Sunday, February 29, 2004

Will You Marry Me?

Happy Leap Year's Day! An old tradition, recorded in law in Scotland and many other European countries decreed that in leap years, and later only on the 29 of February women could propose marriage and men couldn't just say no:

In 1288, Queen Margaret of Scotland decreed that on Leap Year's Day, a woman could propose. It was beholden on the man to accept, unless he was already married or betrothed, or pay a "swingeing £1 fine".

Other stories indicate that a man could also refuse by buying his suitor a pair of gloves or a silk dress. I heard that enough linen to make a dress was also satisfactory in many parts of Europe.

A curious custom, this one. A marriage was a contract, after all, that a woman couldn't legally enter into until quite recently. It was a contract between her father and the suitor or his father, and the role of the woman was largely to be the object over which the contract was written. So why give women the right to instigate such a contract, even if only one day every four years, and why make the consequences of refusing so expensive for the man? A one pound fine in 1288 was an enormous one, and enough material for a dress wasn't meaningless either in an era when most women owned about two dresses. I haven't been able to find out the reasons anywhere. Maybe historians amongst my readers could tell us the secret behind the Leap Year's Day marriages?

Until then, it's nice to speculate. Think of the close-knit villages of old Europe, where everybody knew everybody else's business. Couldn't the custom have originated in the desire to make men who fathered children outside marriage responsible for them more directly? The village scrutiny might have kept women from using the right to propose frivolously against men who were innocent of any hanky-panky, and the financial consequences of refusal might have provided some child maintenance even from men who refused the marriage itself.

Or maybe it was something completely different, as has also been speculated: a way for unattractive women to get hitched. But what about the unattractive men? It's unlikely that they would have been snapped up on the 29 of February. Should I now feel sorry for all these poor men, eternally doomed to solitude? Probably not. As we know, marriage contracts didn't value male charms equally with female charms which, in the paradoxical ways of this world, means that men had the upper edge here. On the other hand, a poor man was deemed an unattractive one.

So the still eligible men on February 29 would have been poor and possibly quite dishy. Not too bad for all those unattractive spinsters, is it?

Still, I think that my first conjecture sounds more promising. Queen Margaret would then have been a pathbreaking ruler in making the institution of marriage more just. What would she think of the FMA initiative, I wonder?