On pickup lines

This week, I was very pleasantly alerted to the world of AI generated pickup lines via the medium of Janelle Shane’s substack. There were any number of beautiful, bonkers, lines from, “Hey, my name is John Smith. Will you sit on my breadbox while I cook or is there some kind of speed limit on that thing?” to “I’m losing my voice from all the screaming your hotness is causing me to do.” I was, however, struck by the very good pickup line by one AI called Babbage which was heard to remark, “You’re looking good today. Want snacks?” and I am still in awe.

Anyway, I was posting away about my now blossoming relationship with Babbage over on twitter when Kara wrote to ask me to write something about pickup lines in the medieval period, and I will be damned if that is not a great idea. Don’t we all deserve a little light diversion on a Friday in the midst of all of the pandemic, ships stuck in the Suez canal, and police brutality? So, here is one for Kara.

To be clear, dating was very much a thing in medieval Europe, in that people had romantic relationships that were not necessarily about marriage. They didn’t date in the same way that we would conceive of the action in that there wasn’t really a way of meeting people who you didn’t come into direct contact with, and dating wasn’t really about going out together to restaurants or whatever. They did, however, form romantic relationships, have sex with each other, and participate in activities together outside of a marital context. This was all, of course, much to the chagrin of the Church that very badly wanted to emphasise that sex was for husbands and wives to make babies while having the least amount of fun possible. However, we have plenty of evidence talking about the trials and travails of relationships that did not occur within the confines of marriage.

Miniature from BL MS King’s 322, f. 1r.

Ruth Mazo Karras, for example, points out that it was considered common enough that people had sex before getting married that there was a common penalty in English church courts called “on pain of marriage” (sub pena nubendi).[1] Basically the idea was that unmarried people who had engaged in sex outside of marriage (or who had been suspected of doing so) would be forced to say a vow of marriage in the future. (“I will take thee to be my wedded wife.”) These conditional vows would then kick in if the couple had sex, thereby consummating their marriage, whether they liked it or not. This was a way of forcing people to consider the gravity (in the Church’s opinion) of extramarital sex, which was classed as “fornication”. It also served as a sort of insurance should said couple get knocked up in the course of their dating.

We know that dating and premarital sex, and even secret marriages that justified the sex that the lovers engaged in, were common at all levels of society across the medieval period. We see suits brought against men who promised to marry their lovers but then absconded when called on it; lovers forced to marry when they didn’t want to after it was discovered they were banging; or even boyfriends suing their girlfriends’ fathers when they attempted to marry their daughters off to more prominent families and put a stop to their relationships.

All in all then, there was a lot of dating and having sex, just as now. On fifteenth-century English poem “A Servant-Girl’s holiday” gives us a glimpse of dating life among the lower classes.

“Jack will pay for my share
On Sunday at the ale-feast;
Jack will souse well my throat
Every good holiday.
Soon he will take me by the hand
And he will lay me on the ground
So that my buttocks are in the dirt
Upon this high holiday.
In he thrust and out he drew
And ever I lay beneath him…”[2]

Here we see a hot date is to an ale fest, which hell yeah dude sign me up. Then, lacking a private space of their own (because being a servant girl meant you were living in someone else’s house, naturally) the couple gets it on in a field. The whole thing ends in tears when said serving girl ends up knocked up and isn’t sure what she is going to tell her boss, but all in all it gives us an idea of what regular people were up to in their dating life.

BL MS  Harley 4431, f. 145.

Then as now there were plenty of people who wanted to get in on some of that sweet dating/having sex in a field action but weren’t sure how to do so. Into that void stepped enemy of the blog Andreas Capellanus with his pick-up artist manual De Amore or The Art of Courtly Love. As we have talked about before, the work includes multiple model dialogues between people of varying classes that Capellanus considers to be people. Serving girls like the protagonist above need not apply, but the middle classes and above all had sample dialogues provided. They all start with pickup lines.

Thus, I give you the pickup lines of Andres Capellanus, which hopefully can be used to start an AI pickup line generator to amuse me:

  • When the Divine Being made you there was nothing that He left undone.[3]
  • If I could shut up my heart within the bounds of my will, I would, perhaps, pass over in silence many things which I am urgently driven to say. But my heart drives on my will with sharp spurs, diverting it from its natural path and causing It to wander and to seek things too great for me to express.[4]
  • It doesn’t seem at all profitable to dwell very much on the praise of your person, for your character and your beauty echo through widely separated parts of the world…[5]
  • To tell you the truth , I am an ambassador sent to you from the court of Love to entrust to Your Prudence the solution of a certain doubt: In which woman does a good character deserve more praise – in a woman of noble blood, or in one who is known to have no nobility of family?[6]
  • So much nobility is apparently in you, and you are distinguished by so much courtesy, that I believe in the presence of Your Prudence I may without fear of censure say all those things that are lying in my heart waiting to be said.[7]
  • You should know … that I have put all the thought and the reliance of my mind on you, and that nothing in the world can make me happy except the most precious treasure of your person.[8]
  • I ought to give God greater thanks than any other living man in the whole world because it is granted me to see with my eyes what my soul has desired above all else to see, and I believe that God has granted it to me because of my great longing and because He has seen fit to hear the prayers of my importune supplication.[9]
BL MS Stowe 17 f. 143.

Of course, other than being very very funny, what these pickup lines and the AI generated pickup lines have in common with “real” chat up lines is that pickup lines don’t work. They exist within a specific idea of the world where men are active subjects who sort of do romance and sex at women who are passive objects. They presuppose a sort of romantic interaction where women can reliably be fooled into relationships or sex against their will by a smarter cunning man. This is nonsense.

There are, of course, ways to chat someone up without being a creep, as our good friends at BISH have informed us all. However, all of these involve actually observing the person that you wish to speak to and ascertaining whether they look like they are receptive to you talking to them. This rules out just running at an unsuspecting person with a random line and hoping it will work. And here’s the thing about chatting to someone who has already indicated that they might be receptive to speaking to you – they actually just want to chat to you they don’t want a line.

Fundamentally, if you are still thinking about romance as something that men do at women, and you think that there are some kind of cheat codes to it, you are bound to be disappointed. The way that dating and romance work, and have always worked is that people are attracted to each other and sort out a way of going forward. What a loser like Capellanus thinks about it is entirely beside the point. At the end of the day, if you are looking to spark something with someone you may as well use AI or Capellanus chat up lines however, because if they aren’t interested in you there is nothing you can say that will trick them into fancying you. Conversely, if they are already interested in your it probably won’t matter what you say and if you say some nonsense from an AI or a dude who has been dead for several centuries. Almost anything you do will be read positively in those circumstances because they are already inclined to like you.

We’ve been doing dating and chat up lines for centuries and one thing is for certain, whether it’s De Amore or Babbage, they just don’t work in the way that weird dudes want them to. Unless it is that one about snacks, in which case I am interested.

[1] Ruth Mazo Karras, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others, Second Edition, (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), p. 124.
[2] Ibid., p. 125.
[3] Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love, trans. John Jay Parry, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 37
[4] Ibid., p. 44
[5] Ibid., p. 54
[6] Ibid., p. 62
[7] Ibid., p. 68
[8] Ibid., p. 84
[9] Ibid., p.  92

If you enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon. If not, that is chill too!

For more on courtly love, see:
On courtly love and pick up artists
That’s not what chivalry is, but OK
On incels and courtly love
On courtly love, sexual coercion, and killing your idols
On Hotline Bling and courtly love
On power and the entitlement to the bodies of lower-status women, or, the thing that is actually ‘medieval’ about Trump

For more on medieval sex, see:
On sex with demons
On “alpha” men, sexual contagion, and poorly disguised misogyny
That’s not what sodomy is, but OK
On sexualising the “other”
On Jezebel, makeup, and other apocalyptic signs
On Sex, Logic, and Being the Subject
On “the way of carnal lust”, Joan of Leeds, and the difficulty of clerical celibacy
On Dildos and Penance
On No Nut November
On cuckolding – a thing
On sex work and the concept of ‘rescue’
The history of penis in vagina as default sex at Bish!
On women and desire

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

2 thoughts on “On pickup lines”

  1. As much as The Miller’s Tale is a collection of bawdy sex and fart jokes, it’s also a showcase for the extremely limited game medieval men had: one of the men gets a woman’s attention when “priveley he caughte hire by the queynte,” and he’s the guy we’re supposed to sympathize with!


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