16 Historical Dating Tips That Might Help Your Love Life

16 Historical Dating Tips That Might Help Your Love Life

Trista - October 7, 2018

Dating hasn’t changed a great deal in the course of the last 100 years, but courtship and romance have varied dramatically over the course of human history. The earliest “romances” consisted of kidnapping and rape, which evolved into arranged marriages for the forging of alliances or exchange of property – and we have the Victorians to thank for working to encourage the role of romantic love in marriages.

16 Historical Dating Tips That Might Help Your Love Life
A painting of a shepherd embracing his partner. Thomas Umstattd.

Many eras had their own unique courtship rituals like the carving of love-spoons or the gifting of gloves or other tokens of affection with specific meanings attached. One mostly constant factor in courtship through the ages has been the pursuing nature of men while women merely responded to overtures of affection.

16 Historical Dating Tips That Might Help Your Love Life
A photograph of Thomas Edison and his second wife, Mina Miller. List Verse/Find a Grave.

1. Share a Language No One Else Knows

Thomas Edison, the famed inventor of the light bulb, the phonograph, and more, had a special romance with his second wife, Mina Miller. Edison married his first wife when he was 24, and she was only 16. Nevertheless, they had three children before she died in 1884 from either a brain tumor or morphine overdose. Two years later, he met and married Mina Miller, the daughter of fellow famed inventor Lewis Miller.

With the strict courtship rituals at the time, involving extensive parental supervision on behalf of the woman, it was difficult for couples to communicate privately. Being a talented inventor, Edison figured out a way to communicate with Miller under the watchful eye of her guardians: morse code. Miller was quite sharp herself and picked it up quickly, allowing the couple to pass messages under any watchful eyes.

Miller married Edison when he was 39 and she was only 20. The couple went on to have three more children, one of whom was Charles Edison, a governor of New Jersey who also took over his father’s laboratory and inventions. Miller outlived Edison, becoming his widow when Edison died from complications of diabetes in 1913. One can imagine that new couples likely came up with ways of passing notes or secretly communicating to get around the strict courtship culture of the age.

16 Historical Dating Tips That Might Help Your Love Life
Triumph of Bacchus, depicting the Roman god of wine and fertility. Wikimedia.

2. Don’t Get Wasted With the In-Laws

While not getting blitzed in front of your in-laws should be obvious, it very much was not to the ancient Greek Hippocleides. He answered a call for eligible bachelors put out by Cleisthenes, the tyrant of Sicyon for his young unmarried daughter, Agariste. In an extremely The Bachelorette-like result, twelve of Greece’s most eligible bachelors arrived in Sicyon to compete for Agariste’s hand in marriage.

Later chronicles claim the suitors went through a series of competitions including chariot racing and physical combat (which would really spice up The Bachelorette today.) At the end of the games, Hippocleides was Cleisthenes’ favored to win the hand of his daughter. A banquet was thrown in his honor, at which Hippocleides became incredibly drunk. He was reported to have done a drunken handstand, kicking his legs in time to the music.

The enraged tyrant was reported to have said “you just danced away your wife” to which Hippocleides famously retorted “Hippocleides doesn’t care.” While this may sound like a line from George Costanza and not an ancient Greek, the line became famous among the Greeks and was paraphrased in later writings by Aristophanes and Plutarch. It would appear that Hippocleides didn’t care. Agariste ended up marrying a man named Megacles.

16 Historical Dating Tips That Might Help Your Love Life
An ancient Egyptian frieze depicting harvest. Wikimedia.

3. Move Your Stuff Into His Place for a Practical Marriage

The ancient Egyptians practiced surprisingly progressive marriage practices for their era. At a time when many cultures were still kidnapping wives as part of raids or battles, the Egyptians allowed people in lower classes to choose their spouses. Eschewing formal courtship rituals, women needed only to move their belongings into a man’s home to constitute a marriage. Typically a prenuptial contract was created beforehand outlining who would keep what belongings if the couple were to divorce.

Divorce itself was not particularly taboo in ancient Egypt, with separation allowed even if not a desirable outcome spiritually. In the event of a couple divorcing, they split property as equally as possible, and the mother took the children. The exception to this rule was adultery, which was deeply frowned upon and could even result in the adulterous party being executed. The lower classes were also not allowed to practice incest, despite it being quite common among the royalty and nobility.

