A Trial Marriage
In effect, trial marriages are common enough today. At many of the weddings we play at with a string quartet, or where we put on ceilidhs and barn dances , the children of the couple getting married are present. Back in the 1960s, and even in the 1970s when I got married, this would not have been the done thing. People didn't live together before getting married, or at least it was relatively rare. Go back to the early 1900s or the Victorian era, and such considerations were scandalous. But trial marriages have taken place in a plethora of forms, throughout history.
Sometimes virginity has been prized less highly than evidence of sexual experience, even of the ability to conceive. Until recent years, in the Japanese mikka kasei or 'three-day rent marriage', the bride, escorted by her party and the go-between, stayed for three days at the bridegroom's house. If the young people liked each other, a formal marriage might follow, or the couple merely continue to live together, but the whole experiment was arranged with such delicacy and tact that it could be quietly dropped without the least embarrassment to either party.
Handfasting was a custom of eighteenth-century Scotland. (See wedding string quartets, Scotland) The couple lived together for a year and a day and if pleased with the arrangement could extend it for life. Some linked handfasting with the influence of the former Roman settlements in Scotland: under the Roman law of usus or prescription, if a woman lived for a year with a man without being absent from him for three nights, they were considered to be married. In an echo of another Roman marriage form, confarreatio, in which the couple shared a cake sitting side by siae upon an ox yoke (typifying matrimony), in 1867 the Liverpool Daily Courier reported the case of a couple who had merely lived together, and yet registered their children as legitimate. They could not afford the marriage fees, so knelt and mixed handfuls of meal in a basin, swearing on the bible not to part until death, a ritual they felt to be as binding as marriage. And typical of other informal arrangements, a French gipsy woman still shatters a clay vessel before any man with whom she wishes to live and remains with him for as many years as there are sherds. They may then separate or make another contract by breaking another pot.
Agricultural communities naturally liked firm evidence of fertility before proceeding with marriage. In rural France, the Scandinavian countries and Iceland, in particular, until comparatively recent years, peasant women commonly did not marry until they had given birth or were advanced in pregnancy. John Smeaton, the civil engineer, found similar customs among the quarrymen of the Isle of Portland, Dorset (see wedding string quartets in Dorset), in the mid-eighteenth century. They rarely sought brides off the island: 'if, after a competent time of courtship' a girl was not with child the couple separated, accepting this mark of fate's disapproval. Smeaton's London workmen, used to more carefree ways, quickly formed attachments to the Portland girls but were surprised to find public opinion so strident when they attempted to evade their responsibilities that they were threatened with stoning from the island. Censure was so effective that only one illegitimacy was reported.
Bundling, queesting or 'bed fellowship', when the young couple comfortably and (it was said) innocently, shared the same bed during lovemaking, was a premarital custom of Wales, the Hebrides, Finland, Norway, Holland, Switzerland, Northern Ireland and the eastern states of America: '.. . though British travelers have uniformly endeavoured to fix the odium of this custom upon us their transatlantic cousins, as being peculiarly "an American institution," it is, nevertheless, an indisputable fact that bundling has for centuries flourished within their own kingdom,' wrote an American historian in 1871. This was true. In Cheshire (see wedding string quartets in Cheshire) it was 'sitting-up' and couples spent the night together in houses or outbuildings left open for them. Farmers who refused this privilege found that they could not keep servants.
Girls were naturally reluctant to dismiss sweethearts to walk home across moor or mountain at the evening's end. In simpler homes, in any case, there was often little distinction between hearth and bed; lovers merely shifted their position a few feet to a heap of fern, straw and blankets in the corner of the kitchen. Bundling, encouraged by crowded, ill-heated homes, was not the only stratagem of lovers craving solitude. In the Connecticut Valley sweethearts spoke to each other privately across the family hearth, through a long hollow 'courting stick' fitted with mouth and ear pieces.
