With all of the engagements announced over the festive period, my friends and I were discussing weddings we had been to and what we might like for our own weddings one day. My friends seemed mildly impressed by some of my basic knowledge of where some of the traditions we tend to celebrate in England came from, so I told them semi-jokingly I would write them a blog post about it. So here you are, MB and CS!

In the medieval period, the Catholic Church was keen to get people to have marriages in churches. This would extend the Church’s authority, emphasise God’s role in the sanctity of marriage, and by making the wedding public and official it was hoped that many of the marital issues that clogged up medieval church and lay courts could be avoided. Whilst we have this notion that in the medieval period marriage meant ‘til death do us part’, in reality this was often not the case. Whilst divorce didn’t exist, and the Church was usually reluctant to break up an existing marriage, there were numerous ways one could get out of an inconvenient marriage. Examples included claims of consanguinity (saying you were too closely related by blood to your spouse), claims of infertility/erectile disfunction, and claims of a previous pre-contract to be married to somebody else. This would allow the marriage to be annulled (as if it had never existed in the first place).

The marriage of King Arthur by Speed Lancelot, 1912. WikiCommons.

Moreover, as the majority of people were still getting married in private, with simply a priest and a couple of witnesses, it could often be difficult to prove (or even disprove) that a marriage took place. In medieval ideology, it often wasn’t even necessary for a priest and witnesses – many examples from court rolls show us that if a man and a woman simply promised each other that they were married, then they were married – an inconvenient reality for many men who promised to wed a woman simply to sleep with her, only to later find out that he was forced to indeed spend the rest of his life with her.

Despite this, over time more and more people did opt for the more official wedding ceremonies. For the upper classes, an ostentatious wedding was another way to demonstrate one’s wealth and power, cement alliances between families, and to trade wealth via dowries. By making the wedding officially recognised, it also meant that the woman in the marriage was sure to be protected by medieval rights for widows should her husband die.

Royal 6.E.vi,  f. 375 detail
Medieval weddings could be quite simple and only involve a few people. Detail of an initial ‘C'(oniugium) of a priest joining hands. BL MS Royal 6 E VI, f. 375r. British Library.

However, many of the wedding traditions we hold today come from much earlier than the medieval period. Numerous examples come from Ancient Rome and spring from their own ideas of religion and evil spirits. Whilst today the groomsmen and bridesmaids are often in similar or matching dress, in Ancient Rome the groomsmen and bridesmaids usually dressed identically to the bride and groom in a bid to confuse any malicious spirits who might target the happy couple to try and curse their marriage. Trying to avoid evil spirits continued after the wedding, where the idea of the groom carrying the bride over the threshold of the house was a last effort to stop any pesky evil spirits who might be on the floor of the doorway.

Imagining of a Roman wedding procession, ‘The Roman Wedding’ by Emilio Vasarri. Via ArtNet.

Another wedding tradition that comes from slightly less cheerful origins is supposedly the ordering of how participants stand during the ceremony. Supposedly the idea of the bride standing on the left and the groom and his groomsmen (particularly his best man) being to the right comes from periods where brides were abducted unwillingly by men from neighbouring villages and forced to marry them. The bride’s unhappy kin would try to reclaim the bride before she was tied in marriage, and so the groom needed to stand to the right of the bride so that he could quickly access his sword with his right hand. His best man and groomsmen would also stand by his side, ready to fight off anyone who may interrupt the wedding. Marriage-day bliss indeed!

So where, then, did the bride’s party come from? Bridesmaids typically were young unmarried women who would attend to the bride on her wedding day. As with many things, the size of a wedding party was a sign of wealth and status, and the more bridesmaids a woman had would be an indication of her family’s influence. As for the maid of honour, in Ancient Rome she was a matron of honour – a married woman who was considered a good moral influence for the bride. She was to be known for her fidelity and obedience, not to be married more than one time, and needed to have her husband still living. The matron would join the groom’s and bride’s hands together for the first time at the ceremony.

Swords sometimes had to be at the ready at weddings. Original image source unknown.

Many can repeat the adage “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” but we don’t really know where any of this came from, and most people don’t know the meaning of the saying. Traditionally the “something old” was meant to represent the bride’s old life, and the “something new” was to represent the new life she was going to lead now that she was married. By having something new, she would be ushering in good luck and success in her new role as wife and hopefully mother. “Something borrowed” was usually expected to be an item worn by another happy bride at her wedding who was now successfully married, as another way to bestow success onto the new couple. “Something blue” was supposedly because the colour blue represented fidelity and purity (important qualities in a new wife).

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The idea of a wedding ring is also an interesting one. Whilst rings with romantic inscriptions exist from Ancient Greece, there was no such thing per se as a wedding ring. It was up to the Ancient Romans to come up with the idea of an engagement ring as a way to promise the couple to each other. The ring was given before the wedding ceremony, with the simple joining of hands occurring at the ceremony itself. This is probably why promise rings often featuring clasped hands from around the second century AD onwards. From around the 13th century, with the emergence of an idea of courtly romance and chivalric culture, romantic rings again gained in popularity and were often inscribed with romantic lines of French poetry. These became known as posy rings. In the 16th century the idea of a wedding band gained popularity, and Queen Mary I wore a plain band after she married Philip of Spain.

Ancient Roman fede betrothal ring showing clasped hands, 1st-3rd century AD. Image from Berganza.

When the wedding is over, the happy couple are expected to take a honeymoon. Records of the word itself do not appear until 1546, but one theory is that the idea originated from cultures where a new husband would hide his wife away for a month (or a cycle of the moon) and the couple would be sustained by honey mead brought to them by a member of their family. In the 16th century descriptions of the word, it is also claimed that it is a reference to the first month after the wedding being sweet like honey (with affection going downhill afterwards!). The actual idea of taking a holiday after the wedding did not really become mainstream until the nineteenth century in Britain. Even then, it was different to our modern notion; the newlywed couple were not always alone, and would sometimes be accompanied on the ‘bridal tour’ by friends or family to visit relatives who had not been able to attend the wedding. The idea spread to France from the 1820s onwards where it became known as voyage à la façon Anglaise (English-style voyage).

So, some wedding traditions are very old, some fairly new – I guess that suits the rhyme! More and more people are opting for making up new wedding traditions as traditional ideas of the roles of husband and wife, man and woman change. But it’s nice to know some things don’t change over the centuries.

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