The word wedding comes from the Old English wed, to pledge. Prior to 1100AD most marriages did not include a religious ceremony. A public announcement, kiss and consummation were all that was required. The legal coming of ages for marriage was 12 for a girl and 14 for a boy, although many peasant women did not marry but stayed with her parents or worked for her older brothers in return for food and shelter.
Marriage ceremonies and the celebrations that accompanied them largely depended on the social class and wealth of the bride and groom.
Rarely did a peasant couple have a new outfit especially made for a wedding. Usually, wedding clothes were often the very best outfit that a couple owned or was able to make at the time regardless of colour. Outfits which were made for a wedding would certainly have been worn afterwards. Veils for the bride were often worn- but this was part of her usual clothing and not particular to the wedding itself. Shown at right is detail from the 1350s, The Marriage by Nicolo da Bologna. The bride wears her best dress and is accompanied by musicians and female friends or relatives.
The language of love stated that green was the colour of young love and blue was the traditional symbol of purity, making these two colours a popular choice with brides. Dresses of white, a colour associated with mourning, were almost never worn. Traditionally, a band of blue ribbon would be worn by the bride and groom, giving us the origins of something blue. Garters were worn by every woman as part of her daily clothing to keep her hose fastened securely just under the knee. These became an important part of a bride’s outfit as at the end of the evening when the couple departed for the bedchamber, guests would try to take the garter for good luck. A man who gave his beloved the garter of a bride was said to have assured her ongoing faithfulness.
Wedding rings have been worn for hundreds of years, and the medieval period was no different. The plain wedding band can be traced back to the 11th century where it was worn on the third finger of the right hand. Only in the 16th century, was the ring changed to the left. Wedding rings from within the Jewish community tended to be far more flamboyant than those worn by the rest of the community. The ring at the left is from Colmar, France and is a Jewish marriage ring dated around 1300AD. Other rings might be plain or be inscribed with mottoes of love and fidelity both on the inside and outside.
A marriage brooch was sometimes worn given by the husband to his new bride. Johannes de Hauville wrote:
My bride shall wear a brooch, a witness to her modesty and a proof that hers will be a chaste bed. It will shut up her breast and thrust back any intruder, preventing it’s closed approach from gaping open and the enterence to her bosum being cheapened by becoming a beaten path by any traveller, and an adulterous eye from tasting what delights the honourable caresses of a husband.
Pictured at right is a Marriage Brooch dated at around 1430 from the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum. It is made of gold, enamel and precious stones and probably comes from Germany or Burgundy.
Betrothal and engagement
Medieval betrothal was almost as legally binding as marriage. In the case of nobles, betrothals could be arranged at the age of reason, seven years old, but were not legally binding until the couple came of age. It was not unusual for the betrothed couple to have not met until their wedding day many years later- the most important goal of marriage between nobles being the acquisition of wealth and to produce suitable legal heirs.
In adult couples, it was not unusual to cohabit prior to the wedding ceremony and offspring conceive and birthed during this period could often be legalised at the wedding ceremony. Hand-fast was a term used for a marriage contract or betrothal contract which denoted commitment but without the religious ceremony. This was usually a custom in the very early middle ages and between the poor. As the influence of the church grew, it became less frequent. Pictured at left is the Marriage Feast at Canna 1405-15.
Legalities of marriage
There were certain times of the year when marriages could not be performed; the weeks of Lent and Advent due to those times being religious observances.
For the nobility and the wealthy, grooms were often significantly older than their brides, who could be as young as 13 or 14. Noble women occasionally had the option of not wedding for the first time until the age of 24, but this was a rarity.
Rich orphans, female heiresses and wealthy widows often became wards of the king, and these women or girls could be married to men of the court who wished to increase their wealth and lands. A lord could sell his ward’s marriage to the highest suitable candidate to compensate for his own loss of her income. It was not until the Magna Carta that this practice was somewhat curtailed although by no means desisted completely. A law book from the reign of Henry II of England proclaimed:
Even if a female heir is of age, she shall remain in the wardship of her lord until she is married according to the desire and with the consent of her lord… and if a girl… marries without the consent of her lord, by the just law and custom of the realm, she shall lose her inheritance…
The peasants and working classes tended to marry into their own age and status demographic, preferring to choose healthy women who would bear children well and be fit enough to work alongside him if needed, as well as manage the domestic household. The Lord’s permission needed to be sought before a marriage could take place and if marrying outside of his holdings, a fine or merchet may be exacted. More than 75% of the population were married before the age of 19 although amongst peasant men, sometimes a son did not marry until the death of his father where he inherited his fathers assets which put him in a position to marry. Wedding contracts were usually drawn up with particular regard to the bride’s dowry and it’s inheritance rights in the event of her death. Inheritance and property were two reasons why arranged marriages were contracted at such an early age, although sometimes an proposed merger of families was to form an alliance. Shown at right is a detail from a 13th century manuscript.
A woman had the right to refuse an arranged marriage by buying her way out of the betrothal contract, however this was often a sum beyond the reach of the average woman unless she sold her worldly possessions. In 1207, this sum was set at a hefty 20 marks for widows and substantially more for women to remain single or have the right to choose their own husbands. This would leave a woman in a state of being financially unable to support herself and so the marriage went ahead. There are records of women who did successfully escaped arranged marriages. It is recorded that:
Quenild, daughter of Richard FitzRodger owes 60 marks and 2 palfreys that she may be able to marry whomever she pleases, with the advice of her friends, as long as she marries no one who is an enemy of the king.
