Monday was leap day, that special time that comes around every four years when the usual rules for marriage proposals — men do the asking — don’t apply.
No one knows for sure where the idea came from but it is sometimes attributed to St. Bridget, who lived in C5th Ireland. The story is that she complained to St. Patrick that women had to wait and wait and wait for their suitors to propose. In response, St. Patrick designated leap day as the day women could seize the initiative.
Another story holds that Queen Margaret of Scotland imposed fines on recalcitrant beaux. There are various versions of the penalties. One said the unresponsive suitor had to buy his lady twelve pairs of gloves, one for each month of the year. The gloves would cover her shame of having no wedding ring. Other penalties included a silk dress, enough fabric to make a skirt, or a red rose.
The tradition may have arisen from the fact that February 29 was not recognised by English law. Since the day had no legal status, it was acceptable to break with convention. Also, February 29 corrected the discrepancy between the calendar year and the actual time taken for the Earth to orbit the sun. What better time for women to correct a tradition of marriage proposals that was one-sided and unjust?
The problem of foot-dragging suitors did not exist in early Canada. Women were in short supply and much sought after for marriage. During the 1650’s, New France desperately needed settlers to increase the population of the colony. Most particularly they needed women. Enter Les Filles du Roi, an early version of government sponsored immigration. Females were selected from the poor and orphaned women of Paris and the provinces of France. They received training in the household arts from the nuns of the Hôpital-Général, in Paris. In the countryside, peasant daughters who were of “robust health and accustomed to farmwork,” were selected by the parish priest for inclusion among the nearly 800 women who were shipped off to the colony. Women of noble rank, destined to be wives for military officers, also travelled under the king’s protection. Each woman received 30 livres worth of clothes before leaving France. When she signed the marriage contract, in Canada (New France)she was given the remainder of her dowry, including money and provisions. Life in the New World was hard, but compared to life on the streets of Paris, many chose it as the better option.
When these women and girls arrived in New France, they were cared for by the nuns or by officials in the towns. There were plenty of men to choose from and it was the females who did the choosing. If a woman changed her mind before the marriage, she could opt out and choose another groom, or, in some cases, avoid marriage altogether and go out as a servant. Most of the women married, however and raised large families. After all, the main purpose of the program was to increase the European settlement in New France.
The government encouraged large families by offering a pension of 300 livres a year to those with ten living children. If the number of children rose to twelve, the pension rose to 400 livres. That was the carrot. The other part of the equation was the stick. If a young Canadien had not married by the age of twenty the family was fined 150 livres. The penalty applied to daughters who didn’t marry by their 16th birthday. Even more onerous was the revocation of hunting and fishing licences for single men! Much more punitive than a dozen pairs of gloves.
As romance writers, our stories are about the heart. Couples fall in love, they overcome obstacles, they marry and live happily ever after. In real life, for centuries, marriage was more about the head, society’s needs rather than the individual’s wishes. Yet, I hope that among those girls of New France, there were some who found a compatible husband, that they fell in love and grew to a ripe old age together, and were happy.