Marriage Customs Just-So Stories
Date: Tue, 21 Feb 95 18:03:13 PST
From: Peter Langston <psl>
Subject: Marriage Customs Just-So Stories
Forwarded-by: "email@example.com" <Henry_Cate_III@netcom.com>
The following is from a photo copy a friend gave me. It appears to
be from a book, this is part of Chapter two.
Marriage Customs: AD 200, Northern Europe
Among the Germanic Goths, a man married a woman from within his own
community. When women were in short supply, he captured his bride-to-be
from a neighboring village. The future bridegroom, accompanied by a male
companion, seized any young girl who had strayed from the safety of her parental
home. Our custom of a "best man" is a relic of that two-man, strong-armed
tactic; for such an important task, only the best man would do.
From this practice of abduction, which literally swept a bride off her
feet, also sprang the later symbolic act of carrying the bride over the threshold
of her new home.
A best man around AD 200 carried more than a ring. Since there remained
the real threat of the bride's family attempting to forcibly gain her return,
the best man stayed by the groom's side throughout the marriage ceremony,
alert and armed. He also might serve as a sentry outside the newlyweds'
home. Of course, much of this is German folklore, but it is not without
written documentation and physical artifacts. For instance, the threat of
recapture by the bride's family was perceived as so genuine that beneath
the church altars of many early peoples - including the Huns, the Goths,
the Visigoths, and the Vandals - lay an arsenal of clubs, knives, and spears.
The tradition that the bride stand to the left of the groom was also
more than a meaningless etiquette. Among the Northern Europeans barbarians
(so named by the Romans), a groom placed his captured bride on his left to
protect her, freeing his right hand, the sword hand, against sudden attack.
Wedding Rings 2800 BC Egypt
The origin and significance of the wedding rings is much disputed.
One school of thought maintains that the modern ring is symbolic of the fetters
used by barbarians to tether a bride to her captor's home. If that be true,
today's double ring ceremonies fittingly express the newfound equality of the sexes.
The other school of thought focuses on the first actual bands exchanged
in a marriage ceremony. A finger ring was first used in the Third Dynasty
of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, around 2800 BC. To the Egyptians, a circle,
having no beginning or end, signified eternity - for which marriage was binding.
Rings of gold were the most highly valued by wealthy Egyptians, and
later Romans. Among numerous two-thousand-year-old rings unearthed at the
site of Pompeii is one of a unique design that would become popular throughout
Europe centuries later, and in America during the Flower Child era of the
'60s and '70s. That extant gold marriage ring (of the type now called a
friendship ring) has two carved hands clasped in a handshake.
There is evidence that young Roman men of moderate financial means often
went for broke for their future brides. Tertullian, a Christian priest writing
in the second century AD, observed that "most women know nothing of gold
except the single marriage ring placed on one finger." In public, the average
Roman housewife proudly wore her gold band, but at home, according to Tertullian,
she "wore a ring of iron."
In earlier centuries, a ring's design often conveyed meaning. Several
extant Roman bands bear a miniature key welded to one side. Not that the
key sentimentally suggested a bride had unlocked her husband's heart. Rather,
in accordance with Roman law, it symbolized a central tenet of the marriage
contract: that a wife was entitled to half her husband's wealth, and that
she could, at will, help herself to a bag of grain, a roll of linen, or whatever
rested i his storehouse. Two millennia would drag on before that civil
attitude would reemerge.
Diamon Engagement Ring: 15th Century, Venice
A venetian wedding document dated 1503 lists "one marrying ring having
diamond." The gold wedding ring of one Mary of Modina, it was among the
early betrothal rings that featured a diamond setting. They began a tradition
that probably is forever.
The Venetians were the first to discover that the diamond is one of
the hardest, most enduring substances in nature, and that fine cutting and
polishing releases its brilliance. Diamonds, sets in bands of silver and
gold, became popular for betrothal rings among wealthy Venetians toward the
close of the fifteenth century. Rarity and cost limited their rapid proliferation
throughout Europe, but their intrinsic appeal guaranteed them a future.
By the seventeenth century, the diamond ring had become the most popular,
sought-after statement of European engagement.
One of history's early diamond engagement rings was also its smallest,
worn by a two-year-old bride-to-be. The ring was fashioned for the betrothal
of Princess Mary, daughter of Henry VIII, to the dauphin of France, son of
King Francis I. Born on February 28, 1518, the dauphin was immediately engaged
as a matter of state policy, to assure a more intimate alliance between England
and France. Infant Mary was presented with the veriest vogue in rings, which
doubtless fit the tiny royal finger for only a short time.
