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The medieval period (generally accepted as the 4th to 15th century) brought about lasting changes in the way marriages were arranged and perceived. Several rituals that rose in popularity in the Middle Ages are still in practice today-- reciting vows, exchanging rings, and hosting a celebration are customs that have not changed very much from the medieval era. Marriages were typically arranged, and the style of dress varied depending on the social class of the bride and groom. Read on to find out more about marriage ceremonies during the medieval period, and how many of our current traditions are deeply rooted in history.
In the medieval period, marriages were usually performed out of necessity, not love. Although lower-class couples would sometimes marry freely, those of noble birth almost never had a hand in choosing their spouse. The marriage was typically arranged by the parents of the bride and groom when the children were anywhere from twelve to seventeen years old. Men were often allowed to choose their wives, but women were very rarely able to pick their husbands. Marriages were arranged with a bride's dowry in mind, which would be given to the groom by the bride's family after the ceremony had taken place. Men were permitted to keep the dowry forever-even if the couple were later separated.
To announce a wedding, a notice was placed on the front door of the church. This was done to notify everyone of the upcoming ceremony and allow time for any grievances to be aired and disputed. The ceremony usually began outside of the church with the bride and groom standing beside each other and facing the front door. A priest or bishop would usually officiate the ceremony. The bride had to stand to the left of the groom (due to the belief that Eve was created out of Adam's left rib). The priest would ask the group if anyone had a reason to oppose the marriage and would then question the couple about any transgressions that might prohibit their marriage (reasons for prohibition include incest, adultery, and rape, as well as being married during a time of fasting). They would exchange vows, and the rings were placed on the fourth finger.
After the ceremony, a feast with friends and family would take place. The couple would drink wine and listen to love songs and poems performed by minstrels. The type of wedding cake that is popular today-that is, a sweetened cake decorated with icing-was not present during medieval weddings. Instead, the couple celebrated with an unsweetened wheat-based bread, the same kind that would be present at any other common gathering. There has been only one recording of a special wedding ritual involving food, and it required guests to stack buns as high as possible in front of the newlyweds. It was thought to bring prosperity if the bride and groom were able to kiss over the stack.
Instead of a white gown, medieval brides usually wore dresses in deep jewel tones. Blue was a common choice because it symbolized purity. For wealthier ladies, gowns were made of expensive, luxurious fabrics like velvet, silk, and satin, and rich hues of red and gold were popular. Lower-class brides would copy the style of noblewomen as much as possible, but their dresses were created out of inexpensive fabrics such as cotton and linen. In the 14th century, both men and women would likely wear a garment known as a cotehardie. For women, it was a long, form-fitting gown with a wide neckline and either full or elbow-length sleeves. They were usually two-toned and sometimes featured patterns like stripes and damask. The masculine version of this look was a three-quarter length tunic with wide sleeves and an open, round neckline.
The garter was another tradition originating in the medieval period. The bride's clothing was associated with good luck, and wedding guests would chase her at the end of the celebration in an attempt to grab a scrap of lucky cloth to keep for themselves. Traditionally, men who presented their lady with a bride's garter were said to have a faithful marriage.
Written By Sophie Pierce.