Historically, bundling was a courtship practice in which, as a part of an ongoing courtship process, a couple spent a night together, usually in bed, dressed or half dressed. During the night, the young couple got to know each other intimately and sexually through various kinds of stimulation and mutual gratification. However, these were supposed to fall short of penetrative sex that could lead to pregnancy. The custom was practiced with either parental permission or at least tacit knowledge, and took place mostly in the female partner's home. Most of the surviving evidence for the practice is from eighteenth-century New England. However, variations of premarital nonpenetrative sex customs similar to bundling are known from earlier times in many parts of Europe as well as other parts of the world. It is probable that bundling increased in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, partly reflecting a high average age at marriage (midto late twenties) and a growing emphasis on affection.

Variations of Bundling

Essentially, bundling was a social mechanism that helped to insure the stability of sacred matrimony. In traditional societies, where divorce seldom took place, minimizing the risk of broken marriages was one aim of the courtship period. It was therefore accepted that the courtship, as a kind of trial period, included some sexual acquaintance, though amid constraints. It has also been argued that the custom of bundling in premodern times had a circumstantial cause, namely that the harsh climate as well as poor housing was conducive to the growth of physical intimacy. Even the supposed widespread existence of bundling in New England is usually explained as due more to the harsh climate and the long distances between the dwellings of early settlers than to the alleged economic and moral independence of young couples. The young courting mate, having traveled a long way to visit his woman, perforce stayed the night in her home, usually in the same one large room where the rest of her family slept. These sleeping arrangements surely helped to control the intimacy of the couple and minimized the risk of abusing the privilege. An eighteenth-century New England ballad emphasized this practical aspect of the custom: "Since in bed a man and maid/may bundle and be chaste/it does no good to burn out wood/it is needless waste."

Like many other popular European practices concerning courtship and marriage, prenuptial nonpenetrative sex is also believed to be rooted in pre-Christian culture, especially in Germanic societies. Henry Reed Stiles, whose 1871 Bundling: Its Origins, Progress, and Decline in America remains one of the most cited books on the practice, traced its origin back to ancient rural Wales and parts of Scotland. Stiles also gave examples of what he viewed as bundling in medieval Holland, as well as in central Asia. Not all scholars are in agreement with Stiles about the exact time of the custom's appearance, but most recognize the validity of evidence on bundling variations at least from late medieval and early modern Europe. The evidence comes mostly from Wales, Scotland, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia, and less so from Germany, Switzerland, and parts of France. Evidence of nonpenetrative sexual courtship practices also exists for Eastern Europe.

The Swiss-German customs that shared the characteristics and purposes of bundling were Kiltgang, Fenstreln, or Nachtfreien. In early modern times in southern Germany these customs included young men climbing through the window of young women's rooms at night with the intention of gratifying mutual desires, but without incurring the risk of pregnancy. In the Netherlands queesten was probably comparable to bundling. It is described as a custom of wooing in which lovers sit in an open room, the man sitting on top of the bed covering, wooing the girl who is underneath. A New England equivalent was tarrying, in which a young man who wanted to marry a woman was allowed, with her parents' consent, to tarry with her for one night.

In most cases involving premarital nonpenetrative sex customs, the defining structures of class and geography were significant. Usually, but not exclusively, bundling was more common among people of the lower classes of society and in rural areas. It was also in these social classes and geographical settings that youngsters enjoyed greater freedom in choosing their spouses.

Youth Sexuality

By creating an accepted social space for practicing bundling, adult authorities gave young people in the medieval and early modern periods a socially legitimized framework for their sexual desires. As in other youth customs, such as the European CHARIVARI, young men and women used bundlingto express their SEXUALITY in a specific time and place within the boundaries of social consent. Although marriage rather than sociability was the premise of bundling, the youngsters received a space where their urgent sexual adolescent needs were tolerated. However, the unwritten behavioral code of bundling, which excluded penetrative sex, left the expression of the couple's sexuality controlled, supervised, and restrained by society. The restraints usually implied a gender bias. Young women were at much greater risk while negotiating their sexuality during courtship, not just of pregnancy, but also of damaging their matrimonial prospects.

In eighteenth-century New England bundling was often condemned as immoral. Washington Irving, in his Knickerbocker's History of New York, argued that a large number of pregnancies outside of marriage were a result of bundling. Other religious authorities, however, defended the practice. They even occasionally used examples of "religious" bundling or tarrying, such as that of the biblical Boaz and Ruth at the threshing floor ("Tarry the night … " Ruth 3:13). One material clue that points to the prevalent as well as conservative aspect of bundling is the Pennsylvanian centerboard. This was a wide board running through the length of the bed in which a courting couple lay, preventing too close a physical intimacy. A contemporary ballad in favor of bundling, called "The Whore on the Snow Crust," encouraged youngsters to practice it rightly: "Since bundling is not a thing/that judgment will procure/Go on young men and bundle then/But keep your bodies pure."

Bundling was declining in America around the time of the Great Awakening in the early 1700s, due to a combination of material as well as moral factors. The improvement in living conditions, which meant less isolated dwellings and larger homes in which there was more than one heated room, reduced the necessity of providing a couple with a warm bed to court in. The decline of bundling was also due to the changing climate of ideas regarding female sexuality around 1800. The nineteenth-century ideal of the pure asexual woman further limited the theoretical as well as the practical scope in which men and women could express their sexuality within accepted social norms.

In America as in other parts of the world such as Russia or Scotland evidence of the persistent customs of premarital nonpenetrative sex exists well into the nineteenth century. The balance between sexual expression and sexual restraint continued to be the rule in these encounters. Secularization and modern BIRTH CONTROL rendered penetrative sex less threatening. In time the back seats of cars in drive-in theaters and dark city street corners replaced in many ways the traditional bundling bed.


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