In the 5th Century AD, the world was a rapidly changing place. Groups of Angles and Saxons were leisurely picking through whatever goodies the Romans had left behind, and wondering if that damn wall had really been worth all the effort. A little further away, Attila the Hun was enjoying a moment of quiet contemplation over how he might like to redecorate the Coliseum, and a lot further away, people all over the Western Hemisphere were going happily about their business never having heard of any of this.
And one day, a very nice young woman in Ireland finally decided she'd had one too many unwanted marriage proposals.
"Yeah, well, what do you want me to do about it?" St. Patrick asked, in words to that effect.
"Well," St. Bridget responded, in the modern vernacular, "why not let us have a whack at it?"
"What, women? Proposing?"
St. Patrick thought this over.
"Alright," he said, after a moment. "Tell you what. You can have one day a year."
And St. Bridget smiled. So St. Patrick took another moment.
"Out of every four. Starting today."
As the legend goes, that day was February 29th, and St. Bridget proposed on the spot.
A More Believable Myth
Naturally, the Catholic Encyclopedia's entry on St. Bridget doesn't mention this gender-role reversing tidbit of apocrypha. But medieval Europe certainly had its rules regarding courtship, and tradition held that only men were allowed to propose.
Women all over the Continent and in Scotland particularly spent another seven hundred years or so complaining about this fact, when it is widely believed that legislation regarding socially acceptable, non-emasculating female marriage proposal was finally put to parchment. The earliest remembered if unrecovered record occurs in the Leap Year Act, allegedly passed by the Scottish Parliament in 1288. It wasn't supposed to have given carte blanche to the ladies in terms of picking the Big Day, but set aside the whole of the Leap Year as fair ground.
Preliminary research offers the following wording for the Act's most salient feature:
Ordonit that during ye reign of her maist blisset Majestie Margaret, ilka maiden ladee of baith high and lowe estait shall hae liberte to bespoke ye man she likes - albeit he refuses to talk he shall be mulcted in ye sum ane pundis or less.
I can't cut through much of the spelling or brogue, and don't at all want to touch upon ane pundis, but Margaret, Maid of Norway happened to be enjoying the second of her four years on the Scottish throne at the time the act was passed, and for what it's worth, Scotland didn't have another queen until Mary in 1542.
In the elapsed time, those insecure Scotsmen--say nothing of skirts, you--managed to amend the accepted interpretation of the act back to its supposed 5th Century Irish origins, from all of Leap Year to just Leap Year Day--giving them 365 extra days to hedge and squirm without fear of a preemptive strike.
For those men among you thinking this is a fantastic tradition to revive and enjoy in this modern age, I warn that scholarly research into the subject suggests the actual existence of any such act is unlikely at best--so your near-wife's legal precedent is probably a sham, and you're not off the hook to drop to one knee.
If it does hold up in court, though, mythological add-ons at least try to make it interesting. One version insists that any women premeditating a marriage had to wear a scarlet petticoat with a clearly visible hem, so that ambivalent or lifelong bachelors could see them coming a fair distance off and amscray. All versions--as the quotation suggests--mandate that if the gentleman isn't able to execute successfully an avoidance strategy and manages to get himself proposed to, failure to accept the proposal could result in a fine. The snubber was obliged to give the snubbed anything from 100 pounds to a silk dress, money to buy a silk dress, or a really decent pair of gloves.
Small price to pay for escaping an unwanted marriage, and much less than a woman commonly had to give up to enter one.
In modern Britain, it seems, the tradition persists to this day, something along the lines of the all-too-American Sadie Hawkins Day. And true to form, the American version comes from a comic strip dating all the way back to 1937.
One might think that I came across this in the course of idle research about an imminent subject, but no. I was told by my lovely and charming English paramour, who just might be getting a jump--or rather, a leap--on a fine old British tradition.