Fort Klock Historic Restoration
& Indian Castle Church

The Art of Bundling

Being an Inquiry into the Nature and Origins of that Curious but Universal Folk-Custom, with an Exposition of the Rise & Fall of Bundling in the Eastern Part of North America.

By Dana Doten, 1938

Chapter II


...all the appetites or desires are passions only in so far as they arise from inadequate ideas, and are classed among the virtues whenever they are excited or begotten by adequate ideas... there is no remedy within our power which can be conceived more excellent for the emotions than that which consists in true knowledge of them,... SPINOZA, Ethics.

IT ALL STARTED with Martin Luther. Tracing back the historical threads of bundling, through a dozen different routes, we find them all held in one hand at last, and that the hand which nailed the ninety-five theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg in 1517. If Luther had not fallen out with Pope Leo X over the matter of Indulgences, and if the Church had not made the one mistake in its history by failing to conciliate him, bundling might never have originated.

With terrible rapidity Luther's quarrel grew from technical to cosmic proportions, and he himself developed from a protesting local priest to the leader of a revolt that split Christendom. Soon it was a bitter death struggle between the German reformer and the pope, between Wittenberg and Rome, each striving to exterminate the other.

No one could be expected to understand better than an ex-priest the real nature of the power of the Medieval Church. Luther knew well that this strength came from the utter, complete domination exercised by the Church over the daily lives of the people. The three great events in man's life-birth, marriage, death-had been transformed into Sacraments. The Church taught that only its participation in and direction of these events through sacramental formula gave to them significance or reality. To destroy, then, the sacramental character of marriage, would be to strike straight at the roots of ecclesiastical dictatorship. And that was precisely the strategy of Luther.

"I advise in every thing that ministers interfere not in matrimonial questions," he thundered, "... because these affairs concern not the Church, but are temporal things. ...Therefore, we will leave them to the lawyers and magistrates."

Europe, which for a thousand years had been made to think of matrimony as a consecration, was told that marriage was a civil contract, the concern only of the individuals involved, and no business of the Church. Nothing could have brought home to the common people more forcefully-or agreeably-the essence of Luther's doctrines. The impact upon European society must have been such that compared to it the radical moral shifts of the French and Russian Revolutions appear as casual, superficial innovations. Luther was, in truth, merely reverting to the ancient Roman concept of matrimony, which was, as Bryce explains, that "the marriage relation rests entirely on the free will of the two parties" and "is deemed to be wholly a matter of private concern." But to the unlettered common folk of a Europe just emerging from the Dark Ages, this theory must have seemed the very height of daring, if not the epitome of license.

Luther thought well of marriage. The celibacy tradition of the priesthood of the Western Church offended him. Speaking of the preacher's situation, Luther asked, "Is he able, with a good conscience, to remain unmarried? let him so remain; but if he cannot abstain living chastely, then let him take a wife; God has made that plaster for that sore."

Here, then, is the first step on the road to bundling. The second was a logical corollary. When Luther took marriage down from the altar and gave it to his followers as a civil contract, the regular characteristics of marriage as a business procedure, dormant since Roman times, reasserted themselves. A business contract becomes legal as soon as token payment is made to bind the bargain. Marriage being once more a civil contract, the custom of binding the bargain by betrothal once more arose. The old Teutonic betrothal customs, the primitive German "hand-fasting" returned.

James Browne's HISTORY OF THE HIGHLANDS, AND OF THE HIGHLAND CLANS, discusses "hand-fasting" as it existed even before the Reformation in northern Scotland.

"This custom (of marriage) was termed hand-fasting, and consisted of a species of contract between two chiefs, by which it was agreed that the heir of one should live with the daughter of another as her husband for a year and a day. If, in that time, the lady became a mother, or proved to be with child, the marriage became good in law, even although no priest had performed the marriage ceremony in due form; but should there not have occurred any appearance of issue, the contract was considered at an end, and each party was at liberty to marry or hand-fast with any other. It is manifest that the practice of so peculiar a species of marriage must have been in terms of original law among the Highlanders, otherwise it would be difficult to conceive how such a custom could have originated and it is in fact one which seems naturally to have arisen from the form of society, which rendered it a matter of vital importance to secure the lineal succession of their chiefs.... As this custom remained in the Highlands until a very late period, the sanction of ancient custom was sufficient to induce them to persist in regarding the offspring of such marriages as legitimate."

