Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

History of Weddings: From the Middle Ages to the Present

Have weddings changed all that much since the Middle Ages? Let’s take a look and see…

We still have the huge feasts which are accompanied often by rowdiness and drunken states. Music and dancing are done by all. The bride has her ladies in waiting, the groom has his attendants. The bride sometimes still wears crinoline and hoops… Most people still get married in churches. If you’re Catholic, you still need an annulment vs. a divorce. Marriage is still considered a contract under the law…

Here’s a closer look…

Medieval Weddings

During the middle ages, we saw the rise of marriage laws. In 1076, The Council of Westminster made it a law that marriage must be blessed by a priest, and in the 16th century it was said that the marriage must be performed by a priest with witnesses present. Contracts and legal documents started to be drawn up, similar to today’s prenuptial agreements, marriage contracts and licenses. Dowry, property, rights, etc… would be contained in these documents.

Believe it or not but in the Middle Ages, a woman’s beauty regimen prior to her wedding is very similar to what I did before mine… Her face would often be painted with some sort of cosmetic (discussing cosmetics at a later date). She might sun-bleach her hair. Some women plucked their hairline. In the middle ages, it was considered fashionable to have a high forehead. Now this one I didn’t do, but I have a friend who wasn’t very fond of her widow’s peak. Hair would be worn loose or with a garland of flowers. This might be the only flowers adorning a bride. Some carried a sachet of herbs and potpourri, but not the traditional bouquet that contemporary brides carry.

If a woman came from a wealthy or noble family, she would have a nice hot bath, followed with some flower and herb scented oils. If she wasn’t, she would be dirty…but still get some sort of perfume to cover the smells. It may be foul to think about, but if everyone is dirty, then it’s just normal.

The finest silks with gold or silver embroidery would be worn. Brightly colored fabrics were popular. Men would wear their finest court attire, or even a newly made set of clothes. Jewelry, furs and elaborate belts adorned every noble body.

Today white is the symbol of purity, and most wedding dresses made in this hue. In the middle ages this wasn’t so. Bride’s would wear blue most often, as blue was the symbol of purity. If her gown was not blue, she would wear something blue, like a ribbon on her person. Hence today’s, “something blue.”

The garter also became popular in medieval times. As guests followed the bride and groom to their room, where they “put” the couple to bed, overzealous guests would grapple with the bride’s gown, trying to take something for good luck. That’s when the garter became popular, so people would then try to take it. I wonder how shocked they’d be now if they saw a modern groom, buried deep under his bride’s skirts, pulling out the lacy garter with his teeth? “Oh, heavens!” **crosses self** That would be hilarious.

Peasants usually could only afford to wear their everyday clothes, perhaps the one good outfit they saved for church.

For a person of noble birth, their wedding may take place in the castle or manner. As long as it was blessed by a priest, it wasn’t necessary for the ceremony to take place in a church. Great feasts would follow, with fools, minstrels, musicians, and other entertainers.

Today’s tiered wedding cakes actually stemmed from the Middle Ages. Guests would bring little cakes and stack them on top of one another. The bride and groom would then try to kiss over top of the cakes without knocking them to the ground.

Guests included inhabitants of the residence, other nobles and distant relatives. Invitations were not sent out.

The noble wedding was rarely one filled with love. It was an arranged marriage.

Now peasants were a little different. They would often marry for love… or perhaps a quick love-fest that resulted in pregnancy would push them down the aisle. Despite differences, peasants still considered marriage to be a legal contract, and there were some who also suffered through an arranged marriage. Betrothal ceremonies would be held in the home, attended by some of the villagers. A village tradition was the shower the bride and groom with seeds of grain to wish them a fertile marriage…not so unlike throwing rice, which is going out of style…

Rings were exchanged amongst the wealthy, however among peasants, often the groom would break a coin in half keeping one side for himself and giving the other to his bride.

Elizabethan Weddings

A lot of the customs from the middle ages were still upheld during Elizabethan times. Religion still played a major roll in weddings, and ceremonies would be conducted by a priest, most likely in a church. A procession would take the bride from her home to the church.

Prior to marrying, a Crying the Banns would be done. This was the couple’s announcement of their intention to marry. Should anything bar that from happening, it would be brought up during the banns. This custom still occurs in British churches today. The announcement would be made in church, three Sundays in a row. Anyone who married without conducting the Crying the Banns, their marriage would be considered illegal. If they lived in different parishes, the banns would need to be cried in both.

If someone needed to get married right away however, they could be issued a Marriage Bond, by the bishop. The marriage bond contract required only one week of Crying the Banns. Fun Fact: William Shakespeare and his wife elicited a Marriage Bond from the bishop for their own wedding.

Weddings were held in the mornings, before noon, and the feasts took place afterward.

Flowers played a bigger part. The bridesmaids would be in charge of making bouquets for guests, and to make the wedding garland, which was rosemary and roses. The bride would carry her garland until after the ceremony, where she would then place it on her head.

The cost of the wedding fell to the bride’s father, however in small villages; neighbors may prepare food for the feast, sort of like a pot-luck dinner. Another tradition stumbled into Elizabethan times as well, the bride ale. A bride would gather in a courtyard and sell ale to as many people would buy it, for as much as they would pay to finance her wedding.

