Monday 28 May 2018

Weddings through the ages: from Mediaeval times to today

I will admit I love weddings so I watched the recent wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. A lot of tradition there and yet with touches of 'new' ideas. How had those traditions come about?

The Ceremony

Photo by Enisa Haines of TV image
 courtesy of Channel 7, Sydney

In the early years of Christianity there were no marriage services. Instead, couples made a civil contract of marriage (a betrothal) by the joining of hands tied together with cord or ribbon (i.e, 'tying the knot'). The marriage act of 1754, aimed at outlawing 'clandestine marriages' not performed by priests, instead had couples eloping to Gretna Green.

Clergymen in the Middle Ages preached that marriage was for the procreation of children, was a remedy against sin and a way to avoid fornication. In 1076 it became law that a priest must bless a marriage. The bride and groom stood at the door of the church recited vows and exchanged rings before the priest or bishop. A feast with family and friends followed, where wine flowed and minstrels sang.

Today's brides may have a solemn, traditional ceremony or they may opt for a less formal celebration. The rigid rules of yesteryear are long gone.

Country Wedding
by John Lewis Krimmel, 1820
(sourced from H. Churchyard)

Photo by Enisa Haines of TV image courtesy of Channel 7, 
Wedding Dress

File:Bologna marriage women.jpg
The Marriage by Nicolo de Bologna,
 (sourced from

While men wore their best court clothing, olden day wedding dresses were of fine, brightly-coloured fabrics (often blue for purity) embroidered with gold or silver and enhanced with furs, fancy belts and jewelry.

(Wikimedia Commons)

The white wedding dress worn by brides today was not a popular choice until Queen Victoria chose it as a symbol of purity, youth and maidenhood, and women the world over followed.

Bridal Veil

File:Veils bavaria ncd 2012.jpg
13th Century veiling
from Isabeau of Bavaria,
queen of France,
H.G. Emery and K.G. Brewster
(sourced from The New Century Dictionary)

Veils, used as protection against evil spirits and an indication of respectability and status in ancient Greece, symbolised a bride's virginity and modesty in the 19th century. The bride wore the face veil during the ceremony, then either her father lifted the veil and presented the bride to the groom who then kissed her, or the groom lifted the veil and kissed her, showing he now took possession of his wife as a lover or his property.

Bridal flowers

File:Roman fresco of a woman wearing a garland of olives, from Herculaneum.jpg
Roman fresco of a woman wearing a garland of olives
by Ancient Roman artist,
1st Century AD (sourced from Pinterest)

People in ancient times carried pungent herbs and spices to guard against evil spirits and to attract good health and luck. And in the hope of new life and fertility, brides and grooms of ancient Rome wore floral garlands. In Victorian days the bride wore a garland of rosemary and roses. Gaining popularity in later years, flowers are used for bridal bouquets, to adorn men's jackets and decorate churches.

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue

(Wikimedia Commons - modified)

Something old  (continuity)
Something new (optimism for the future)
Something borrowed (borrowed happiness)
Something blue (love, purity and fidelity)
and a sixpence for her shoe (prosperity)

The rhyme, with its roots in superstition, first appeared in the 16th century.
Bridesmaids/flower girls/page boys 

Photo by Enisa Haines
 of TV image courtesy of Channel 7, Sydney

From Mediaeval times, English brides have had one bridesmaid in attendance. Now brides all over the world can have as many as they wish. Page boys, once servants or messenger at the service of a nobleman, assist the bridesmaids in holding up the wedding train. Flower girls, carrying sheaves of wheat for fertility and herb bouquets for prosperity in years long past, now sprinkle petals along the aisle as symbols of a happy life together.

File:StateLibQld 1 43355 Bride and bridesmaids, 1900-1910.jpg
Bride and Bridesmaids, 1910
(sourced from John Oxley Library,
State Library of Queensland)

That bridesmaids and flower girls dressed alike arises from superstition. Believing that evil spirits would harm the bride, to bridesmaids and bride dressed alike and the spirits were confused. And if there was intent to kill the bride, a bridesmaid was killed instead. (I was a bridesmaid once. So glad there were no intents to kill then!)

Wedding Rings

File:Gold medieval finger-ring of iconographic type (FindID 179200).jpg
Gold medieval finger ring
(Portable Antiques Scheme/
The Trustees of the British Museum) 

Around 4800 years ago ancient Egyptians viewed the circle of a ring as a symbol of eternity, of never-ending love, and the central hole a door leading to a future both known and unknown.  However, those rings, made of twisted and braided sedges, rushes and reeds, soon eroded and so were substituted for others made of leather, ivory or bone.

The Romans saw the ring as a sign of love, and also ownership, the 'claiming' of a woman. Later, when made of iron and engraved, the ring symbolised strength and endurance.

The Christians first used the ring in marriage ceremonies around 860. The ring then was elaborately decorated with engravings, decorations the Church considered too elaborate, turning people to a simpler appearance symbolising the union of hearts.

