by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the April 1982, A.S. XVI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
Much of the everyday routine of the Middle Ages was never written down. Wedding folklore and customs were no different. We can only surmise from accounts of customs in the 17th and 18th centuries what they were. Thus, what follows is just a collection of these customs, not all of which could be found at any given wedding at any given time or place.
The modern wedding cake is the outgrowth of the old Roman custom of baking special barley or oat cakes for a wedding. In later practice, a cake was broken over the bride’s head, with the pieces distributed to the guests. One superstition had it that if a piece of this cake was placed beneath one’s pillow, one would dream of his or her intended. Over the course of the period, the size of cakes grew. In the beginning of the Jacobean period, raisins and spices were added to make the cake more palatable. A confectioner then came up with the idea of decorating the cake, thus creating the modern wedding cake. Soon after this development, the tradition of breaking the cake over the bride’s head ended.
A closely related custom is the throwing of rice. This custom is very old and widespread, involving a variety of things thrown. The Greeks used dates and figs, the Romans, nuts. Coins were also a common item thrown. During the Middle Ages, barely seeds were used. The number of seeds caught in the bride’s dress indicated the number of children she was to have. Besides fertility or prosperity, another given reason for this practice was to ward off or propitiate evil by feeding the ever present demons.
The bride’s veil was another form of protection from evil, particularly the evil eye. Sometimes the couple was protected by a veil held over them while at the altar. Since it was considered possible for the evil to come up through the ground, there was often a piece of linen at the altar for the couple to kneel on.
For similar reasons, the bride and often the groom would ride to and from the church, even if it was only a short distance away. As demons are afraid of steel, the couple would exit the church under an arch of crossed swords. Since spirits were often said to inhabit the doorway of a house, the bride would be carried over the threshold.
The throwing of the bouquet has its medieval equivalent. Instead of carrying a bouquet, the bride would wear a myrtle wreath. After the ceremony, all the unmarried maidens would gather around the bride, who had been blindfolded. The bride would then place the wreath on someone’s head and that lady was supposed to be the next one married. Some variants of this custom have this process continuing until all the ladies have been picked. Another variant had the bride tossing her left stocking over her shoulder. This particular version usually took place during the bedding of the bride.
The bedding of the bride took place the night after the wedding when the groom took the bride to bed for the first time, after the bed had been suitably blessed by a priest. The purpose of this proceeding was to verify that the bride was virginal at the time of the wedding. It not, the marriage could be annulled.
A not quiet so risqué custom was stealing the bride’s garter or ribbons. When this custom first appeared, a small boy would be induced to steal the garter off the bride’s leg during the course of the feast. Later, the groomsmen got into the act. Still later the act would occur while the couple were still at the altar. This tradition died out in the 18th century when the whole proceeding became too rambunctious.
A more subdued custom that would take place in the church was the bride’s cup. This involved passing around a large cup of wine, blessed by the priest, from which everyone would drink.
Now it should be remembered that no all of the wedding ceremony took place inside the church, only the nuptial Mass. The repeating of the betrothal and the nuptials occurred on the church porch. Thus the phrase “wed at the church door.” There are several competing explanations for this. One was that it was to maximize the publicity of the wedding, particularly the giving of the dowry. Another was ecclesiastical uneasiness about sanctioning what was basically a business transaction. For whatever reason, it was not until the Protestant Reformation that the ceremony moved inside.
The last tradition I shall present occurred upon the return from the church. This tradition had it that the first person to kiss the bride would be extremely lucky. A variant had the bride kissing all the men in the company. A different version had the bride dancing with all the men and frequently the groom dancing with all the women.
This ends my exposition on weddings. Its spottiness in coverage reflects the spottiness of the source material. But it should also be understood that these are only the unique things that would occur on a wedding day. There also was the usual feasting and entertainment that went along with any holiday. For, above all else, marriage was a time for celebration.
Scott, George Ryley. Curious Customs of Sex and Marriage. New York: Key Publishing, 1960.
Westermarch, Edward. The History of Human Marriage, vol. 2. 5th ed. New York: The Allerton Book Co., 1922.
Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.