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Dating Throughout History

Updated on June 30, 2019

Dating in The Middle East - Biblical times

Among the biblical Jews, the way to a woman’s heart was through her father, who only wanted to embrace a lover if he made a good first impression. The bachelor Jacob knew this when he according to the Old Testament fell in love with the beautiful Rachel.

Jacob therefore offered her father, Laban, that he would work for him in a period of seven years if the father would let Jacob marry his daughter afterwards.

Similar deals are known in recent history from i.a. Bhutan, where the husband works for three years for the girlfriends family.

But in Jacobs instance, things went wrong. When the seven years had passed, his father-in-law Laban gave him his oldest daughter Lea to marry – not Rachel. When Jacob protested against the marriage he had to work for Laban for another seven years, before he finally could get his great love.

"Jacob meets Rachel" by Erwin Speckter
"Jacob meets Rachel" by Erwin Speckter

Dating in Mesopotamia - Ancient times

Marriage was invented in the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, about 4.300 years ago to secure stability. It is also here where scientists have some of the first written evidence of people falling in love.

In a doctor’s manual from the 7th century BC, it says for example that there is talk of someone hopelessly in love if the patient is constantly clearing one’s throat, laughing without any reason what so ever and losing appetite. The doctor’s manual says that “It affects both men and women”.

Although it was possible for men and women to fall hopelessly in love with each other, most couples didn’t meet each other before the actual marriage. Instead, the philandering took place between the couple’s parents, who discussed and negotiated about dowry and other financial conditions.

According to the Greek historian Herodotus, there were some cities in Mesopotamia who practiced differently. Every year the young unmarried women would be sent to an auction, where nubile men were able to bid on the women. It was only the money that was important at the auctions and the father was not allowed to give his daughter away to whoever he wished. Likewise, the man that bid on the woman had to display witnesses who would confirm that he would actually marry the woman with certainty.

According to Herodotus, unmarried women were yearly sold by auction in Ancient Mesopotamia.
According to Herodotus, unmarried women were yearly sold by auction in Ancient Mesopotamia.

the Whole World - prehistoric times

Dating was by all accounts primitive business in the earliest of times. There is not a lot of evidence that points towards that pick-up tricks such as to dedicate a cave painting to the chosen one, to talk about your emotional life or to sing a campfire song about love could secure a date.

Life in the Early Stone Age was rough and the risk of dying by starvation or disease was great. The rules of dating were by all accounts therefore based on heavy-handed principals. Skilled hunters – men or women – had the best chance of attracting the opposite gender. But there is some evidence that points towards that diplomatic skills were necessary. The biggest problem that the small communities stood up against, was to find a mate that wasn’t a sister, brother or someone who was not related to you.

DNA-examinations of skeletons from 34.000-year-old graves in Russia show - contrary to expectations - that inbreeding was very rare. Multiple small communities, therefore, must have worked together by exchanging mates across communities to avoid harmful inbreeding.

Cave paintings from the paleolithic period, Sierra Madrona
Cave paintings from the paleolithic period, Sierra Madrona

Sparta - 7th century BC

With the purpose of transforming the city-state of Sparta to a warrior-nation, the emperor Lycurgus attempted in the 7th BC to regulate every aspect of life – including dating. Men and women, therefore, had to focus on discipline and training, so they could fight and give birth to healthy male children for the army. The women were not allowed to wear makeup or any other form of artificial underlining of their beauty.

On the other hand, they were allowed to be among men as they wished, and they were known for their sharp tongues.

The strict rules made flirting a bit difficult. But Lycurgus also regulated flirting and put it into a system. According to the Greek author Plutarchus, Lycurgus let i.a. trained women dance and sing naked in front of the young boys during religious parties. Plutarchus writes “The tradition prompted the marriage”.

According to the author Plutarchus, it was forbidden for elderly or unmarried men to watch during the naked processions – they had had their chance. Old bachelors were generally met with contempt because they hadn’t given the state and children.

In Sparta everything was about creating a warrior-nation
In Sparta everything was about creating a warrior-nation

Scandinavia - 9th - 11th century AD

The Vikings first and foremost saw marriage as a practical arrangement, that would secure wealth and status for the families involved. Romantical love was considered suspect, that took away a man’s healthy judgment. Bards, who tried to charm women with their poems, were in danger of being put into exile because personal love-poems were considered as insulting to a woman’s honor.

Even though the Vikings’ marriages were always arranged, a young had the opportunity to express his interest in an unmarried woman. The negotiations took place through the father-in-law, who according to the sagas often asked his daughter if she would accept her partner. In the Viking age, it was easy for a woman to be divorced if the marriage was not up to her satisfaction.

Even though the young Vikings did not date in a modern sense, they took every opportunity they could to flirt with one another. Many couples met each other at public assemblies, where the Vikings discussed and settled how many fathers took their daughters with them so that the young people could make an assessment out of each other.

According to British annalists, the Vikings that were going on raids were not only known for their brutality, but also for their flirting. The Vikings cared a lot about how the looked – showered weekly and changed often their clothes. Archaeological evidence has also i.a. recovered many combs, which also points towards that Vikings cared a lot about how the looked. “In this way, they besieged the married women’s virtue and persuaded even noblemen’s daughters to become their mistress,” says one of the chronicles.

An example of a comb from an excavation
An example of a comb from an excavation

© 2019 Jakob Bach Jensen


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    • Jakob Bach Jensen profile imageAUTHOR

      Jakob Bach Jensen 

      22 months ago from Denmark

      You're welcome Larry, glad you enjoyed it:)

    • Larry Slawson profile image

      Larry Slawson 

      22 months ago from North Carolina

      Enjoyed reading this. Thank you for sharing!


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