Records show that although some women took their husband’s surname as their own, not all did. In the case of heiresses, the groom took the name of the wife, thus keeping the traditional family holdings in the same family name. One sample of this is the case of the remarriage of Sarah, the widow of Robert le Wyte. Her second husband was afterwards known as Gilbert le Wyte.
It was not unknown for the bride to undertake a virginity test to assure her future husband of her purity. Konrad von Megenberg wrote of a test in use in the 14th century. The girl was required to drink water which had been steeped with black amber for three days. If the bride to be could not hold her own water, it was thus proven that she was not pure. The test does not specify how long the bride was required to hold.
The custom of throwing money over the heads of newlyweds is documented in the Warderobe accounts of Edward II. It tells of a wedding in February 1321, where
money to the value of £2 was thrown by the King’s order at the door of the King’s chapel, within the manor of Havering-atte-Boure during the solemnization of the marriage between Richard, son of Edmund, Earl of Arundel and Isabella, daughter of Sir Hugh Le de Spencer, junior.
Upon the announcement of the betrothal, it was often customary for the bride to receive a ring with both names engraved on it and for the groom, a sleeve from her dress or a stocking. These were both intimate gifts, a hint of things to come and highly prized.
The best man at a wedding was exactly that- the best swordsman that could be found or hired by the groom to ensure the wedding was not interrupted. It was not unusual for the best man to be hired and not a relative or friend.
For those of noble class, the wedding procession to the church was often accompanied by minstrels. The order of the procession depended on which family was the wealthiest- the bride preceded if her family was higher ranked with the groom and his family behind or vice-versa.
The illumination detail at left is from the 14th Century Maria of BrabantMarriage.
Before the marriage took place, the priest would meet the couple at the door of the church which had previously been closed to prevent entry and ask of them the relevant questions. Were they of age? Did they have parental consent? Were they not related in a way which would prevent them from wedding in accordance with the law, that is have a common great great grandparent? The dowry would be read aloud and the groom would present his betrothed with a small bag of gold coins to distribute to the needy. This symbolised his willingness to give her financial management on his behalf. There would be a short sermon on the steps, vows exchanged, the ring placed on the bride’s finger, coins distributed by the bride and then the church doors would be opened for all to enter. Prayers and a mass were said under a canopy or cloth, then the kiss of peace was given by the priest to the groom which was passed to his new wife. Children of the union produced after the betrothal might be included under the cloth. The blessing was pronounced and the service itself ended. It must be noted that although the church considered premarital children legalised in the eyes of God, lawyers felt otherwise.
The custom of placing a child in a bride’s arms to wish her fertility and a gold florin in her shoe to bring financial prosperity could also be performed after the wedding service. In the case of the 15th century wedding of Margery Rygon and George Cely, three live rabbits were let loose as a gesture of fertility for the bridal couple.
The bride’s family was responsible for the dowry which, in the case of the wealthy, was usually money and land holdings. Commoner’s dowry would most likely include household utensils, tools, furniture, clothing and livestock. If the husband deceased or the marriage was annulled, the dowry reverted to the bride. This would then be passed down to her sons. If the widow remarried, the dower reverted back to the husband’s remaining family.
The wedding feast was often a lavish affair with many specialty dishes. Francesco Datini, a wealthy Italian businessman married Margherita on the week of Carnivale and the wedding feast included: 406 loaves, 250 eggs, 100 pounds of cheese, two quarters of oxen and 16 of mutton, 37 capons, 11 chickens, 2 boars heads and feet for jelly, an unspecified number of pigeons and waterfowl, local provincial wines and Chianti imported from Tuscani. While this was quite a feast by regular standards, it was quite modest compared to those given by royalty at the times of their own weddings.
If a couple were poor, they might be treated to a bride-ale by their family and other well-wishers. Guests would not only bring food for the feast itself but often assist with goods and money to help them set up house. Shown at right is a detail from an illumination, 1405-1415, Marriage Feast At Canna.
It was usual for at least three wedding gifts to be exchanged by the bride and groom themselves. The bride’s dowry was supplied by the bride’s parents, guardian or her benefactor. A large dowry made a woman more attractive as a potential wife if she was otherwise not as comely as others. In this instance, a bride was seen more as a prize than a beloved.
It was also traditional for the groom to give a present to his new wife after the marriage was consummated to compensate the for the loss of virginity. This could be any number of items, including small and valuable pieces of furniture. The groom or his family was responsible for providing a suitable home including income, although in many cases the groom would have been working alongside his father in a family business or trade for a number of years prior to his nuptials.
Gifts would be given to the couple only after the ceremony has taken place, usually at the marriage feast. Guests would often also receive a small gift from the couple which reflected the status of the guest, not of the couple. A gift would also be given to the priest who performed the ceremony.
Lilies and roses were popular choices for weddings and would be strewn on the floor among the rushes at the marriage feast. The guests would release the fragrance of both as they trod on them underfoot. Carrying a bouquet of flowers does not appear to have been a medieval tradition, although they may have been worn as a chaplet in the hair by less affluent women. Rosemary rosmarinus officinalis, symbolic of memory and fidelity, was used in wreaths for marriages.
Posted in Medieval Wedding Tagged with: details, flowers, medieval, wedding, wedding custom, woman