Since the practice was also common in early Denmark, it was probably transplanted from the Continent by the Danish invaders who harried the Scottish coast for centuries.

Betrothal became soon as vital as the marriage ceremony itself. In fact, in many countries swept by the Reformation, betrothal became legal marriage upon "consummation," even as a bargain once struck is completed by physical possession.

These two concepts, the classical Roman business attitude and the early Teutonic betrothal, welded together in the heat of the Reformation by the genius of Luther, are the foundation for American bundling.

Although, as we have already noted, bundling was by no means confined to betrothed couples, it certainly originated in the legitimate enjoyment of betrothal privileges. And, as betrothal behavior, it could not have flowered without Martin Luther.

Given the existence, then, of civil marriage and betrothal in sixteenth century Germany, by what steps do we proceed to bundling in the American Colonies in the eighteenth century? Between the era of Elizabeth and that of George III, between the Spanish Armada and the battle of Lexington, from Shakespeare to Sir Walter Scott, an interesting transition was gradually effected. Influences which were potent in Europe when the Pilgrims sailed for the New World were steadily operating while the English Colonies grew in the next century and a half into strong and ultimately independent settlements. In the first place, we can understand a drastic curtailment of the inhibitions controlling the actions of betrothed young people. Freedom of behavior on their part is no longer either reprehensible or dangerous. An early form of bundling soon developed, making its appearance in Germany, but becoming most widespread in the typically Protestant country of Holland, where it was known as queesting. Among the prosaic Dutch, in the early seventeenth century, we find queesting brought to a fine development rivaling its success when transplanted as American bundling.

Before Luther betrothal could scarcely nourish, since it was not a sacrament of the church but more in the nature of the down-payment in a business deal. The Catholic Church could not permit the sacred, mystic union of holy marriage to be a simple, direct contract, nor could it be a mere logical outgrowth of betrothal (down-payment plus possession). Premarital loving was a sin in the eyes of the Church, since sexual intercourse was sanctioned only as an act necessary for continuing the race-a sacred matrimonial duty, and only a duty. Hence there could be no compromise between the state of sin and a state of grace, no middle ground of betrothal.

But when marriage changed to a civil contract, when betrothal developed into virtual matrimony in many countries, there could be little risk in allowing young people a free and intimate association. In Holland, indeed, betrothal became literally trial-marriage, since a girl had the privilege, after a year's experiment, of releasing her lover from his vows, or of accepting him as her husband. Queesting had only to be extended to sweethearts, as well as to betrothed couples, to become American bundling, and this was a rapid transition in a frontier country like America.

Returning at last to this side of the Atlantic, let us consider for a moment the spread of bundling in the early Colonies. It is pretty clear that the territory adjacent to the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam was the first section to be affected. Bundling came early to southern Connecticut, from whence its course may be charted up the New England coast and up the Hudson and Connecticut River valleys. It spread, then, north and northeast from New Amsterdam, and, for that matter may be spreading yet-we know it did not reach northern Maine till just before the Civil War. Upstate New York was still feeling the later waves of the movement in the 1860's, while Vermont-but that is a story to be told later.

Of course, it may appear that one is begging the question of origin by thus establishing New Amsterdam as the breeding-ground of bundling. In all fairness we should pause for the evidence of New Amsterdam's historian in this connection. Diedrich Knickerbocker, whose admirable account of the early Dutch Colony has been preserved for us by Washington Irving, includes the following observations in his narrative of strife with the "strange barbarians, bordering upon the eastern frontier."

"But notwithstanding the fervent zeal with which this holy war was prosecuted against the whole race of unbelievers, we do not find that the population of this new colony was in anywise hindered thereby; on the contrary, they multiplied to a degree which would be incredible to any man unacquainted with the marvelous fecundity of this growing country.

