Obviously, there are as many different wedding ceremonies in world history as there are cultures, religions, and possibly brides. Technically, a couple may not really need a wedding ceremony. My college friend who walked down to the courthouse after class one day with her boyfriend came back just as married as anyone who held a lavish church wedding in fancy clothes.
And yet, no one sends out invitations so everyone can come watch them sign some legal documents. There is a thrill to pretending that wedded life begins when someone says “I now pronounce you husband and wife” even if we all know that legally speaking it began with a signature a little earlier.
The wedding ceremony has a great deal of cultural significance. I cannot cover every culture’s version, so I’m going to do a sample of only three: a pagan Roman ceremony, a Hindu ceremony from rural India, and then the evolution of the English ceremony that evolved into the one you’ve seen in countless Hollywood movies and maybe attended in person as well. This will give us some compare and contrast between cultures, though bear in mind that all of these are idealized. In every culture, some brides get a little, some brides get a lot, and there is no fairness to it.
The Pagan Roman Wedding
Let’s start with pagan Rome. And like the mother of the bride, I’m gonna cry right from the getgo because brides began this transition in their lives by dedicating their girlhood dolls and toys to the gods. It was time to put away childish things. Even though your bride may not have been very old. 13? 14? Sometimes older of course, but often not really out of childhood by my standards. But Venus, goddess of love and Fortuna, goddess of luck and good fortune, were ready to take those symbols of childhood away from the bride (Hersch, 66).
I am sure that many brides were eager and ready to be grownup and take this step which they had been told since infancy was their big chance in life. But if so, she concealed it. The ideal Roman bride was not beaming with joy for her wedding photo. No, she was supposed to be in tears, blushing and reluctant. I find this disturbing, but some of the literature suggests that it was a sham, an act. They cried because it was expected of them, and like I say, I’m sure that was true for some brides. But for many a bride, very young, about to be sent away from the only home she knew to a virtual stranger’s home? My guess is that for many, the tears were all too real (Hersch, 144). I would like to be able to say that dragging a crying bride to the ceremony was only a Roman thing, but unfortunately it’s not.
Then on an auspicious day (and there were a lot of unauspicious ones), the bride’s father offered sacrifices to the gods at his home. He slaughtered a pig or a sheep or maybe just some incense and wine for the gods. It varied, but also our sources are not as clear on this as we would like.
Interestingly, the groom is neither needed, nor perhaps even wanted at his own wedding (Hersch, 56). When the sacrifices were complete, the bride walked from her home to his, surrounded by her attendants and any crowds that cared to gather. Her attendants carried torches, sang bawdy songs, and threw nuts during this procession. The publicity of this walk was the legal proof of marriage. A written contract was not required, though there might be one when there was a lot of property to settle (Hersch, 123).
When the bride arrived, she smeared the groom’s door posts with the fat of a pig or a wolf to keep out evil and decorated it with wool to represent a woman’s signature accomplishment, which was always wool working (Hersch, 177). I would love it if we had a photo of this wool and fat smeared door, because my mental image here is not attractive, but that’s okay.
It was unlucky for the bride to step on the threshold, so someone helped her over it (Hersh, 181-182). Not necessarily the groom, mind you. His presence is still totally optional. As long as the bride has made a public trek to his house, it’s a marriage, even if he’s off at war still, as sometimes happened (Hersch, 56).
Plutarch wrote that after entering, a bride says “Where you are Gaius, I am Gaia,” which means something along the lines of master and mistress. It’s hard to know just how universal this line was in 1000 years of Roman history, but it is the only known liturgy in the whole ceremony for the whole period.
There are some obscure references that say the bride must touch fire and water as symbols of life. What exactly that means is unclear (Hersch, 183). There may be a handclasp, which is depicted in art, though of course it’s always difficult to interpret what those mean. There may be a feast, and then the bride is led into the bridal chamber, though consummation was not required to make it a legal marriage, and obviously it didn’t happen if the groom was MIA (Hersch, 202).
Overall, the Roman wedding was (or at least could be) remarkably simple. Such will not be the ease everywhere and every when.
The Hindu Wedding
Let’s move to India. It’s a big country with a long history. My source on this is William G. Archer, an Englishman who lived in India in the 1930s and 40s. He is specifically describing the ritual of the Kayasth people in Bihar, which meant absolutely nothing to me, but after a little more research, I can tell you it’s in east, near Nepal and Bengal. No doubt Indian weddings varied in other times or locations or social statuses.
But according to Archer, the wedding starts two weeks before the official wedding day because the bride must be sanctified. Her female relatives and neighbors sing to her, take down her hair and remove her jewelry. She is dressed in a white sari and blessed. She then offers rice to the Hindu gods at her family shrine. For two weeks she will not wash herself and women will come nightly to sing spells to protect her.
A few days before the wedding, the bride’s family puts up the wedding canopy. It is built in a square, with amboo poles holding up a roof of thatching grass and more bamboo. For the anointing, a priest sprinkles rice on a low stool and seats the bride on it. A turmeric paste is prepared. The priest dips mango leaves in the paste and touches the girl’s head, shoulders, knees, and feet five times. Every married male member of her family does the same. Then all the married male neighbors. By this process, the girl is “increasingly sanctified, and, at the same time, slowly, gently and irresistibly absorbed into the community of the wedded” (Archer, 27).
When the men have gone, each leaving behind a coin, the women come to rub turmeric paste all over her body and anoint her with oil. Then water is sprinkled around her. At the groom’s house, a similar process is happening to him. Archer lists still more rites and rituals, which I’m condensing because honestly I was have trouble taking it all in myself.