Despite many cultures treating marriage as an exchange of property, the ancient Egyptians embraced the concept of romance and love with Vizier Ptahhotep writing in his The Maxims of Ptahhotep that husbands should love their wives and treat them well. Some early examples of romantic writing came out of ancient Egyptian scripts in which Egyptian men praised the beauty of their wives.

16 Historical Dating Tips That Might Help Your Love Life
An illustration from an edition of Njal’s Saga. Guðrún smiled at Halldor. Wikimedia.

4. Write a Saga About Your Feelings

While Vikings are best known for their raiding and plundering of Christian lands through the eyes of Christian writers, the Vikings had a rich collection of their own stories often recorded in the form of epic sagas. The sagas were primarily compiled and recorded in medieval Iceland. Many of them, including Njal’s Saga, heavily features the theme of romantic love. Norse women of the era had relatively high status, compared to other European cultures, and romantic love was an essential part of their relationships.

In Njal’s Saga, the titular Njal is to be executed. His wife is offered amnesty, but she refuses and asks to die alongside her husband to fulfill her marital vows. In another epic of the era, the Gesta Danorum, by Saxo Grammaticus, records the song of a man due to be hanged who learns that his wife has committed suicide to join him in the afterlife. He then welcomes his death knowing that he will see his wife again, as the pagan Norsemen did not view suicide as an eternal sin like Christians of the time.

While the pagan Nordic cultures valued women’s chastity and virginity like every other European culture, the way they went about enforcing it was entirely different and showed the elevated respect for and role given to women in their societies. If a man were proved to have carnal knowledge of an unwed woman, he would likely be murdered as a result. The male family members of the aggrieved girl would set out to avenge her honor and restore her value. Quite different from the stoning and shaming of the women themselves in Christian cultures of the era.

16 Historical Dating Tips That Might Help Your Love Life
A painting of a woman holding a fan. Painting Mania.

5. Flirt With Fan Language

Fans were not merely a practical accessory in 17th century Europe. Fans were an integral part of philandering and courtship as they could be used to communicate messages to potential partners discreetly. Open wooing was frowned upon under the mores of the time, so resourceful women developed a complex language of romance, using the fans they carried, to ogle with men that caught their eyes. Just one more thing is more universal than flirting; it’s people finding clever ways to circumvent the restrictions of the era to engage in it.

The fan language of the era is well documented, with over 30 messages being decoded and preserved. The words ranged from explicit declarations of love with a fan held over the heart to a rather ominous message of “you are being watched” if the fan was twirled in the woman’s left hand. Women were also able to communicate status without open rejection, with signals for saying they were married or engaged. They were also able to gesture “no” with a fan on the left cheek.

One wonders how both men and women were taught this language. The value of such a system is clear though, especially at a time when open declarations of interest or even love would likely have been considered inappropriate. The ability to show a signal that inarguably means “no” seems like a valuable tool in a woman’s arsenal, as the use of the word “no” in romantic relationships continues to be a point of consternation and lack of understanding.

16 Historical Dating Tips That Might Help Your Love Life
A Renaissance romance pendant. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

6. Give Gifts

Gift-giving has been a part of courtship rituals for several centuries, if not longer in some cultures. Gifts started on a much more practical level, though, with the exchange of property in order to cement a marriage. In some cultures, a bride price was given in which a man had to give money, land, livestock or some other good of high value to marry a woman. In different cultures, a dowry was necessary for which the prospective bride’s family had to give similarly valuable gifts to the groom’s family as a thank you for taking a woman off their hands. The latter practice was more common in agricultural societies in which women were not able to do the physical work of growing food and were considered more burdensome than male children.

As bride prices and dowries fell out of fashion, personal gifts became more popular. Jewelry has long been a customary gift of courtship, with hair locks, portrait locks, and promise rings all being popular gifts at different points in history. In Renaissance Italy, symbols of fertility were often given as gifts including woven belts and girdles that featured romantic and sometimes even erotic imagery.

Interestingly, it was the early 20th century that put gift-giving to a brief halt as dating was seen, in its infancy, as a form of prostitution. The idea that men would take women out and treat them to meals, drinks or a gift was seen as tantamount to directly exchanging money for potential access to sex. The transition from Victorian ideas of strict, supervised courtship to modern 20th-century dating was not a smooth one.

