Monday, 18 February 2008
The quaint custom of 'Bundling' . . .
I collect a magazine called The Countryman, and have done for the past 20 years or so. I prefer the older editions, especially since they changed the format and "modernised" it. It is my sort of magazine - articles and photos about life in the country and its wildlife, and quaint old customs. I used to particularly enjoy the "Tailcorn" (which I think deserves a posting all of its own) - which was dialect speech. A quick example is: 'The vicar found a score of sheep in his garden, the gate having been left open, and with the aid of a small boy drove them along the road to the farm. "These are yours, farmer," said he. 'Naw, they bain't yaws, the'm lambs." . . . Love it!
Anyway, back to Bundlin' . . . This is an article in a very old copy of the Countryman from 1938, and the article is written 'by a Welsh Correspondent', who starts it with the following, "I do not know whether this is modern laxity of morals or a survival of an old custom. She expressed no shame at having received the young men through her bedroom window by the use of a farm ladder." - From a recent deliverance by a judge. One wonder who brought the case to Court and what the outcome was!
The ways of courting in old Wales were a little different to the 'walking out' (even that sounds so antiquated these days)/meeting parents/announcing an engagement. The old Welsh ways were 'love-making in the straw'; 'love-making by the fireside; and love-making in bed' - that is, 'bundling'. This is not love-making in the procreative sense but more of a getting to know one another (with a few cuddles along the way).
The couple might meet at a fair, with the boy offering to treat her for the day. If she was not an acquaintance, he would get one of his friends (who was likely to be a married man or woman) to 'fetch' her. If she was a stunning lass, there might be half a dozen fetchers trying to perusade her to favour the lad who had sent them. However, if a girl fancied a lad she knew, she could just ask straight out if he would treat her. If she didn't know him, she would send one of her friends to do the persuading on her behalf. Apparently in those days, having a shiny nose was considered the epitome of prettiness, and on the morning of the fair the girls used to rub butter on their faces until they shone 'like Bristol bacon' . . .
Thus the courtship would start, and the lad would walk the girl home, saying his goodbyes at the yard gate, and making arrangements to meet her again. The girl had the opportunity to change her mind meanwhile, and when the lad came to tap on her window and she had decided he was not quite the catch she had imagined, she would not answer. If she decided that she would come out, they would go to the nearby barn or byre where there was hay or straw - this would be late evening from about 9 pm till midnight. Every district had its own traditional courting night, whilst widowers had a time of their own.
After a few weeks of this, the folks in the house might start dropping a few hints about meeting the lass's young man (be she the daughter or the servant of the house), that she might bring her young man into the kitchen on their usual night - the lad departing early enough to make it home before daybreak. There was a rule that no member of the family would interfere with the courting couple. A tasty dish would be set aside for the lad to eat before going home - butter-milk cakes or a dish of baked rice - always a little treat and something different from everyday food. In fact, it was sometimes the case that the food was more attractive than the girl!
Finally the couple would come to the final stage of the 'love-making', which was 'bundling' or 'love-making in bed.' By this stage, bundling couples were on a par with engaged couples today, and like today, bundling couples did not always marry although the general understanding between them concerned marriage. Commonly, however, this phase normally culminated in marriage - and often a long happy marriage at that. When approaching this stage, the girl's mother would provide them with a special 'courting-stocking', which was a cross between a Christmas stocking and pyjamas!, of a size ample for both legs and coming up to the waist. Such stockings were usually handed down from mother to daughter as heirlooms, and were used in Wales up to about the 1880s. The young men concerned would think nothing of walking fifteen miles each way to visit their sweethearts. If they were fortunate enough to possess or borrow a donkey , they might venture 20 miles afield, but only the 'high class' would travel on horseback.
However, the protocol must be observed, and any lad who tapped at a girl's window after midnight was regarded as having doubtful intentions and would get no response. For the genuine young man, after a few words at the window, the girl would come down and let him in, unless the door had been left open by prior arrangement. Even so, it was normal to have a few words at the window first. A farm ladder was usually propped against the windowsill, though it was known for the ladder to be hidden from jealousy or a joke, but love always found a way. The author states that as late as fifteen years ago (e.g. 1923!), a lad going courting would think nothing of carrying his own or a borrowed ladder six miles or more each way. This to 'the writer's personal knowledge', so I wonder if he did it himself!
If the girl were to change her mind about her intended, even after the bundling stage had been reached, she had merely to shut the window and ignore the boy's ever more frantic tapping. Whatever his pleas and however long he spent there, if there was no response he would take himself home, understanding that the liaison was broken off. He would be said to have received the 'quiver' and as soon as news got around, his friends would present him with a 'white staff' - a stick three feet long, normally of hazel or willow, which had had the bark peeled off. It served to keep him at home for some time, as girls would pay no attention to anyone who had been given the 'white staff'.
Bundling was not a secret to the community and the lovers were as proud to talk about it as show off an engagement ring these days. Its falling into disuse was not because of any change in the moral outlook or external moral pressure, but because lifestyles were changing. The donkey was replaced by the bicycle and 'love-making in the straw' replaced by 'walking out' and social get-togethers. As the outside world impinged on small rural communities, and bus routes connected them with bigger towns, this custom died out.
It was not unique to Wales, or indeed to the British Isles and seems to have been commonplace across Northern Europe and was also transported to America, as this link will show: