It is likely that in the beginning, the idea of courtship was organic. Two people would look at each other and then fall in love if there’s any attraction. There were likely no serenades, no dinner dates, no asking for hands in marriage, in fact there were bluntly putting no wedding ceremonies.
Then with the passing of time the human errors became pre-dominant and as a result some became more ugly and undesirable than the rest. Finding a mate therefore became increasingly difficult for these unfortunate beings. This caused folks to compensate for their deficiencies either by acquiring more land, more cattle, finer pelt (clothing made from animal hide) or by the acquisition of some attractive skill like playing musical instruments, making tools, weaponry and oratory etc.
When these compensatory skills were not enough and scarcity and tyranny further progressed folk would resort to forcibly abducting women and coerce them into becoming their “woman”. We see that this practice of kidnapping women (or rape of women) still goes on in parts of Africa and even in the backwards regions of Central Asia. This practice is euphemistically termed “bride” kidnapping. This forcible abduction of women led to warfare between the various camps between the woman’s family and the kidnapper’s family. With rape and abduction of women courtship had come to an end for the wrong reasons and merely involved convincing a captive woman to consent to betrothal.
Marriage was perhaps invented to deter kidnapping and abduction. The covenant of marriage bound man and woman together so no other may violate this bond by stealing “someone’s woman”. Those who did steal a woman “belonging to another” were tried for adultery and early punishment for such crimes was draconian (painful death).
The classic case of this institution in action is that of Helen of Troy who was betrothed with the following condition: that all the suitors of Helen would come to her rescue if she were ever abducted or molested. When Helen was inevitably kidnapped (and this was a common nd likely occurrence in the ancient world) it became no longer a matter of punishing a rapist, it sparked a war. The Trojan war lasted a decade and resulted in the complete annihilation of Troy. The war was perhaps a side effect of this institution of marriage and the vows that came along with it.
Mating in the early days was likely restricted and managed by the birth givers of youth. These guardians would have great influence in picking, selecting and approving suitors. These marriages were “arranged” by the guardians who viewed their children as their property and investment and hence viewed it their right to decide the fate of “their” children. This practice is still prevalent in the third world like India and Africa. A large majority still engages in marriages arranged through a “matchmaker”, by word of mouth or by exchange of photographs .
Luckily, with the renaissance, then the enlightenment and then sudden increase in general prosperity, with the advent of new democracies in the new world the practice of arranged marriage and courtship rituals began to undergo experimentation and gained in complexity and pomp. In the beginning the Europeans began to encourage courtship between the youngsters under close supervision by inviting people of similar social status to “debutante balls” or parties where the bachelorettes would make their debut. These parties became increasingly elaborate when the upper classes began to throw evenings of dance and music where the young boys and girls as well as the adults would dance the waltz. These dances were highly structured and decorum was strictly observed. The boys and girls got to move in synchrony and eventually even began to hold hands. They could get to know each other briefly until it was time for a rotation and the girls would move on to dance with some other fresh faced lad.
Because these events happened in the upper classes the suitors could now begin to be picked outside the immediate families (beyond cousins). Needless to say arranged marriages between cousins were on the decline because large numbers of equally wealthy, equally civilized people came in contact with each other.
The idea has always been to give everyone equal wealth, health and opportunity to court and mate as in the days of innocence. Ballroom dances are still arranged in the poorest parts of the western world and even in academic settings in the wealthiest countries because the scholars and students are usually not expected to have enough income and time to pursue a mate independently. Ballroom dances also occur in the elite circles of wealthiest folk in third world countries.
With the advent of the industrial revolution the factories began to clamor for laborers and with the advent of the world wars even women were encouraged to work. This led to the two genders meeting at the workplace. At the same time the western world began to introduce compulsory education for children, outlawing child labor and built schools for these children in every neighborhood. The idea was to educate the people so they could make informed decisions in a democracy. Here the boys and girls would meet each other and encounter puberty together.
In the beginning the best of breed would be paired up and married off by the time they graduated from high school in order to avoid the perils of meeting opportunistic strangers (or con artists) in the wilderness beyond high school. High school courtship rituals involved going to the movies or a meal at a diner erected to serve the masses. This is where the majority of courtship and lasting relationships would occur and this was the case in the wealthiest countries of the west until the 1950s and still is the case in the most undeveloped parts of the wealthiest countries. Today however most students in high school defer marriage because they want to take a chance with someone better (more educated or more sophisticated) in college or in the professional circles.
The thrust of bringing people together has been to maximize the potential of the people. The idea is to bring the best together more efficiently to maximize cooperative potential between the partners. Since Plato and the early thinkers viewed children as property of the “common wealth” it made sense that society as a whole facilitated the act of marriage and courtship. The idea was to prevent parents from exploiting their children. As a result of viewing the children as a wealth of the people society as a whole began to rally in favor of educating the children and their birth givers (women) by outlawing child labor and spousal and child abuse.
Just like trade is perhaps most efficient in an environment of freedom similarly is the trade of love most efficient perhaps in a free market. Unlike trade and accumulation of capital love and the improvement of human capital requires a higher priority and a higher degree of freedom. Where there is loss of freedom human beings may be exploited and traded as in marriage “arrangements” which may bring short term benefits to third parties (parents, relatives, tribes) but may not be in the long term interest of the primary parties (the bride and the groom) and therefore not in the interest of anyone involved (particularly the larger society).
With the advent of the 1960s, and a postindustrial society in the developed world, people began to take greater interest in tackling important issues by means of a higher education and hence postponed marriage.
The goal of civilization is perhaps to reduce disparity (physical, financial etc.) by bringing everyone up to a higher level of physical beauty, financial stability and to encourage love between all. The refinement and continual improvement of gentle, targeted, enlightened laws is likely to lead to greater social mobility, greater comforts and leisure activity and hence a facilitation of the trade of free love.