16 Historical Dating Tips That Might Help Your Love Life
The anatomy of Dr. Willem Roell. Oil painting by B. F. Landis, 1909-1910, after Cornelis Troost, 1728. Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images.

7. Study Her Anatomy (But Not Like This!)

To be clear: do not dissect a woman to improve your love life. With that necessary disclaimer out of the way, French novelist Honore de Balzac did, for some reason, think this was valuable and sage advice. In his (thankfully) obscure work The Physiology of Marriage, Balzac argues that to maintain a proper marriage a man should dissect at least one woman to learn her anatomy correctly. Balzac cautioned his readers that marriage is a science and that adequate study was necessary to be a successful husband.

Balzac also believed that humans contain a large quantity of energy and that women didn’t know how to process theirs without having day jobs. He instructed men to keep their wives exhausted with constant domestic chores so that they wouldn’t develop feelings of independence, whims or daydreams. He also believed women shouldn’t drink plain water and instructed husbands to provide their wives with water mixed with burgundy wine.

Shockingly, despite the reams of quality advice he penned in Physiology, Balzac didn’t get married until the ripe age of 50, over 20 years after he shared his romantic wisdom with the world. He died six months after his wedding. What a pity for his presumably exhausted and mildly drunk widow.

16 Historical Dating Tips That Might Help Your Love Life
A photograph of Marxist theorist Victoria Woodhull. History.com.

8. Convert to Marxism for Free Love

While hippies are typically given credit for the free-love movement, it would be more accurate to thank Marxists. Friedrich Engels, co-author of The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx, wrote that the personal is political, meaning that marriage, the division of domestic labor, are political matters and shouldn’t be hidden from view as “personal” affairs. Taking his theories even further was Victoria Woodhull, a Marxist theorist who was also the first woman to run for president in the United States.

Woodhull described herself as a “free lover” and was a fierce advocate of the burgeoning movement of feminist Marxism alongside visionaries like Rosa Luxemburg. She argued that to have true equality and freedom, she must be free to love whomever she wanted for however long she wanted with no legal interference or repercussions.

In a statement that would strike many as radical even today, she decried marriage as “sexual slavery.” She argued that with the right to sexual freedom outside of marriage “neither you nor any law you can frame has any right to interfere.” While social conservatism became tied to Marxism through the dictatorship of Josef Stalin, historically Marxists have been on the frontlines of questioning the gendered division of labor and the role of economics in marriage.

16 Historical Dating Tips That Might Help Your Love Life
A photograph of a woman holding a clock over her stomach. The List.

9. Invoke the Biological Clock

The results of this tactic would likely be quite weak, as the concept of the biological clock is rooted in sexism and has been widely debunked. Starting in the 1970s as women increasingly gained prominence in the workforce, the idea of a “biological clock” that was continually ticking down to a woman’s infertility began to cause a moral panic. Women were wasting their fertile years chasing education and gainful employment instead of having babies. Despite men’s fertility also declining with age, this panic was unsurprisingly only applied to women.

The idea that women have a universal biological clock is, of course, biologically false as we now well know with many women having successful, healthy pregnancies well into their 40s. The clock theory was put forth analyzing French birth records from the 17th through 19th centuries, which showed that a woman’s peak fertility declined quickly at a relatively young age. This data is, of course, strongly flawed as we no longer have the same diets, lifestyles nor medical care as the historic French.

One journalist put it merely stating, “millions of women are being told when to get pregnant based on statistics from a time before electricity, antibiotics, or fertility treatment.” Sadly, this reliance on inapplicable data did not stop the moral panic from putting great societal pressure on countless women to delay entering the workforce in favor of having children. Myriad studies since have shown that women earn far less over their lifetime when entering the workforce late due to motherhood. This sexist moral panic likely hamstrung many promising careers.

16 Historical Dating Tips That Might Help Your Love Life
A photograph of a puukko knife and sheath. TOPS knives.

10. Put a Ritual Dagger Into Her Sheath

While this may sound like an innuendo, it is a quite literal ritual form of courting from Finland. Traditionally, when a girl reached the marriageable age in Finland, her father would gift her a sheath to fit a puukko knife, which is a type of short utility knife. The girl would then wear the sheath in her girdle whenever she went out and about. An interested suitor would come up to her and slip the knife into her sheath. If she kept it, it meant she was interested. If she returned it, it was a no.