Through the origin of the diamond engagement ring is known, that of
betrothal rings in general is less certain. The practice began, though,
well before the fifteenth century.
An early Anglo-Saxon custom required that a prospective bridegroom break
some highly valued personal belonging. Half the token was kept by the groom,
half by the bride's father. A wealthy man was expected to split a piece
of gold or silver. Exactly when the broken piece of metal was symbolically
replaced by a ring is uncertain. The weight of historical evidence seems
to indicate that betrothal rings (at least among European peoples existed
before wedding rings, and that the ring a bride received at the time of proposal
was given to her again during the wedding ceremony. Etymologists find one
accurate description of the engagement ring's intent in its original Roman
name, arrhae, meaning "earnest money."
For Roman Catholics, the engagement ring's official introduction is
unequivocal. In AD 860, Pope Nicholas I decreed that an engagement ring
become a required statement of nuptial intent. An uncompromising defender
of the sanctity of marriage, Nicholas once excommunicated two archbishops
who had been involved with the marriage, divorce, and remarriage of Lothair
II of Lorraine, charging them with "conniving at bigamy." For Nicholas,
a ring of just any material or worth would not suffice. The engagement ring
was to be of a valued metal, preferably gold, which for the husband-to-be
represented a financial sacrifice; thus started a tradition.
In that century, two other customs were established: forfeiture of the
ring by a man who reneged on a marriage pledge; surrender of the ring by
a woman who broke off an engagement. The Church became unbending regarding
the seriousness of a marriage promise and the punishment if broken. The
Council of Elvira condemned the parents of a man who terminated an engagement
to excommunication for three years. And if a woman backed out for reasons
unacceptable to the Church, her parish priest had the authority to order
her into a nunnery for life. For a time, "till death do us part" began weeks
or months before a bride and groom were even united.
Ring Finger: 3rd Century BC Greece
The early Hebrews placed the wedding ring on the index finger. In India,
nuptial rings were worn on the thumb. The WEstern custom of placing a wedding
ring on the "third" finger (not counting the thumb) began with the Greeks,
through carelessness in cataloguing human anatomy.
Greek physicians in the third century BC believed that a certain vein,
the "vein of love," ran from the "third finger" directly to the heart. It
became the logical digit to carry a ring symbolizing an affair of the heart.
The Romans, plagarizing Greek anatomy charts, adopted the ring practice
unquestioningly. The did attempt to clear up the ambiguity surrounding exactly
what finger constituted the third, introducing the phrase "the finger next
to the least." This also became the Roman physician's "healing finger,"
used to stir mixtures of drugs. Since the finger's vein supposedly ran to
the heart, any potentially toxic concoction would be readily recognized by
a doctor "in his heart" before being administered to a patient.
The Christians continued this ring-finger practice, but worked their
way across the hand to the vein of love. A groom first placed the ring on
the top of the bride's index finger, with the words "In the name of the Father."
Then praying, "In the name of the Son," he moved the ring to her middle
finger, and finally, with the concluding words, "and of the Holy Spirit,
Amen," to the third finger. This was known as the Trinitarian formula.
In the East, the Orientals did not approve of finger rings, believing
them to be merely ornamental, lacking social symbolism or religious significance.
Marriage Banns: 8th Century, Europe
Curing European feudal times, all public announcements concerning deaths,
taxes, or births were called "banns." Today we use the term exclusively
for an announcement that two people propose to marry. That interpretation
began as a result of an order by Charlemagne, king of the Franks, who on
Christmas Day in AD 800 was crowned Emperor of the Romans, marking the birth
of the Holy Roman Empire.
Charlemagne, with a vast region to rule, had a practical medical reason
for instituting marriage banns.
Among rich and poor alike, a child's parentage was not always clear;
an extramarital indiscretion could lead to a half-brother and half-sister
marrying, and frequently did. Charlemagne, alarmed by the high rate of sibling
marriages, and the subsequent genetic damage to the offspring, issued an
edict throughout his unified kingdom: All marriages were to be publicly
proclaimed at least seven days prior to the ceremony. To avoid consanguinity
between the prospective bride and groom, any person with information that
the man and women were related as brother or sister, or as half-siblings,
was ordered to come forth. The practice proved so successful that it was
widely endorsed by all faiths.
