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Welsh Pre-Marital Sex, c. 1850 May 11, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

A German tourist in Wales in the 1850s. Our hero befriends, Sarah the girl of the house where he is staying and on whom, Beach suspects, he had something of a crush. However, Sarah, who is the only member of the house who can speak English, is walking out with Owen, the elder son of a nearby farm. One evening  the German walks back to his room through the gloaming and meets Sarah who seems a little standoffish.

I wished Sarah good night, and went upstairs. But I had scarce reached my room, when I heard the kitchen door and then the house door gently opened. Growing curious, I went to the window, and saw, by the light of the moon, Sarah crossing the yard and proceeding towards a stall, from whose half open door a male figure speedily emerged, which could be no other than Owen. ‘By Jove!’ I thought ‘she did not stay up on my account alone.’ I hoped to be witness of a Welsh pastoral in storm and rain; but I had deceived myself; the Phillis [!] of our farm had arranged matters more comfortably. She walked back across the yard, and her faithful shepherd behind her, and then into the kitchen. How my astonishment increased, however, when, instead of sighs, oaths, and kisses, I only heard a sound imitating that Owen was pulling off his boots and Sarah her shoes. And I was right: they came up-stairs in their stocking feet, passed my door, and entered Sarah’s little chamber. ‘No,’ I said to myself  ‘that is a little too much, that is beyond decency.’ The girl was scarce eighteen years of age, with childish eyes, retiring behaviour, modesty in language and conduct. Celts! Celts! I might have thought to myself at once that they would not belie their nature. But what does it concern me? Perhaps we are living in a Paradise, where the Serpent has not yet spoken!

It is a fascinating scene. Here we see a rare intimate glimpse of pre-marital ‘heavy petting’ in the nineteenth century. It has long been known by social historians – as it was known by social commentators before them – that sex took place before marriage in the nineteenth century in the working classes. However, for the most part evidence had to be amassed from bulges in wedding dresses or obtuse calculations from census returns cross-referenced with birth certificates. Pregnancy, in fact, was often the cue for courting to end and engagement and marriage.

In just the same way as it is said that today a quarter of all Italians are conceived in cars (how did anyone come up with this statistic?), a third of all lower class children in the nineteenth century (Beach made this statistic up) were the result of hurried love-making in barns and under hedge-rows.

Sarah – who went on to marry Owen – seems to have been enjoying here a custom where the courting couple spend an night together in bed as a form of marriage commitment: with the knowledge of parents. ‘Of course’, nothing untoward happened in the bed room, because then Sarah’s honour would have been besmirched. Or that, at least, was the theory that our German friend subscribed to…  Any other examples of formalised loving before marriage in Christian countries prior to the twentieth century? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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14/May 2012. Akauma writes in: ‘Well… here I am with more stories than I have time to write re: premarital intimacy (if you will). Half of my family has been in the states from, let’s see… the wheel had been invented… but Moses was still a pup… actually, some of my paternal relatives really did come ‘over on the Mayflower’ though most wound up in Rhode Island since they weren’t exactly ‘Puritan material’…    …having followed in my father’s footsteps and taken an interest in family history (read that genealogy), I have to say that although marriage due to pregnancy was hardly the norm, it was quite common and although families tried to ‘fudge’ records (including Bible records!) rather often in such cases, it’s  usually not all that hard to find actual birth &/or marriage dates. One such alteration was a family Bible  entry which read 21 March ALN… I scratched my head a long time over this one but finally discovered  the marriage record from the town of Alna, Maine in the year 1815. What is really odd about this one is  that their 1st child was born on 15 Nov 1815 and, really, who would even suspect what with so many  babies conceived within the 1st days of marriage? But they knew that the not quite 9 month pregnancy  was really full term, I suppose…  My maternal family is German and there are several early babies on this side of the pond in the 19th  century, but the case that interests me most occurred in Germany in the mid-18th century and was  certainly over a year (if memory serves) between birth & marriage and simply too hard to hide and so was recorded as it happened sans whitewash. I’ve been told that primogeniture & a law disallowing  marriage for those who did not own property caused quite a number of ‘late’ marriages. If this is the  reason it certainly explains the large German/American population!  I could go on but will end with an observation; it seems that in America at least the late 19th century brought about some highly imaginative forms of marriage &/or ‘utopian communities’. In at least one neighborhood in Rhode Island where my family lived (small cough here) marriage seemed to be looked upon as optional and procreation with a number of ones neighbors appears to have been a hobby that  some engaged in rather often. Oh… one more! from the same general area which is my ‘fave’ example  of a creative sense of morality.   Seems a gentleman married a widow who had children by her 1st marriage, at least one of  whom was a girl. The gentleman & his formerly widowed wife proceeded to have a number of children as time went by and as time went by earlier mentioned daughter of the widow grew to young  womanhood and before one can say ‘bigamous cad’ the gentleman, if we can call him that, had set up  a second household across town replete with a common-law-stepdaughter-wife & children. Least you  think I am simply intrigued by titillating tales, I find this example particularly interesting because the children/step-grand children’s births were all duly recorded with both parents named and, this being  the case, everyone in town must have known, including earlier mentioned formerly widowed wife, who as it would happen, was still mothering children by said “gentleman” who (the children, not the gent)  would then have been the gent’s common-law-stepdaughter-wife’s half brothers & sisters and technically  I imagine her step-grandchildren to boot.’ Wade has a link to a fascinating article on Courtship, Sex and the Single Colonist. Then Chris: ‘Well, there’s the whole tradition of “bundling“, which Lawrence Stone argues can be traced to the 17th century at least in England. But contra Philip Larkin, sexual intercourse wasn’t actually invented in 1963, so I’m sure there are other examples if you can find them.’ And in case you are wondering about bundling but don’t have time to click Kate writes in to explain: ‘Bundling was an old Yankee and Pennsylvania custom. A courting couple would spend the night together in bed, wrapped in blankets and sometimes separated by a board running the length of the bed. Traditionally, they were to spend the time talking, presumably about future plans, but this didn’t always happen. It occurred only during the winter months and was done with the full knowledge and approval of both sets of parents. It sounded like a sort of pre-marriage try-out. My understanding is that if a pregnancy resulted, no great shame was attached to the circumstances and the couple married.’ Thanks Akauma, Wade, Chris and Kate!

