Bundling, Dream Space, Love, and the Farmer’s Daughter

by Bill Benzon

The other day I was reading an old post an eBuddy of mine, Michael Cobb Bowen, had written about the possibly of a female viagra-type drug. Michael ended the post by observing:

Sex is dirty, complicated and embarrassing. You have to get naked and vulnerable. In fully formed human beings, that takes some doing and some mutual obligation. More than we think we know, and more than most are willing to say.

In thinking about it – how, say, vulnerability “takes some doing” in “fully formed human beings” – my mind wandered to bundling, an old courtship practice I'd learned about in my teens and, in the worldly wisdom of youth, thought rather prudish and quaint.

Of bundling the Wikipedia tells us:

Traditionally, participants were adolescents, with a boy staying at the residence of a girl. They were given separate blankets by the girl's parents and expected to talk to one another through the night. The practice was limited to the winter and sometimes the use of a bundling board, placed between the boy and girl, ensured that no sexual conduct would take place.

I am no longer an adolescent. I have learned that sexuality is not, in reality, so simple as it was in my pristine adolescent fantasy.

Perhaps there is wisdom in bundling.

The fact that precautions were taken against sexual activity indicates that people both were fully aware of sexuality, and that they wanted to prevent the practice thereof. That I can understand, but then why incur the risk by having the courting couple sleeps together in the first place? If the object is to have them talk, why not let them talk in the swing on the front porch, or sitting in the front parlor? Why have them talk at night, and in bed?

There is a possible answer. When we are sleeping we are, in the crudest possible way, most vulnerable. We are open to surprise physical attack. Thus we take great precautions to ensure that our sleeping places are safe. Moreover, no longer tethered to the here and now, the mind is free to wander.

Dream Space

The vulnerability Bowen had in mind is not physical; it's psychological, the vulnerability of dream space. It is as though the courting couple was to enter dreamland together and, through talking, share their dreams. I am reminded of a passage from John Milton's Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, where he asserts: “God in the first ordaining of marriage taught us to what end he did it, in words expressly implying the apt and cheerful conversation of man with woman, to comfort and refresh him against the evil of solitary life, not mentioning the purpose of generation till afterwards, as being but a secondary end in dignity.”

Conversation before sex.

It's not at all clear to me that the conversation of bundling couples would be “cheerful,” but I rather doubt that they talked of the weather or the stock market. I can imagine, in fact, that they might well have found that talking difficult and awkward at first, that they had to figure out just how to have intimate conversation, as such does not come naturally. I would like to think that they were in fact learning how to become vulnerable.

That is, part of being a fully formed human being is the capacity for deep intimacy with another. Bundling thus served as a training ground for such intimacy. Perhaps the idea was that if and when the courting couple became married, that they would then be sexually comfortable with one another.

Some Evidence

This is all speculation. Let's flesh it out. Upon learning of my interest in such matters a colleague, Charles Cameron, gathered some passages about religious practices in which male clerics would enjoy chaste sleep with woman as a mode of spiritual practice. While I recommend the whole set to you, I'm going to look at only one of them, from a 1906 book by William Graham Sumner: Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals (the complete text is available through Project Gutenberg).

576. Bundling. One of the most extraordinary instances of what the mores can do to legitimize a custom which, when rationally judged, seems inconsistent with the most elementary requirements of the sex taboo, is bundling. … Christians, in the third and fourth centuries, practiced it, even without the limiting conditions which were set in the Middle Ages. Having determined to renounce sex, as an evil, they sought to test themselves by extreme temptation. It was a test or proof of the power of moral rule over natural impulse. “It was a widely spread custom in both the east and the west of the Roman empire to live with virgins. Distinguished persons, including one of the greatest bishops of the empire, who was also one of the greatest theologians, joined in the custom. Public opinion in the church judged them lightly, although unfavorably.” …

577. Two forms of bundling. Two cases are to be distinguished: (1) night visits as a mode of wooing;[1859] (2) extreme intimacy between two persons who are under the sex taboo (one or both being married, or one or both vowed to celibacy), and who nevertheless observe the taboo.

578. Mediæval bundling. The custom in the second form became common in the woman cult of the twelfth century and it spread all over Europe. As the vassal attended his lord to his bedchamber, so the knight his lady. The woman cult was an aggregation of poses and pretenses to enact a comedy of love, but not to satisfy erotic passion.

Here Sumner is talking about courtly love, the subject of C. S. Lewis's classic, The Allegory of Love. The courtier regards his beloved as an object of almost religious veneration; she inspires him and her love ennobles him. Courtly love is often regarded as a precursor to romantic love, at least in the West, though the matter is complex and debated (see my comments in this post on biology, love, and culture). We'll have to set all that aside, though. Let's return to Sumner:

The custom spread to the peasant classes in later centuries, and it extended to the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Switzerland, England, Scotland, and Wales, but it took rather the first form in the lower classes and in the process of time. In building houses in Holland the windows were built conveniently for this custom. “In 1666-1667 every house on the island of Texel had an opening under the window where the lover could enter so as to sit on the bed and spend the night making love to the daughter of the house.” The custom was called queesten. Parents encouraged it. A girl who had no queester was not esteemed. Rarely did any harm occur. If so, the man was mobbed and wounded or killed…. This was the customary mode of wooing in the low countries and Scandinavia. In spite of the disapproval of both civil and ecclesiastical authorities, the custom continued just as round dances continue now, in spite of the disapproval of many parents, because a girl who should refuse to conform to current usage would be left out of the social movement…. The custom is reported from the Schwarzwald as late as 1780. It was there the regular method of wooing for classes who had to work all day. The lover was required to enter by the dormer window.

