Hi, Jo here, answering a question that came into the Wenches mail box from Jackie Sinkovitz . You win a book from me, Jackie. If you go to http://www.jobev.com/booklist.html, you can pick one. I don't have spare copies of all, but I'll do my best.
Jackie's question is: "With Valentine Day around the corner, I was wondering if there was designated time of year, or day, that hopeful lovers in Regency times and Medieval times would express their feelings to one another. Like a Sadie Hawkins dance where girls ask boys out. Or perhaps some kind of tradition where a person could let their feelings be known for another without reprimand."
A very interesting question, which led me to different thoughts, some of them speculative.
I'm not aware of any special wooing time other than Saint Valentine's Day, and in Britain at least Valentine's were usually anonymous, so not declarations of love. There were probably hints in some, but I've never thought of them as being a first move.
My impression is that courtship followed similar patterns to today and hopeful lovers had to show their interest in the usual patterns of courtship behaviour, such as showing admiration, teasing, light touching, dancing, and kissing. There's no season for any of those. The general pattern was as usual for the male to make the moves, but a female would have ways to show interest or encouragement if she wanted to, including showing off her domestic skills by baking a cake or sewing a neck cloth or handkerchief. I have the impression that sewing a shirt for a suitor was commitment.
In medieval times there were a lot of feasts and festivals that would mean gatherings, dancing and even drink, which could help things along. In addition, certain festivals had a courtship, and even sexual, element, at least among the rural families. The main one was probably May Day, which was also a celebration of new growth.
May Day has many, complex roots, but it was a vibrant festival of drink and dance, often around a maypole, which can be seen as a phallic symbol. Nowadays maypole dancing is considered a children's activity, but in the past adults would wind the ribbons around the poles. Sometimes it was all young women, but sometimes couples. In lieu of a picture of children, here's an elegant illustration of trees.
In many rural places unwed lads and lasses paired off to unashamedly spend May Day night in the woods. If the lass became pregnant they married, but otherwise there was no expectation of marriage. In rural communities a family was needed for survival. Even a small piece of land was too much work for a childless couple.
If you'd like to read up about the many and complex traditions for May Day, follow this link.
Most rural communities would not be too restrictive because everyone knew one another. When people moved to towns in large numbers, and among higher levels of society, they needed ways for young people to move into and through courtship behaviours with suitable partners, so there were more rules. However, there were many games along the lines of Spin the Bottle. For example, one involved picking names out of a hat to set partners for a dance, or even for a light kiss. This game doesn't look innocent at all. For more information, go here.
Organized dancing itself was a prime occasion for wooing, involving as it did touching and looking into the eyes of a member of the opposite sex in a safe environment. There was a reason that Almack's and other smaller assemblies were regarded as "marriage marts," and reasons to restrict who could attend, and who could be introduced to whom.
There's an interesting page about Regency dance here. This jolly picture is from it.
I'm not sure if my speculations answer the question we began with, but it's a fun topic and fundamental to historical romances.
Do you have anything to add about courtship customs? Perhaps you come from a place or culture which has very different ones.
I have e-published two older Regency novellas which involve Valentine's Day tradition. In one some ladies play a card game to predict their prospects for romance. In another they write men's names on paper, seal them in clay, then throw them into a bowl of water to see which will rise first. That one will be their husband. Chancy stuff if you believe it! I've included extras in the book, including other such games, and even some spells involving blood and graves which were supposed to predict whether a young lady would get a husband. Getting one, of course, was key to a woman's life in the past.
The collection is called Regency Valentines, and you can find out more here.