"This amazing increase may, indeed, be partly ascribed to a singular custom prevalent among them, commonly known by the name of bundling-^, superstitious rite observed by the young people of both sexes, with which they usually terminated their festivities; and which was kept up with religious strictness by the more bigoted part of the community. This ceremony was likewise, in those primitive times, considered as an indispensable preliminary to matrimony; their courtships commencing where ours usually finish-by which means they acquired that intimate acquaintance with each others' good qualities before marriage, which has been pronounced by philosophers the sure basis of a happy union. Thus early did this cunning and ingenious people display a shrewdness of making a bargain, which has ever since distinguished-and a strict adherence to the good old vulgar maxim about 'buying a pig in a poke.'

"To this sagacious custom, therefore, do I chiefly attribute the unparalleled increase of the Yanokie or Yankee race; for it is a certain fact, well authenticated by court records and parish registers, that wherever the practice of bundling prevailed, there was an amazing number of sturdy brats annually born unto the State, without the license of the law, or the benefit of clergy. Neither did the irregularity of their birth operate in the least to their disparagement. On the contrary, they grew up a longsided, rawboned, hardy race of whoreson whalers, woodcutters, fishermen, and peddlers, and strapping corn-fed wenches; who by their united efforts tended marvelously towards peopling those notable tracts of country called Nantucket, Piscataway, and Cape Cod."

Despite Irving's compelling presentation, however, it must be remembered that modern scientific criticism has seriously undermined Knickerbocker as a reliable source. In fact the charge frequently brought against him, that of deliberate transposition and reversal of facts, seems to be justified here. And we are forced to conclude that it was the Yankee who benefited from association with a community which had behind it several generations of "queesting" rather than vice versa.

In reality the Dutch influence in this matter was double barreled. The English Colonists were exposed to it before they ever came to this country. The Pilgrims spent several years in Holland before sailing for Plymouth, and it is known that they grew to share many of the views and customs of their Dutch hosts. In fact, one of the important reasons for the removal to America was the fear on the part of the elders that the young people were gradually losing, in the intimacy of friendly social intercourse, their English identity. Thus the early New Englanders could not have been unfamiliar with such a pleasantly universal Dutch custom as queesting when they once more came across it in neighboring New Amsterdam.

This Dutch bundling grew directly from the current status of betrothal, so greatly enhanced by the Reformation. Arthur W. Calhoun points out that, "In Leyden the (Dutch) people were betrothed or married very young. Sometimes the betrothal was of considerable duration and the betrothed pair enjoyed great liberty." The early New England institution of pre-contract was in part a reflection of the leisurely if cautious Dutch betrothals.

In yet a third way bundling was carried across the ocean. The richest field for bundling lore in this country is Pennsylvania, and the custom was brought to that region directly from Germany. The so-called Pennsylvania Dutch were German Protestants attracted to the colony of Pennsylvania by the congenial piety and glowing land-salesmanship of William Penn. He made two tours of Germany, in 1673 and 1677, soliciting worthy settlers for his Quaker Utopia and posting notices descriptive of rich land available in Pennsylvania for as little as $1.00 an acre. The Germans responded in large numbers-a dozen different Protestant sects transplanted themselves intact-and for over two centuries they have served Pennsylvania well, as a simple, honest antidote to all that Philadelphia was later to become.

They came from the section of Germany where Lutheran influence was strongest. They brought with them, and have stubbornly clung to, their religion, customs, manners, and fashions. Bundling was, of course, included. In no other colony or state was bundling more common or respected; in none has it survived more sturdily. Among a people who can preserve the spirit and the letter of seventeenth century sectarianism as faithfully as have the Pennsylvania Dutch, the heritage of bundling is safer than with the pushing, restless seaboard Yankee.

Here in brief outline, then, is the beginning of bundling. Three main lines of origin are distinguishable. First, the influence of the Dutch in Holland on the Pilgrims; second, the influence of the Dutch Colony of New Amsterdam on the early New England Colonies; third, the migration of the Germans to Pennsylvania. And all three lines converge on Wittenberg, and Martin Luther.

