardness or fear of personal rejection because he doesn’t actually talk to her. He doesn’t even make the initial contact with her father. The senior member of his family does that. The only mention of love is fraternal love, and it’s a show of modesty on his part.

A page from Njal’s Saga (c. 1350 CE), the source of the quoted marriage proposal (Source)

The whole deal is contracted through male relatives and the main questions to be answered are not about compatibility or affection but about finances and social status. Relatively equal money and social status is important and having reached this utterly unromantic accord, the pact is sealed with a handshake (not a kiss or a diamond ring). Congratulations can now flow out. At no point is the bride consulted about anything. She doesn’t even get that glimpse to decide if she thinks he is ugly.

This pattern is remarkably consistent in the sources I read from multiple civilizations and time periods for women of any significant status. Where I saw differences is in what happens after that point.

Some cultures had an actual betrothal ceremony. The English called it handfasting (Yalom, 112-113). The Jews called it erusin or kiddushin (Goodsell, 64). In India they called it sagai. You’ll notice even in the Icelandic scene above they call in witnesses to the betrothal, not just the wedding. This is because the betrothal was very much like a business contract. You’ve got to have proof of who agreed to what in case of disputes later.

Also, it was often binding like a business contract. Much more so than a modern engagement.

A 1683 Japanese betrothal ceremony. I’m not clear on which figure is the bride, but definitely this involved more than just a groom popping the question to his beloved. (Source)

In the Old Testament, a married woman token in adultery was to die and a betrothed woman taken in adultery was also to die (Deuteronomy 22:22-24). If she was unmarried and unbetrothed then it just meant the man in question had to pay her father a bride price and marry her (Deuteronomy 22: 28-29). So you can see that being betrothed and being married are really almost the same thing.

In Ming and Qing dynasty China the very young betrothed girl actually moved in with the groom’s family because they would raise her (Hinsch, 150). Naturally, it would be a wee bit difficult to say after years of living with the family that you actually don’t want to live in it. Not that anyone was going to ask. The point is the betrothal was really the final word.

Ancient Rome had an innovative idea that marriage should be between two consenting individuals, which means you’ve got to ask the bride to say “I do” at some point. But let’s not run away with any egalitarian ideas here. Just how much ability to say no did a bride really have? Most betrothals were done when the bride was very young, like age 7. Maybe 13 or 14 if the family was slow. In modern times we don’t consider consent at that age to have any validity. Betrothal was still basically a pact between two men (Hersch, 39-40).

The length of the betrothal varied dramatically. Obviously, if the girl is still seven years old, you will need to wait. But if the principal participants were older, there might be no reason to wait any longer than it took to prepare a wedding feast. Indeed, there might well be reasons not to wait. A 1649 Transylvanian ecclesiastical law book says keep it short for two reasons. First, because if you wait, intimacy might develop. Remember the purpose of marriage is legitimate children, so we don’t need any complicating questions about wait, just exactly how many months has it been? Second, because during a lengthy betrothal, the happy couple might become (shall we say) less happy. They might quarrel. And it might all fall apart (Szabo, 23).

In modern times you might consider that to be a good thing because let’s face it, if your relationship can’t survive a disagreement, it’s better to know that before the wedding, not after. But that’s because we don’t consider the engagement binding and the financial welfare of your modern birth family is probably not riding on the line should you choose not to get married. Naturally, the family that has shelled out a good deal in gifts and dowries and bride prices is not interested in you going all flaky.

On the flip side, financial welfare might conversely be a reason for a long betrothal. A family might need a long time to amass a dowry or a bride price. Or they might have the money, but obviously, they’d like to hold onto it for as long as possible. I will be talking much more about dowry next week, but for now it suffices to say that greater wealth transfer is associated with longer betrothals (Rosenblatt, 326).

Some societies (even Christian societies) were not always all that fussed about sexual relations during betrothal. Indeed, many a lower class couple didn’t bother to get married until they had proved their fertility by having a child on the way (Yalom, 113). Children were the purpose of marriage after all, so no use getting stuck with someone who’s sterile. The upper class tended to be stricter because … property. It always comes back to property.

So when, you may ask, did our supposedly traditional proposal get traditional? Well, it was a long time coming. The early Christians inherited the Roman idea that marriage required the consent of the two parties (Trakakis, 46), but it still wasn’t consent as we define it today. The late Middle Ages developed the ideal of courtly love, but that didn’t lead to a proposal because the lady in question was always already married … to someone else. Lancelot and Guinevere are only the most famous literary example. There were lots of others.

From a 1443 German calendar of courtly love. (Source)

The Renaissance would take that idea of romantic love and let it grow. By the end of the period love had appeared inside as well as outside marriage, but it was certainly not the prime consideration. Social status still mattered. Legitimacy still mattered. And of course money, has always mattered.