Wedding Cakes: 1st Century BC, Rome
The wedding cake was not always eaten by the bride; it was originally
thrown at her. It developed as one of many fertility symbols integral to
the marriage ceremony. For until modern times, children were expected to
follow marriage as faithfully as night follows day; and almost as frequently.
Wheat, long a symbol of fertility and prosperity, was one of the earliest
grains to ceremoniously shower new brides; and unmarried young women were
expect to scramble for the grains to ensure their own betrothals, as they
do today for the bridal bouquet.
Early Romans bakers, whose confectionery skills were held in higher
regard than the talents of the city's greatest builders, altered the practice.
Around 100 BC they began baking the wedding wheat into small, sweet cakes
- to be eaten, not thrown. Wedding guests, however, loath to abandon the
fun of pelting the bride with wheat confetti, often tossed the cakes.
According to the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, author of "De
rerun natura" (Of the Nature of Things"), a compromised ritual developed
in which the wheat cakes were crumbled over a bride's head. And as a further
symbol of fertility, the couple was required to eat a portion of the crumbs,
a custom known as "confarreation, or "eating together." After exhausting
the supply of cakes, guests were presented with handfuls of "confetto - "sweet
meats" - a confetti-like mixture of nuts, dried fruits, and honeyed almonds,
sort of an ancient trail mix.
The practice of eating crumbs of small wedding cakes spread throughout
Western Europe. In England, the crumbs were washed down with a special ale.
The brew itself was referred to as "bryd ealu", or "bride's ale," which
evolved into the word "bridal."
The wedding cake rite, in which tossed food symbolized an abundance
of offspring, changed during lean times in the early Middle Ages. Raw wheat
or rice once again showered a bride. The once-decorative cakes became simple
biscuits or scones to be eaten. And guests were encouraged to bake their
own biscuits and bring them to the ceremony. Leftovers were distributed
among the poor. Ironically, it was these austere practices that with time,
ingenuity, and French contempt for all things British led to the most opulent
of wedding adornments: the multitiered cake.
The legend is this: Throughout the British Isles, it had become customary
to pile the contributed scones, biscuits, and other baked goods atop one
another into an enormous heap. The higher, the better, for height augured
prosperity for the couple, who exchanged kisses over the mound. In the 1660s,
during the reign of King Charles II, a French chef (whose name, unfortunately,
is lost to history) was visiting London and observed the cakepiling ceremony.
Appalled at the haphazard manner in which the British stacked baked goods,
often to have them tumble, he conceived the idea of transforming the mountain
of bland biscuits into an iced, multitiered cake sensation. British papers
of the day are supposed to have deplored the French excess, but before the
close of the century, British bakers were offering the very same magnificent creations.
Throwing Shoes at the Bride: Antiquity, Asia and Europe.
Today old shoes are tied to newlyweds' cars and no one asks why. Why,
of all things, shoes? And why old shoes?
Originally, shoes were only one of many objects tossed at a bride to
wish her a bounty of children. In fact, shoes were preferred over the equally
traditional wheat and rice because from ancient times the foot was a powerful
phallic symbol. In several cultures, particularly among the Eskimos, a woman
experiencing difficulty in conceiving was instructed to carry a piece of
an old shoe with her at all times. The preferred shoes for throwing at a
bride - and later for tying to the newlyweds' car - were old ones strictly
for economic reasons. Shoes have never been inexpensive.
Thus, the throwing of shoes, rice, cake crumbs, and confetti, as well
as the origin of the wedding cake, are all expressions for a fruitful union.
It is not without irony that in our age, with such strong emphasis on delayed
childbearing and family planning, the modern wedding ceremony is replete
with customs meant to induce maximum fertility.
Honeymoon: Early Christian Era, Scandinavia
There is a vast difference between the original meaning of "honeymoon"
and its present-day connotation - a blissful, much-sought seclusion as a
prelude to married life. The word's antecedent, the ancient Norse hjunottsmanathr,
is we'll see, cynical in meaning, and the seclusion it bespeaks was once
anything but blissful.
When a man from a Northern European community abducted a bride from
a neighboring village, it was imperative that he take her into hiding for
a period of time. Friends bade him safety, and his whereabouts were known
only to the best man. When the bride's family abandoned their search, he
returned to his own people. At least, that is a popular explanation offered
by folklorists for the origin of the honeymoon; honeymoon meant hiding.