Invitations were still not sent out. People knew of the wedding and they would attend. If it was to be held at court, courtiers knew to go. Sometimes little notes might be sent out, but nothing formal. Strict social order is observed in the church, nobles up front, peasants in the back.

The marriage contract was still very important, with details of the dowry and jointure (what the grooms family would provide to the bride should she become a widow).

Engagement rings were not yet popular; however diamond wedding rings could be seen.

Regency Weddings

During the Regency, weddings became mostly private affairs, and even if held at church was not attended by that many. A very popular place to have a wedding was at St. George’s Church in Hanover Square. In fact, in 1816 there were 1063 weddings held that year in the church. According to the Hibiscus Sinesis website, with that many weddings in the year, it was a rival with a Las Vegas wedding chapel.

It was during the Regency-era that white wedding gowns began to stick. Wearing white was popular during that time anyway, so it wasn’t only a wedding gown thing.

Reading of the banns was still done in the Regency-era but there were also a couple of other ways you could go about it. There was the common license, which was obtained by a bishop or archbishop. The couple had to be married in a church or chapel where either the bride or groom had lived for four weeks. The third way was a special license, which was issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Doctors Commons in London. The special license allowed the couple to marry anytime, anyplace.

Weddings were still done in the mornings and could be followed by a breakfast feast.

Victorian Weddings

Queen Victoria is often given credit for making the white wedding gown popular since she herself wore white to her wedding; however there have been many royal and non-royal brides before her that did not wear white.

Flowers began to play a bigger part in the wedding. The church or chapel would be decorated with them. Men would wear a flower in the lapel of their frock coat or morning coat. In the country, a bride would walk to the chapel on a carpet of flower blossoms.

Church bells rang to alert the people that the wedding was taking place, and to ward off evil.

By 1880, weddings could be held as late as 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

Scottish Marriages

In Scotland marriages were a lot different. There were not all the rules that applied to England. In Scotland a couple was considered married if they announced it to witnesses, and then consummated the marriage.

In England, people would elope to Gretna Green in Scotland to avoid the laws and restrictions. These marriages were considered legal in England, although they were discouraged. Sounds vaguely like a Vegas wedding…

So you tell me, have weddings changed all that much?


Anonymous said...

Great post! I have to agree that marriages although a bit different are still pretty much the same. Thanks for the refreshing history!

san_remo_ave said...

Don't forget about the Fleet Weddings of the 18th century!


Lexi said...

I love weddings! Thanks for the fun read.

Renee Knowles said...

This is great info, Eliza. Thanks for sharing it. :)


Anonymous said...

that was an interesting article, thanks!

Tacoma flowers

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you for your comments!

San Remo, I'll have to look into the fleet weddins. From what I've heard they were popular, and there is some question as to whether the captain truly was able to marry the couple legally.

So glad you all enjoyed it!!

Chicks of Characterization said...

Thanks for sharing that Eliza! Weddings really haven't changed all that much, have they?

Eliza Knight said...

I agree it doesn't seem that they've changed that much...

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks Eliza. It is interesting how much and yet how little marriages have changed over the centuries.

Eliza Knight said...

Hi Elizabeth, weird isn't it? And I bet most people never ask, why do I need something blue?

Steven said...

Interesting read. I'm a student of medieval history and a writer of medieval historical fiction, but I haven't explored the subject of weddings in great detail. Know of any good books that talk about this topic? Thanks.


Eliza Knight said...

Hi Steven,

So glad you enjoyed the blog!

I do the majority of my research online, (links listed below) however there are several really good books that cover the topic of medieval marriage as well as several other interesting facts.

"Writer's Guide to Life in the Middle Ages," by Sherrilyn Kenyon

"Women in the Middle Ages," by Joseph and Frances Gies

"Life in a Medieval Castle," by Joseph and Frances Gies

"Life in a Medieval Village," by Frances Gies

I also really enjoyed reading
"The Pillars of the Earth," by Ken Follet. While it is historical fiction, it has a couple wedding scenes and it is a FABULOUS book!

Medieval Wedding links:






This link has a list of tons of books you may find interesting:


Good luck!!!

Steven said...

Thanks, Eliza for the references. I actually own Life in a Medieval Village and Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph and Francis Gies. And Pillars of the Earth. I love that book. One of my all time favorites. Thanks again for the refrences and links.


Delilah Marvelle said...

I absolutely love weddings and so reading about them from a historical perspective is without a doubt a huge treat for me! Thank you for posting, as always!

Eliza Knight said...

You're welcome Steven! Pillars of the Earth is my all time favorite! I've read it at least three times, and bought it for all my family members :)

Hi Delilah!
Me too! I dabbled in wedding planning for a short time, but ultimately being on that end of the boat is not as glamorous as it appears :)

Christina said...

Love your blog! I live in Sweden and here reading of the bann (lysning)was obligatory until 1973...

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you Christina!

It's amazing how much history follows us and how much we depend on tradition.

Anonymous said...

Hey Eliza, I am a student in High School, and I was researching middle ages era. When i stumbled across your article it helped me out a lot, and i learned a lot about weddings. Thanks alot Eliza


Eliza Knight said...

You're welcome Zack! Glad to help :)

Anonymous said...

Weddings have definitely changed. Now people break their bank account, brides spend months obsessing over details, and people in the ceremony end up paying way more money for the "honor" of being in the wedding party. A wedding used to be about the marriage: now a wedding is about the money, bride and presentation...how is that not different?