The idea that love should be not just one consideration, but the prime consideration was born in Tudor England (Yalom, 111). You only need to read your Shakespeare to see it. Romeo and Juliet is about the insistence of a young couple in love that their consent was what mattered, not their families’ consent. In Much Ado About Nothing, sure, the family and friends think Benedick and Beatrice should get together, but they don’t arrange it by comparing bank accounts, they do it by tricking the pair of adversaries into thinking they are in love. After that, the couple gets to a betrothal on their own, following much the modern script. Benedick says “I do love nothing in the world so well as you.” Beatrice initially dissembles but eventually admits “You have stayed me in a happy hour. I was about to protest I loved you” (Act 4, scene 1). After a few more eventuallys we get to the actual wedding. But the point was that nothing substantial could happen until a private declaration of love had taken place, initiated by the man.

Not that the old ways are gone, of course, Juliet’s father certainly doesn’t think so. But he isn’t the hero of the story. The times they were a-changin’.

The Sermon on Love, painted by Louis Rollande Trinquesse in 1786 (Source)

If we jump ahead in our British literature, you can see just how far the dial has swung in Jane Austen’s mind. Pride and Prejudice is basically a manual in how not to propose. The odious Mr. Collins teaches us that you shouldn’t start by talking about yourself and another woman. Your bride needs to be in there somewhere. Mr. Darcy teaches us that you shouldn’t explain why your bride is beneath you but you just can’t help yourself. Even if she actually is beneath you, both socially and financially. Mr. Bingley teaches us that when you are really in love you shouldn’t allow your relatives to talk you out of proposing. They have no right to determine in what manner you should be happy.

An 1815 Regency period proposal (Source)

The old considerations are all still there, of course: rank, money, purity, etc. Charlotte Lucas certainly thinks so. She agrees to marry Mr. Collins within a day of his getting rejected by Elizabeth, and in explanation she says, “I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connection, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state” (Austen, chapter 22). Her view is the traditional one, the one most historical brides would have recognized, having not grown up watching Disney princesses and rom-coms. But again, Charlotte is not the heroine of the story. The relationship that women were starting to dream about was Elizabeth’s with the new and revised Mr. Darcy. Love reigns supreme is the message of Jane Austen, who never managed to get married herself. Imprudence is not a good idea, of course, and the way to manage the financial side is to take care that you fall in love with a man of good fortune.

By 1876, the ideal English proposal was highly romantic. Painted by Alexander Fraser, Jr. (Source)

You’ll notice that by this point a man is doing his own proposing and risking his own heartbreak too. But he largely isn’t doing it on bended knee. There is no consensus on when that became part of the script, but it definitely wasn’t until well into the 19th century (Brand). The diamond ring is even later, but I will give that one its own episode, so hold that thought.

In this marriage proposal, the bride is biting her fingernails behind a screen, while the groom waits for her parents to talk it over. By this period, one assumes that the groom has spoken to the bride first. Painted by Evert Jan Boks in 1882 (Source)

The idea that the betrothal was binding was still around too, but it had mutated. A lady was allowed to change her mind. It was a man that wasn’t. Unfair, yes, but there is a rationale. In theory it is a lady’s reputation, marriageability, and therefore financial welfare that suffers if a man breaks off the engagement, particularly if he had seduced her into a physical relationship based on a false promise of marriage. A man just didn’t suffer the same consequences, which is deeply unfair. In theory, he suffered nothing more than temporary heartbreak and humiliation if his lady backed out. In practical terms, this meant that in many jurisdictions influenced by English law, a woman could sue for breach of promise and receive financial compensation. This happened in real life, but the well-known versions are fictional because it became fodder for the comedians. Charles Dickens used it. Gilbert and Sullivan used it. Among others. Use of this law mostly faded as social norms changed, but the last claimant for it was as late as 1969, when Eva Haraldsted sued footballer George Best. It was settled out of trial for £500, and in 1970, England took that law off the books (Legge). Another change for you.

What generally didn’t change was the idea that the bride couldn’t make the first move. But even in that, there were exceptions.

In some of northern Europe, there was a tradition that on leap day (February 29th) a woman could propose, and if the man turns her down, he has to compensate her with something (the exact thing varies from gloves to a fur coat) (Monger, 420). How often this was actually used, I have no idea. But it was widespread enough that by the turn of the 20th century it too was fodder for a long string of jokes and postcards, which were the equivalent of today’s memes. I’ll put some on the website.

1908 Postcard (Source)
Another 1908 postcard (Source)

There is at least one very famous woman who did propose, and she didn’t wait for February 29th to do it. Victoria was queen. She proposed. Albert accepted. It would have been presumptuous in the extreme to do it the other way around.

If you didn’t happen to be queen regnant of a mighty empire, you mostly just had to wait for the groom to get with the program. There were various reasons for that. Society did not value forward, opinionated women, to which I say boo. But there were other reasons too. As dowry became less important, the groom’s earnings potential became more so, which meant it was his financial readiness that mattered, not hers.

