These days, it sometimes seems as if it's not a "real" wedding without a few hundred guests, elaborate food, music and dancing, and limousines. Many (including me) dispute the need to spend tens of thousands of dollars just to get married. But except for the limousines, a modern blow-out wedding bears many resemblances to a medieval aristocratic wedding.
Earlier I posted on medieval marriage and its slow acceptance as a sacrament, complete with rules against incest (which included marrying quite distant cousins) and against divorce. Here I want to discuss in a little more detail the wedding itself, which took a form far older than Christian marriage.
The Romans had believed in a big, fancy wedding, with feasting and elaborate clothing. The bride would process through the streets to the house of her new husband. A Roman bride was expected to provide a dowry, and in fact she was considered a concubine, not a real wife, if she couldn't produce one. The males in both the bride and groom's families made most of the arrangements.
Early medieval weddings followed the same pattern. A priest might be invited in to bless the bed, but if he had any sense he went home before things got too raucous. By the Carolingian era, however, a priest would commonly perform a nuptial mass, having at least some say in the events.
But the heart of a valid marriage was the oaths exchanged by the couple, commonly symbolized by the exchange of rings. Modern weddings still have the couples recite (or repeat) oaths to stay true to each other forever. This was supposed to take place before witnesses, who would be able to say later that the oaths had indeed been exchanged if there was any doubt.
Because an oath is only valid if given by free will, neither party could be forced into it. This did not of course exclude strong moral suasion by one's relatives. But then, as now, a shotgun wedding doesn't count and can be annulled.
For peasants, a wedding was simple, promises exchanged before family and relatives, often standing in a ring. If a priest came by at some point, he might bless a marriage that had been in effect for several months already. (The idea that lords had some sort of "first night right" to peasant brides is completely imaginary, having been created by over-excited Victorian minds.)
For aristocrats, unlike peasants, the exchange of vows, which often took place on a church's front steps, was followed by a nuptial mass inside the church, and then the feasting and dancing. One could be married in a parish church or a cathedral, but most emphatically not in a monastery or nunnery.
One of course dressed up for a wedding, but medieval brides did not wear white--indeed there was no particular color that was considered most appropriate. White wedding dresses only became popular in the nineteenth century, in imitation of Queen Victoria's wedding with Albert.
Because a couple was not fully married until they had consummated their union, they would be tucked into bed together. The wedding guests would often provide helpful tips through the window or sing naughty songs to get the couple in the mood. There was no honeymoon trip; rather, the feasting might continue for several days. The whole event could be so expensive for the bride's father that in England lords often demanded that those who held in fief from them should help pay for the oldest daughter's wedding.
© C. Dale Brittain 2015
For more on medieval marriage and other aspects of medieval history, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.