18 May 2012: John G. writes ‘Should one ever wish to go on mastermind can you think of a better specialist subject “and your subject tonight is Welsh Pre-Marital Sex”. More seriously in a time and place where your “pension plan” was your family it seems remarkable common sense to make sure that any binding union was going to be fruitful, making sure that the Bride and Groom could reproduce together would be to the advantage not only to the happy couple but also to their parents. On the subject of reproduction, I was told years ago of an interesting custom in Malta, if a bride had not conceived within a year of marriage the local priest would go to the family home to “pray” with the girl that she might be fertile, to ensure that the “prayer” session was not interrupted by the husband the priest would hang his umbrella over the front door handle as a form of “do not disturb” notice.’ Thanks John!!

23 May 2012: SY sends this in from a late eighteenth century English work. ‘And here amongst the usages and customs, I must not omit to inform you, that what you have, perhaps, often heard without believing, respecting the mode of courtship amongst the Welch peasants, is true. The lower order of people do actually carry on their love affairs in bed, and what would extremely astonish more polished lovers, they are carried on honourably, it being, at least, as usual for the Pastoras of the mountains to go from the bed of courtship to the bed of marriage, as unpolluted and maidenly as the Chloes of fashion; and yet, you are not to conclude that this proceeds from their being less susceptible of the belle passion than their betters: or that the cold air, which they breathe, has ‘froze the genial current of their souls’. By no means; if they cannot boast the voluptuous languors of an Italian sky, they glow with the bracing spirit of a more invigorating atmosphere. I really took some pains to investigate this curious custom, and after bing assured, by many, of its veracity, had an opportunity of attesting its existence with my own eyes. The servant-maid of the family I visited in Caernarvonshire happened to be the object of a young peasant, who walked eleven long miles every Sunday morning to favour his suit, and regularly returned the same night through all weathers, to be ready for Monday’s employment in the fields, being simply a day labourer. He arrived in time for the morning service, which he constantly attended, after which he escorted his Dulcinea home to the house of her master, by whose permission they as constantly passed the succeeding hour in bed, according to the custom of the country. These tender sabbatical preliminaries continued without any interruption near two years, when the treaty of alliance was solemnized: and so far from any breach of articles happening in the intermediate time, it is most likely that it was considered by both parties as a matter of course, without exciting any other idea. On speaking to my friend on the subject, he observed that, though it certainly appeared a dangerous mode of making love, he had seen so few living abuses of it, during six and thirty years residence…  in that county, where it, nevertheless, had always, more or less, prevailed, he must conclude it was as innocent as any other. One proof of its being thought so by the parties, is the perfect ease and freedom with which it is done; no awkwardness or confusion appearing on either side; the most well-behaved and decent young women going into it without a blush, and they are by no means deficient in modesty. What is pure in idea is always so in conduct, since bad actions are the common consequences of ill thoughts; and though the better sort of people treat this ceremony as a barbarism, it is very much to be doubted whether more faux pas have been committed by the Cambrian boors in these free access to the bed-chambers of their mistresses, than by more fashionable Strephons and their nymphs in groves and shady bowers. The power of habit is, perhaps, stronger than the power of passion, or even of the charms which inspire it; and it is sufficient, almost, to say a thing is the custom of a country to clear it from any reproach that would attach to an innovation. Were it the practice of a few only, and to be gratified by stealth, there would, from the strange construction of human nature, be more cause for suspicion; but being ancient, general, and carried on without difficulty, it is probably as little dangerous as a tete-a-tete in a drawing room, or in any other full-dress place, where young people meet to say soft things to each other. A moon-light walk in Papa’s garden, where Miss steals out to meet her lover against the consent of her parents, and, of course, extremely agreeable to the young people, has ten times the peril’ Thanks SY