When bundling, girls fastened their petticoats with a sliding knot to at least delay, if not prevent, liberties: a traveller in Ireland in 1807 spoke of 'this extraordinary experiment which often ends in downright wedlock — the knot that cannot slide'.6 (There was much talk of knots: 'to tie a knot wi' the tongue, at yan cannot louze wi' yan's teeth' was a discouraging Yorkshire assessment of marriage.) A Welsh (see wedding string quartets, Wales) mother with a daughter approaching the bundling age produced a 'bundling stocking', which, like single-legged pyjamas, completely enveloped the girl's body from the waist downwards: these garments, often family heirlooms, were in use until the late nineteenth century.
On the Dutch islands of Vlieland and Texel parents entirely approved of queesting, when lovers slipped beneath quilts with their daughters. Winter economy in firewood and candles far outweighed chastity. In Switzerland about 1860, bundling was practised as dorfen, stubetegetren, or lichtgetren ('going a-wooing') or in Canton Lucerne, as kiltgang. Urchins pelted the embarrassed lover on his way to call upon his sweetheart and serenaded the couple with teasing cat-voices until he crept out at dawn. Caterwauling invariably accompanied courtship.
Emigrants carried these cheerful customs to the United States. Lieutenant Anbury, a British officer serving during the American Revolution, wrote of bundling in a letter of 20 November 1777 from Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had arrived at a small log hut for the night: there were only two beds and he asked where he should sleep:
' "Mr. Ensign," said the old woman "our Jonathan and I will sleep in this, and our Jemima and you shall sleep in that". I was much astonished at such a proposal, and offered to sit up all night, when Jonathan immediately replied, "Oh, La! Mr. Ensign, you won't be the first man our Jemima has bundled with, will it, Jemima?" when little Jemima, who, by the bye, was a very pretty, black-eyed girl, of about sixteen or seventeen, archly replied, "No, father, not by many, but it will be with the first Britainer" (the name they give to Englishmen). In this dilemma what could I do? The smiling invitation of pretty Jemima — the eye, the lip, the — Lord ha' mercy. . . '
But the lieutenant decided that he could not trust himself and did not bundle after all.
Bundling really ended with the improved housing of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which meant that bed was no longer the only comfortable place for courting. In the United States at least, its end was accelerated by the publication in 1785 of 'A New Bundling Song; Or a Reproof to those Young Country Women who follow that reproachful Practice' whose author pointed out, with truth:
. . . bundler's clothes are no defence, Unruly horses push the fence . . .
'A Poem Against Bundling. Dedicated to Ye Youth of both Sexes', a similar blasting by a clergyman of Bristol County, Massachusetts, declared that bundling reduced man to the level of the brutes, for:
Dogs and bitches wear no breeches, Clothing for man was made, Yet men and women strip to their linen, And tumble into bed.
and roundly condemned bundlers and their games:
Down deep in hell there let them dwell, And bundle on that bed: There burn and roll without control, Til all their lusts are fed.
But the defenders of bundling, as of all pleasant customs, were not silent. 'A New Song in Favour of Courting' spoke warmly of its highly practical raison d'etre:
Man don't pretend to trust a friend, To choose him sheep and cows, Much less a wife which all his life He doth expect to house.
Many years later practitioners were to recall bundling with nostalgic affection. Colonel H., a native of Berlin, Connecticut, born in 1775, told how mothers called in upon bundling couples in bed to 'tuck 'em up and put on more bedclothes' and said that 'there wasn't any more mischief done those days than there is now.' Another, jokingly asked by a grandson if he were not ashamed of past exploits, asseverated: 'Why, no! What is the use of sitting up all night and burning out fire and lights, when you could just as well get under kiver and keep warm: and, when you get tired, take a nap and wake up fresh, and go at it again? Why, dammit, there wasn't half as many bastards then as there are now!'
Bundling was found among the Pennsylvania Dutch as late as 1845; in New England, Cape Cod held out longest. One man recalling his long bundling career there, spoke of finding his sweetheart 'nicely snuggled under the bed clothes, having previously put on a very appropriate and secure night dress . . . like a common dress . . . furnished with legs, like drawers . . . drawn at the neck and waist with strings tied with a very strong knot ... '.It would seem that not only bundling, but a version of the bundling stocking also crossed the Atlantic!