In this country the practice spread rapidly and far, so well adapted was it to the economy, the culture, and the temperament of the settlers. Its progress through the Colonies is almost as clearly discernible as though it were a style in architecture, leaving permanent evidence behind. Straight up the coast it moved, reaching Boston early in the eighteenth century, then up the Connecticut River Valley to Vermont and New Hampshire; at the same time it was progressing up the Hudson, pushing into New Jersey from both sides. The last news of widespread bundling activity came from the northern sections of Maine and Vermont, although many quiet backwaters cherished the custom long after the main stream had spent itself. On Cape Cod, for example, bundling survived peacefully until the isolation of that salty little empire was destroyed by a spur line of the New Haven Railroad. From Wittenberg to Winterport the spirit of Martin Luther has marched on.

Up to now no emphasis has been laid upon the various European counterparts to bundling so dutifully described in that classic work, "BUNDLING; ITS ORIGIN, PROGRESS AND DECLINE IN AMERICA," by Henry Reed Stiles, M.D. (Albany, 1869). The indefatigable Stiles has here collected every analogy which either the history of ancient times or the observations of modern travelers could suggest. But, since the customs quoted are frankly analogies rather than parent practices, and since their existence throws no light upon the American evolution of bundling, it is not necessary to consider them in a general analysis of the historical development. Diverting sidelights, however, they surely are.

Stiles finds, for example, that Julius Caesar was so impressed by the promiscuous sleeping together of the ancient Britons that he referred to them as "polyandrous polygamists," a phrase that would have served the valiant Roman well had he been moved to keep as accurate a diary of his Egyptian experiences as of his campaigns in Gaul.

Remembering British tenacity, we are not surprised to find, as a sequel to this early characteristic, that travelers have consistently reported survivals of this behavior throughout the Celtic fringe, of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.

Woodward's HISTORY OF WALES tells of crowded sleeping accommodations. "At night," he says, "a bed of rushes was laid down along one side of the room, covered with a coarse kind of cloth, made in the country, called 'brychan'; and all the household lay down on this bed in common, without changing their dresses. The fire was kept burning through the night, and the sleepers maintained their warmth by lying closely."

John Carr, author of THE STRANGER IN IRELAND, contributes a more pleasant picture.

"One evening, at an inn where we halted, we heard a considerable bustle in the kitchen, and, upon inquiry, I was let into a secret worth knowing. The landlord had been scolding one of his maids, a very pretty, plump little girl, for not having done her work; and the reason which she alleged for her idleness was, that her master having locked the street door at night, had prevented her lover enjoying the rights and delights of bundling, an amatory indulgence which, considering that it is sanctioned by custom, may be regarded as somewhat singular, although it is not exclusively of Welsh growth. The process is very simple; the gay Lothario, when all is silent, steals to the chamber of his mistress, who receives him in bed, but with the modest precaution of wearing her under petticoat, which is always fastened at the bottom-not infrequently, I am told, by a sliding knot. It may astonish a London gallant to be told that this extraordinary experiment often leads in downright wedlock, a knot which cannot slide. A gentleman of respectability also assured me that he was obliged to indulge his female servants in these nocturnal interviews, and that too at all hours of the night, otherwise his whole family would be thrown into disorder by their neglect; the carpet would not be dusted, nor would the kettle boil."

But, though certain of these Celtic episodes may reflect an offshoot of Continental and Reformation morality, and may therefore indicate practices in the British Isles which were allied to queesting and bundling, it is likely that Stiles had the right of it when he dismissed such behavior with the judgment that "Bundling as now practiced in these kingdoms (Scotland and Ireland) is merely a. matter arising from the ignorance, or the poverty of the inhabitants."

It seems likely that these episodes are merely typical of economic misfortune and depressed standards of living, a far cry from American bundling, which, while it was not common among the wealthy, was nevertheless a great democratic institution in a society as yet uncursed by many examples of accumulated wealth.

Certain historians have been puzzled by the absence of any English illustrations of bundling behavior, and have drawn rather elaborate deductions from the presumed moral superiority of the English yeoman. A simpler explanation presents itself-the travelers were all Englishmen. No one has sharper eyes abroad than the Englishman; no one can see less at home.

If it is perhaps clear how bundling started, how it came quite naturally to take root in the northern American Colonies, we may now discard the ponderous devices of scholarship, and move on to the actual bundling era.

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