In short, bundling and its kin have been around for a long time and are widespread.

Let's take a slightly more detailed look by consulting “Little Known Facts about Bunding in the New World,” which had been privately printed in 1938 by A. Monroe Aurand, Jr. Here we find a statement from “The Mentor” in 1929:

There were districts in New England where the bundling light was a beacon to the farm lad who, of a Saturday night, went trudging afoot or on horse up the roads invoking and even daring fate. The Yankee with daughters to wed advertised the fact in this poetic manner. He had merely to put a candle in his window (more often it was the mother who lighted it or the marriageable girl herself) and bide the family's time.

That fate might not find her unreceptive, the daughter thus offered for mating enjoyed the distinction of a room of her own and a bed of feathers. To this she was wont to retire early …

Presently the knight-errant, seeing the light, halted in his quest and tapped briskly on the pane …

Notice the reference to knight-errant – a faint echo of 12th Century courtly society?

Aurand also informs us that, in a world were beds were sometimes scarce, bundling had its more mundane uses:

Bundling Was a Legitimate Custom, to all intents and purposes – with all its dangers – among most of the American colonists, in one way or another in those early days…

The custom, happily for all concerned, was not confined alone to the courting couples, but was extended to army officers traveling from place to place, the good old peddler, and the traveling salesman; the minister and the doctor had the privilege, if they cared to exercise it; candidates for office could expect to be “invited” to join the family, or the daughter “in bed,” if they had no fear as to some of the constituency raising objections as to “morals.”

And that brings us to a well-known family of jokes.

The Farmer's Daughter

For the sake of argument, let us assume that the primeval farmer's daughter joke went something like this:

A traveling salesman's car breaks down on a country road one evening. He is miles from town. He walks to a nearby farmhouse, and the farmer doesn't have a phone, but says he'll take the salesman into town in the morning. Since the salesman isn't going anywhere, the farmer offers to put him up for the night. The condition is that he'll have to sleep with his daughter because there aren't any other beds. He is warned to behave himself. The farmer's daughter, who is drop dead gorgeous, is almost 20 years old and has a shape that would easily qualify her as a centerfold.

At bedtime, the farmer's daughter puts a pillow between herself and the salesman. She explains that her father told her to put the pillow there to separate the two of them. Nothing happens that night.

In the morning, the salesman is stowing his bag in the back of the farmer's pickup when he sees the farmer's daughter feeding the chickens on the other side of the fence. He walks up to the fence and offers the farmer's daughter a thank you for sharing her room and her bed. The farmer's daughter walks up to the fence and tells the salesman that he is welcome, and then flashes a bright smile at him and winks. The salesman smiles and says that he has half a mind to climb over the fence and kiss her. She says, “If you can't climb over a pillow, how you gonna climb over this here fence?”

While one doesn't need to know about bundling in order to get the joke; that pillow does seem to derive from the practice. Somewhere back in the pool of conversations that produced this joke, someone knew about bundling.

The joke itself seems both obvious and subtle. It is the farmer himself who suggests the arrangement, and he warns the man to behave. The daughter who puts the precautionary pillow in place, on daddy's instructions, is also the daughter who comes on to the salesman as he leaves. The suggestion, of course, is that he could have had her if he'd removed the pillow.

That, of course, is only one version of the jokes. This web page tells an elaborate variation involving two daughters in which the salesman has sex with both daughters. But there's no hint of bundling. The salesman doesn't actually sleep with either daughter; the sex took place in the salesman's car.

This page gives several such jokes, none of which hint of any relationship to bundling. I like this one because it crosses the farmer's daughter joke with the Polish joke (though, of course, the teller can alter the ethnicities to suit local prejudice):

Three guys were driving in a car when it broke down. One was Irish, one Italian, and one Polish.

When their car broke down they walked to the nearest house. It was raining so they asked if they could stay the night.

The farmer said yes as long as they didn't touch his daughter.

So that night, the farmers hot daughter invited the Irish guy to her room, but to get to her room they had to walk past the farmers room where his cat slept in the doorway.

The Irish guy goes over and the floor squeeks, the farmer wakes up and says “What was that?”

The irish guy quickly went “meeeeoowww”. The farmer went back to sleep and Irish guy went to the girls room and they had sex.

Next she wanted the Italian guy, so he went over and the same thing happened, the floor squeeked, farmer wakes up, “meeeowww”, farmer goes back to sleep.

Finally the Polish guy goes over, and the floor squeeks, the farmer asks agiain “What was that?”,

The Polish guy responds, “Its me the cat!”

Notice, however, that while any indication of bundling has disappeared from the joke, the story is still about a farmer's daughter. Why? There are two obvious considerations. The rural locale motivates the basic situation: a man needs a place to spend the night. And then there are the connotations of rural, at least to city slickers and suburbanites: backwoods, primitive, earthy, animal.

Cultural Profligacy

On the whole I am inclined to believe that intimate conversation between husband and wife is a cultural invention; marriage based on it certainly is. It likely owes a debt to bundling as a form of religious practice. Bundling itself seems, at various times and places, to be more casual, owing nothing to religious aspiration and discipline. Bundling in turn has given us the farmer's daughter, who promptly forgot about it.

Such are the loose and profligate ways of culture.

* * * * *

Bill Benzon's blog, New Savanna. Posts about romantic love.