Marriage, #MeToo and dating in the dark ages

True love: The idea of marrying for love was not popular until the Enlightenment in the 1700s.

Do we need new rules for dating? The feminist revolutions of the 1900s ended centuries of strict rituals for young couples. In the #MeToo era, should we look to the past for guidance?

A fair damsel. A knight in shining armour. Courtly love is held up as the peak of chivalry, but the reality of medieval love was very different. Marriages were decided between families and couples rarely met before the big day.

Strict conduct books helped wives adjust to their new roles. One 13th-century guide instructs women to perform an exhaustive list of chores “while meditating on […] the reasons for the damnation of Lucifer”. While women were told to be patient and submissive, husbands could take mistresses and do as they pleased.

Over time, elaborate codes of courtship developed. One 18th-century ritual saw a man gift his beloved gloves, which she would then wear to church if she accepted his proposal.

By the Victorian era, men and women could not talk to each other without being formally introduced and were not left alone until their engagement.

But change came fast after the turn of the 20th century. Suffragettes battled, often violently, for the right to vote and at last women gained more legal independence. Then came the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, which overturned the stuffy conventions of marriage and championed free love and gay rights. We never looked back.

But now, a year after the #MeToo movement highlighted sexual harassment everywhere from Hollywood to Westminster, some are asking if that freedom came at a high price.

“As soon as older feminists had won sexual liberation, [the] patriarchy reframed it as sexual availability for men,” argues writer Van Badham. She claims that some men used women’s freedom to objectify them more.

Not all women agree. In January, 100 female creatives signed a letter accusing #MeToo of making it a “crime” for men to flirt “clumsily”, referencing Naomi Wolf’s claim that critic Harold Bloom put a “heavy” hand on her knee 30 years ago. They say we are heading back to the Victorian era.

But journalist Tony Parsons argues that activists are “simply introducing good manners into sexual etiquette.”

Some 40% of men say that #MeToo has changed the way they interact with potential partners.

Do we need new rules for dating?

The rule book

It would make it safer and simpler, say some. Facebook and Google have introduced policies to stop staff asking out a co-worker more than once, and Parliament now has a stricter complaints system to counter workplace harassment. #MeToo has shown what can happen without proper safeguards.

No way, argue others. The etiquette of past centuries didn’t prevent sexual violence. It has always happened but was ignored. For example, in the UK, rape within marriage was legal until 1991. There’s only one rule that matters: don’t abuse your power over someone. Beyond that, we should be free.

You Decide

  1. Does modern dating need more rules?
  2. Will the #MeToo movement change society forever?


  1. Look up traditions for dating and courtship from medieval times through to Victorian times. Find three examples that seem strange or funny now.
  2. Research the concept of the “patriarchy”. Write a one-page essay on whether our society is still patriarchal and the reasons behind your thinking. Include examples from the real world.

Some People Say...

“Courtship is to marriage, as a very witty prologue to a very dull play.”

William Congreve

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Courtship has been the subject of elaborate and bizarre instructions over the centuries. In one book, Victorian men bringing a woman to a dinner party were told to “never pour her gravy without asking”. If a courting couple walked together, the only physical contact permitted was him holding her hand over rough terrain.
What do we not know?
What impact the #MeToo movement will have on society in the long run. Many have described the calling out of predatory behaviour by powerful men a “revolution”, with Forbes predicting it could end “the male domination of humanity”. Others argue that while it is good progress, many of the structures barring women from power and success, such as government cuts to welfare that disproportionately affect women, will go unchallenged.

Word Watch

Courtly love
More properly known as fin’amor, this was a convention in medieval literature that emphasised nobility and chivalry. It usually involved adultery, as with Queen Guinevere’s affair with Sir Lancelot in Arthurian myth.
Victorian era
If a man wanted to make a woman’s acquaintance at a party or escort her home, he would hand her a “card” with his intentions written on it. She could then subtly accept or reject it.
Following the downfall of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who was accused by numerous women of rape and sexual assault, women around the world began sharing their own experiences of assault and harassment by using the #MeToo hashtag.
A system in which men hold the power and women are excluded. Feminists say the patriarchy still influences our society.
Naomi Wolf
An American writer who worked as an aide to former US Vice-President Al Gore and former US President Bill Clinton.


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