Other Nordic countries shared similar traditions built around the sheathing of knives to denote interest. The idea of giving a woman a token of affection that she could either keep or return to signal her level of interest is found throughout many cultures and eras. When one thinks about it, our modern engagement rings serve a very similar purpose, with the ring typically being returned if an engagement is called off.

Presumably, the full sheath was also a way of indicating to other men that a woman was actively courting someone. An additional benefit of many courtship gifts was indicating to other potential partners that someone was involved. Perhaps in a display of sexism, such tokens were often only worn by women leaving men free to court additional women while the intended wives were marked as “taken.”

16 Historical Dating Tips That Might Help Your Love Life
A photograph of Norwegian wedding spoons. Wikimedia.

11. Carve a Lovespoon

Much like the ritual daggers, lovespoons were a traditional gift given to women to indicate the intent to court. Lovespoons are traditionally associated with 17th-century Wales but were also exchanged in some of the Nordic countries as well. Lovespoons were usually hand-carved out of a single piece of wood by the suitor. They had their own language, with symbols being carved into the spoons to give them unique meanings.

In Wales, many men were employed in nautical work, so anchors were a common theme carved into Welsh examples. The lovespoons would often be cut as a pastime while aboard the ship on voyages. The anchor also symbolized a desire to settle down, as an anchor settles to the bottom of the ocean. Vine and floral imagery were meant to represent a growing or blossoming love.

If a woman was impressed with both the suitor and the lovespoon he provided, she would hang it up in her home (presumably her parents’ home at the time) as an indication she supported his courting. The man, visiting his intended to court, would see the spoon displayed on the wall and know that his affections were returned. It was likely the father would also have to approve before the spoon could be displayed, as it has long been traditional for a father’s approval to be required before marriage.

16 Historical Dating Tips That Might Help Your Love Life
A photograph of a Victorian man’s calling card. Circuitous Root.

12. Give Her Your Card

While it may sound deeply unromantic to give someone your business card, calling cards were the height of romance in the Victorian era. Social calling cards were extraordinarily lavish and elegant with beautiful paper and bright colors for the wealthy socialists. The cards often bore romantic floral motifs for both men and women. Many examples still exist today, and it is a rather enjoyable pastime to view the beautiful calling cards of yesteryear’s young aristocrats.

In the era, if a man wanted to court a woman, he would give her his calling card, which would have his name and compliments. A woman, particularly an exceptionally pretty or desirable unwed woman, would often collect numerous cards at a social event. The card was extended with the offer of escorting a woman to and from a future social gathering.

If a woman selected a given man’s calling card, she would send a servant or messenger with her card in response. This notion was the signal that she accepted his offer of an escort and was interested in potentially returning his affection. The process was likely repeated several times before true courting began, as the Victorians were extremely rigid and strict in their courtship rituals and sense of propriety.

16 Historical Dating Tips That Might Help Your Love Life
A photograph of a man and woman in Viking dress. Borg Lofotr Viking Museum. Visit Norway.

13. Spend Time Together – In Battle!

While women have typically served deferential and domestic roles throughout history, a few European tribes did not follow the rules. The women of the Teutons, a proto-Germanic tribe from Jutland in what is now Denmark, followed their husbands on battles and raids. They helped tend to the wounded, ran the camps, cooked food and provided general support. The women also appeared to be trained in arms and were willing to fight when necessary.

The Roman chronicler Plutarch wrote that Roman legionaries invaded a Teutonic camp only to find women wielding axes and swords fighting back against their troops viciously. The Teutons were notoriously fierce enemies, both the men and women, which led to the Latin phrase furor Teutonicus meaning fury of the Teutons. One can only imagine the surprise of Roman soldiers, from a society in which women were of relatively low status, being attacked by women wielding weapons and fighting as violently as their men.

The women of the Teutons were also noted as incredibly devoted to their men and chaste in their dealings with other peoples. The Romans decimated the male Teutons at the Battle of the Aquae Sextiae in 102 BC. The women were captured and begged to be allowed to become servants of Vesta, the virginal goddess of the hearth, to avoid rape and enslavement by the Romans. When their request was denied, the women engaged in mass suicide rather than being enslaved.