What’s less clear to me is why that particular aspect of the script has had such staying power. In the modern world, a bride may have as much or more earnings potential as her groom. And yet while many people are theoretically okay with a woman proposing, in actual practice, very few heterosexual engagements start that way. In 2010, only 5% of all married people in one poll had gotten that way because the wife proposed, and it was no higher among young couples than it was among older couples (CBS News).

I have a theory on that, but it’ll take me a while to explain it, so bear with me. The marriage proposal has changed because the purpose of marriage has changed. For most of human history it was about providing society and your extended family with children (who are an economic asset) and undisputable property claims. Nowadays children are an economic liability, and most of us pay the bills with a regular paycheck, not inherited real estate. We can therefore afford to indulge in a marriage that is about the happiness and fulfillment of the two principal parties. You no longer need to get married at all, and many people don’t. So if there is a proposal, it too can be a little indulgent.

For centuries, the proposal was a man’s domain because the bride didn’t control any of the factors that really mattered. My theory is that now the proposal is still the man’s domain for exactly the opposite reason. Since a woman can survive on her own, since she can freely say no if she wants to, why shouldn’t she wait for the man to be the romantic one? To prostrate himself before her, emotionally at least, if not physically. Let him risk the rejection. The modern woman can afford to wait.

My sources today are all over the place, but I will put in a plug for Marilyn Yalom’s A History of the Wife. I loved that book. As always herhalfofhistory.com has pictures, sources, and a transcript. I’m on Twitter @her_half, on Facebook and Instagram as Her Half of History. Patreon listeners are currently listening to a minisode of the elusive Mary Bowser, supposedly a Civil War spy. You know you want to listen too. Next week it will be all about the dowry in a rebroadcast that explains why Jane Austen needed one and you (probably) don’t. Thanks!

Selected Sources

Brand, Emily. “From Getting down “on One Knee” to the Leap Year Proposal: A Brief History of Proposing Marriage.” HistoryExtra, 27 Feb. 2020, http://www.historyextra.com/period/modern/proposal-marriage-love-sex-engagement-ring-leap-year-women-relationships-when-why-how-history-customs-traditions/. Accessed 6 Jan. 2023.

CBS News. “Why Don’t Women Propose to Men?” Www.cbsnews.com, 5 May 2014, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/why-dont-women-propose-to-men/.

Dasent, George Webbe. The Story of Burnt Njal. Aberdeen University Press Limited, 1861, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/17919. Accessed 5 Jan. 2023.

Goodsell, Willystine. A History of Marriage and the Family. Literary Licensing, LLC, 1939.

Hersch, Karen K. The Roman Wedding : Ritual and Meaning in Antiquity. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Hinsch, Bret. Women in Early Imperial China. Lanham, Md. Etc., Rowman And Littlefield Publishers, 2011.

Legge, Charles. “Love’s Own Goal for Best.” Daily Mail, 5 May 2021, http://www.pressreader.com/uk/daily-mail/20210305/282973927771498. Accessed 5 Jan. 2023.

McSheffrey, Shannon. “Place, Space, and Situation: Public and Private in the Making of Marriage in Late-Medieval London.” Speculum 79, no. 4 (2004): 960–90. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20463064.

Monger, George. Marriage Customs of the World : An Encyclopedia of Dating Customs and Wedding Traditions. Santa Barbara, Calif., Abc-Clio, 2013.

Rose, H. A. “45. Muhammadan Betrothal Observances in the Punjab.” Man 17 (1917): 58–62. https://doi.org/10.2307/2788146.

Rosenblatt, Paul C., Stephen S. Fugita, and Kenneth V. McDowell. “Wealth Transfer and Restrictions on Sexual Relations during Betrothal.” Ethnology 8, no. 3 (1969): 319–28. https://doi.org/10.2307/3772760.

Schulman, Jana K. “Make Me a Match: Motifs of Betrothal in the Sagas of the Icelanders.” Scandinavian Studies 69, no. 3 (1997): 296–321. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40919965.

Szabó, András Péter, and Matthew Caples. “Betrothal and Wedding, Church Wedding and Nuptials: Reflections on the System of Marriages in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Hungary.” The Hungarian Historical Review 3, no. 1 (2014): 3–31. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43265189.

Trakakis, N.N. “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” Roczniki Filozoficzne / Annales de Philosophie / Annals of Philosophy 63, no. 3 (2015): 43–54. http://www.jstor.org/stable/roczfiloannaphilo.63.3.43.

Winstedt, R. O. “An Old Perak Account of Betrothal Ceremonies.” Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 7, no. 3 (108) (1929): 448–50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41559740.

Yalom, Marilyn. A History of the Wife. London, Pandora, 2004.

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