For couples whose affections were mutual, the daily chores and hardships
of village life did not allow for the luxury of days or weeks of blissful idleness.
The Scandinavian words for "honeymoon" derives in part from an ancient
Northern European custom. Newlyweds, for the first month of married life,
drank a daily cup of honeyed wine called mead. Both the drink and the practice
of stealing brides are part of the history of Attila, king of the Asiatic
Hungs from AD 433 to 453. The warrior guzzled tankards of the alcoholic
distillate at his marriage in 450 to the Roman princess Honoria, sister f
Emperor Valentinian III. Attila abducted her from a previous marriage and
claimed her for his own - along with laying claim to the western half of
the Roman Empire. Three years later, at another feast, Attila's unquenchable
passion for mead lead to an excessive consumption that induced vomiting,
stupor, coma, and his death.
While the "honey" in the word "honeymoon" derives straightforwardly
from the honeyed wine mean, the "moon" stems from a cynical inference. To
Northern Europeans, the term "moon" connoted the celestial body's monthly
cycle; its combination with "honey" suggested that all moons or months of
married life were not as sweet as the first. During the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries, British prose writers and poets frequently employed the Nordic
interpretation of honeymoon as a waxing and waning of marital affection.
Wedding March: 19th Century, England
The traditional church wedding features two bridal marches, by two different
The bride walks down the aisle to the majestic, moderately paced music
of the "Bridal Chorus" from Richard Wagner's 1848 opera "Lohengrin. The
newlyweds exit to the more jubilant, upbeat strains of the "Wedding March"
from Felix Mendelssohn's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
The custom dates back to the royal marriage, in 1858, of Victoria, princess
of Great Britain, and Empress of Germany, to Prince Frederick William of
Prussia. Victoria, eldest daughter of Britain's Queen Victoria, selected
the music herself. A patron of the arts, she valued the works of Mendelssohn
and practically venerated those of Wagner. Given the British penchant for
copying the monarchy, soon brides throughout the Isles, nobility and commoners
alike, were marching to Victoria's drummer, establishing a Western wedding tradition.
White Wedding Dress and Veil: 16th Century, England and France
White has denoted purity and virginity for centuries. But in ancient
Rome, yellow was the socially accepted color for a bride's wedding attire,
and a veil of flame-hued yellow, the "flammeum," covered her face. The bridal
veil, in fact, predates, the wedding dress by centuries. And the facial
veil itself predates the bridal veil.
Historians of fashion claim that the facial veil was strictly a male
invention, and one of the oldest devices designed to keep married and single
women humble, subservient, and hidden from other males. Although the veil
at various times throughout its long history also served as a symbol of elegance
and intrigue, modesty and mourning, it is one article of feminine attire
that women may never have created for themselves.
Originating in the East at least four thousand years ago, veils were
worn throughout life by unmarried women as a sign of modesty and by married
women as a sign of submissiveness to their husbands. In Muslim religions,
a woman was expected to cover her head and part of her face whenever she
left the house. As time passed, rules (made by men) became stricter and
only a woman's eyes were permitted to remain uncovered - a concession to
necessity, since ancient veils were of heavy weaves, which interfered with vision.
Customs were less severe and formal in Northern European countries.
Only abducted brides wore veils. Color was unimportant, concealment paramount.
Among the Greeks and the Romans by the fourth century BC, sheer translucent
veils were the vogue at weddings. They were pinned to the hair or held in
place by ribbons, and yellow had become the preferred color - for veil and
wedding gown. During the Middle Ages, color ceased to be a primary concern;
emphasis was on the richness of fabric and decorative embellishments.
In England and France, the practice of wearing white at weddings was
first commented on by writers in the sixteenth century. White was a visual
statement of a bride's virginity - so obvious and public a statement that
it did not please everyone. Clergymen, for instance, felt that virginity,
a marriage prerequisite, should not have to be blatantly advertised. For
the next hundred fifty years, British newspapers and magazines carried the
running controversy fired by white wedding ensembles.
By the late eighteenth century, white had become the standard wedding
color. Fashion historians claim this was due mainly to the fact that most
gowns of the time were white; that white was the color of formal fashion.
In 1813, the first fashion plate of a white wedding gown and veil appears
in the influential French "Journal des Dames." From that point onward, the
style was set.
© 1995 Peter Langston