16 Historical Dating Tips That Might Help Your Love Life
A painting of a woman pouring a potion into a drink. Evelyn de Morgan.

14. Try a Love Potion (Not Drugs!)

Love potions are not merely the realm of Harry Potter’s universe, as love potions, both magical and chemical, have been used in the hope for romance throughout the centuries. The purposes of the love potions ranged from ensnarement to curing impotence. Almost every culture throughout history has had some form of drink or medicine associated with love and sex. Some likely did function to treat infertility, while many were just fanciful placebos.

The medieval naturalist Albertus Magnus wrote a guidebook on plants and animals that stated that a concoction of leeks and earthworms, sprinkled over a meal, would increase and strengthen the love between a man and his wife. Marigolds were a favorite love potion ingredient in the middle ages. Some Native American tribes were documented to use wild columbine for similar purposes. Indian women used Jimsonweed, which likely backfired reasonably often due to the incredible toxicity of the plant.

In the realm of birth control, the Romans so loved a plant called Silphium, which effectively prevented pregnancy, that they literally drove it extinct through over-harvesting. In an era when some cultures used vaginal crocodile dung suppositories to avoid pregnancy, merely taking a tea or tincture of a flavorful herb must have been a real luxury. While not technically a love potion, abortifacients have also been used throughout history with herbs like Tansy commonly being drunk in tea form to end unwanted pregnancies.

16 Historical Dating Tips That Might Help Your Love Life
A painting of a Babylonian marriage market. Edwin Long.

15. Visit a Marriage Market

Early human marriages were very rarely a result of any sort of affection and were far more likely to be arranged as a matter of property transfer or alliance building. In ancient Babylonia, a man selecting of a wife was more akin to buying a slave in a slave auction. Babylonia had marriage markets where men bid on women they wanted to take as wives.

The chronicler Herodotus wrote that the markets opened with the auctioning of the most beautiful and desirable women, with such women achieving the highest prices and marrying the wealthiest men. They would descend in order down to the least desirable women who were often disabled, old or unattractive. Frequently the leader of the market would actually pay men to take these women as wives, with the proceeds from the auctions of the beautiful women serving to create a dowry for the men who wed the less desirable women.

The sales reportedly came with a money-back guarantee, and men had to bring proof of their ability to pay for the women as well as people to vouch for their intent to marry the woman selected. Fathers were not allowed to marry their daughter to anyone of their choosing and had to “sell” them at the market. While paying men to take undesirable women is horrifying, the creation of a dowry at the expense of the beautiful women may well have created more social safety and security for these women than was found in later eras.

16 Historical Dating Tips That Might Help Your Love Life
A painting of Genghis Khan. Wikimedia.

16. Steal Her (Don’t Do This… Seriously)

While it should go without saying in our modern times that it is utterly unacceptable to steal a woman to be your wife, sadly this was not true for much of our early history. It was very common for male victors in battles and raids to take women from their defeated enemies to be wives and slaves. This practice continued far, far longer than it should have with some white colonists taking Indigenous women against their will to be wives.

One particularly prodigious thief of women was the great conqueror, Ghengis Khan. The first Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, Khan had a habit of stealing and raping women from every village he conquered. He eventually had over 500 recognized wives and consorts from various tribes he overcame, though he only officially acknowledged the children from his official wife, Börte.

Khan’s depravity towards women was so consistent that genetic studies have found his DNA in at least eight percent of the men living in the territory of the former Mongol empire. This figure amounts to around 16 million men or almost one-half a percent of the entire world population. Unsurprisingly, with 500 wives and consorts and little access to birth control, Khan had more children than we’ll probably ever know.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“10 Dating Tips From History That Could Improve Your Love Life” Radu Alexander, Listverse. January 2017.

“Romance Through the Age: Customs of Love, Marriage & Dating” Kimberly Powell, ThoughtCo. June 2018.

“10 Fascinating Facts About the Evolution of Dating and Courtship” David W Brown, Mental Floss. April 2016.

“Love, Sex, and Marriage in Ancient Egypt” Joshua J. Mark, Ancient History Encyclopedia. September 2016.

“A Prolific Genghis Khan, It Seems, Helped People the World” Nicholas Wade, The New York Times. February 2003.

“9 Strange Courtship Rituals From Around the World” ETHAN TREX, Mental Floss. NOVEMBER 4, 2015.