Through history wedding rings were worn on different fingers, on the thumb and on the left and right hands. Romans believed a vein, the 'Vein of Love' in the ring finger of the left hand, led directly to the heart, and so the left hand/ring finger tradition was born. In early Christian marriages, the priest took the ring and touched the thumb, the index finger and the middle finger, then, uttering 'Amen', he placed the ring on the ring finger to seal the marriage.

Wedding Cake

Today's tiered wedding cake began in the Middle Ages. Guests brought unsweetened wheat buns and placed them on top of each other. The bride and groom then attempted to kiss over the cakes without knocking them down. Spiced, alcohol-containing fruit cakes, popular to today, appeared in the 17th century.

Photo by Enisa Haines
of image courtesy of The Daily Telegraph
Toss the bouquet/Toss the garter

Image result for tossing the bouquet commons wikimedia
Tossing the Bouquet (Wikimedia Commons)

File:Millieicaro Bridal Garters 2048x2048.jpg
Wedding garter - For the 21st Century Bride
(Wikimedia Commons)

Tossing the bouquet and garter began in mediaeval England. Brides were believed to be lucky and to share in their luck guests would rip off pieces of the bride's dress and flowers. Seeking escape, the bride would toss her bouquet and run!

The history of tossing the garter is split into two tales. One says the groomsmen, in an attempt to steal some of the bride's luck would rush up and take the garters as a prize. The other tale reveals that in days long gone the bride and groom had to provide evidence of their wedding consummation. Family and friends would enter their bedroom and the groom would remove the garter--a symbol of the virginal girdle proving the bride's chastity--and by this act have the right to take his bride's virginity.

Today, the bride tosses her bouquet over her shoulder to unwed female guests at the reception. The groom also removes the garter at the reception (for reasons of modesty) and tosses it to unmarried male guests.

The Honeymoon

Off for the Honeymoon 
by Frederick Morgan, 1903 
(sourced from Bonhams)

Honeymoon comes from the Old English 'hony moone' warning couples about waning love. Hony points to the long period of pleasure and tenderness newlywed couples experience. Moone indicates the short time the sweetness lasts. Very different to what the word means today.

Carrying the bride over the threshold

File:NMP 1780s House interior Door Sill.JPG
Wooden threshold
(sourced from Infrogmation of New Orleans)

In days long gone thresh (straw and animal bedding) was kept inside the house, a foot-high piece of wood at the door stopping the thresh from falling outside during winter months. The groom, when stepping over the wood (later called the threshold) would have to carry the bride.

Have weddings changed much from Mediaeval times? Not really. We continue to recite vows and exchange rings in celebration of love.

And I'm all for it. Are you?

Love to love: the whole spectacle of Prince Harry and Meghan's wedding

Love to laugh: American preachers sure are passionate when giving a sermon!

Love to learn: weddings last but one day but they sure take time and a lot of effort to prepare!


  1. That was very interesting and I have to say I too love weddings and all of the traditions that go with them and I loved the royal wedding :)

    Have Fun


    1. Hi Helen. Weddings are so involving and yet so wonderful, aren't they?

  2. So many interesting traditions in the wedding service! I loved everything about the royal wedding, I thought it was beautiful. All the best to the happy couple! When I hear a wedding service it is always the vows that strike me afresh. So very serious, so very important. The rest is - dare I say it - the icing on the cake, a fabulous bonus.

    1. Hi Malvina. Weddings are quite complicated, aren't they? So many things to think about and organise it sounds stressful but in the end it's so much fun!

  3. Love a good wedding. Enjoyed Harry and Megan's wedding. So interesting to find out how things have changed over the centuries.

    1. Hi Cassandra. Yes, things have changed but it's lovely to see some of the traditions still exist. And when on a grand scale like Harry and Meghan's wedding, wow!

  4. Wow, Enisa, what fascinating information about some of the wedding traditions. When I was married the priest explained that the bride's family sit on the right side of the church (as he looks out at the congregation) and the groom's family sit on the left side. This is apparently because as the couple are leaving the church, the groom can use his sword (right) arm to quell any last minute protests from the bride's family (fend off any attacks)!! Loved reading this. Thank you!

    1. Hi Alyssa. Wedding traditions were on the bizarre side back in Mediaeval times, but wow, the groom quelling protests from the bride's side with a sword...I can certainly visualise that one!

  5. Hi Enisa, I was in London on the day of Harry and Meghan's wedding and didn't get to watch it on tv as we only had limited time left before flying home. I've watched the replays of the main scenes since (plus a couple of funny memes) and love how, even with the whole world watching, they managed to make it all about them and the love they have for each other.

    1. I loved their wedding. They made it it not only for their family but for the people and most especially for Princess Diana. 💖

  6. Hi Enisa, thanks for such a fascinating post. I had no idea about the history behind so many of our modern-day wedding customs.

    1. Hi Sharon. So much revealed while researching. So fascinating.


We love getting comments. Why not leave one?!