On the day of the wedding, a feast is prepared, and the bride’s home is decorated with finery to await the coming of the groom. After dusk, his party will arrive, complete (perhaps) with elephants, camels, horses, musicians, singing women, and gun shots to banish evil spirits. The groom comes to the door, where the bride’s father will wash his feet, worship the gods, and hand over the dowry cash. Then the groom goes back to his camp.
The bride is inside being ritually washed and dressed in a turmeric-colored sari and fringed marriage hat. Her nails are painted red. She is blessed by the women of her family and led to the bridal chamber.
The groom is carried in a litter to the house. The bride’s female relatives come to anoint him under the canopy. The bride is carried to join him there. Her father takes her hand and places the groom’s hand on top. Both parties have a priest present. The bride’s priest asks if the groom will take the girl as his wife. He says yes and swears by all the gods to be true to her. The groom’s priest asks the girl if she will be devoted and she nods her assent. Here I am genuinely curious if there’s some meaning behind the groom actually saying yes and the bride just nodding. But Archer makes no comment on that, and it’s always possible that his reporting is more precise than the actual ceremony required.
The bride and groom then walk around the canopy seven times. When finished, the groom’s shawl is tied to the girl’s sari with a knot that includes a copper coin, rice, and a nut. The groom dabs five dots of vermilion on the bride’s forehead. This marks that the wedding is complete. The match has been made.
They are then led to the bridal chamber. I thought the next step was going to be obvious, but I was wrong. According to Archer, they worship the groom’s family deity, they share a plate of curds and country sugar, and then the groom is led away, given a meal, and carried in a litter back to his camp. Not what I expected.
On the following day, everyone gathers at the canopy again for more eating, singing, gift giving, and suchlike. and then the groom leaves again. But here things can go two ways. It is entirely possible that the bride this whole time has been a child. Archer did not see fit to mention this until right here. If she is a child, she stays behind, presumably to grow up. Archer says absolutely nothing further about her. But if she is mature (by which we mean 12 or 13, imagine that!), she goes with her groom back to his camp. Her father gives a marriage sermon. The bride is dressed in a red sari. She embraces her relatives, weeping bitterly (there’s that distraught bride again), and then enters the litter. When the litter clears the village, she takes a mouthful of water and spits it out on the ground which symbolizes that her old life there is over. She has severed the connection and is moving on.
When she arrives at the groom’s house, there is a great deal more ceremony on her entry, similar to what I’ve already mentioned, all described in slightly excruciating detail by Archer. It is not until the fourth night after the wedding that the marriage is consummated (Archer, 14-51). Wedded bliss, or something like that, can begin.
Early Christian Weddings
One thing you may notice about both the Roman and the Hindu ceremony is that there was no church or temple involved. Everything is done at home. That was true for early Christians too. Church authorities were completely irrelevant. Later it was common to get a priest’s blessing on marriage, but even that was not required until the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 (Szabo, 14). That council also required the presence of witnesses and reading the banns three times before the day of the wedding. That last was a public announcement, so that if you wanted to say, for example, he can’t marry her because he’s already married to me, this was your chance.
You may ask, why was this requirement suddenly needed? Well, because Henry VIII wasn’t the first king to look for a way to get rid of a wife. He was just the most creative, audacious, and successively successful. Just twenty years before this Fourth Lateran Council, Philip II of France had tried to dodge out of his marriage to Ingeborg, Princess of Denmark. He tried to marry again and still again before he was forced to take Ingeborg back, which must have made for a lovely and harmonious home life.
Just two years before the council, Pedro II of Aragon and his wife Marie of Montpellier had died after several years of Pedro exploring every legal option to get rid of her (Jenkins, chapter 5). The Church was tired of being drawn into this. It was all a no-win situation for them, so the council in 1215 carefully laid down the rules: the definitions of consanguinity, publication of the banns, a ceremony in church by a priest, requirements for witnesses, etc. That way everything would be clear and above board. No one else would argue about why this or that marriage wasn’t a real marriage and give the Pope a headache. It was wishful thinking (Schroeder).
For today’s purposes, though, what matters is that it brought weddings out of the home and into a church. Or at least to the door of a church. One hundred and seventy-two years later Chaucer had his character the Wife of Bath say, “Husbands at church door I have had five” (Chaucer). She means that literally. The usual practice was for the couple to come to the door of the church and the priest would come out to meet them there. Any passerby could see, hear, and therefore witness the wedding (Yalom, 53).
In one way the Wife of Bath was hopelessly vulgar anyway, for marriage (even just once, much less five times) was a lesser way of life. A subordinate sacrament for those, for those without the inner fortitude and sanctity to aspire to the higher state of celibate priests, nuns, and what have you.
And then Martin Luther came along and blew everything up. He said marriage was not a sacrament at all. He said he didn’t object to marriage, and he didn’t consider it lesser than celibacy, but it was a civil and legal matter, not a religious one, so go ask the civil and legal leaders how it ought to be done, not him. This took weddings back out of the church and into the homes.
Martin Luther, having smashed so many Catholic ideals, put the final nail in that particular coffin when he, a former Catholic priest, married Katherine von Bora, a former Catholic nun. They proceeded to have six children. So much for celibacy (Yalom, 98-105).
But in the end, Luther didn’t really get his way about marriage being none of the church’s business. His successors in the various Protestant denominations generally didn’t agree. They liked the church wedding.
The English Wedding
In 1549, the Book of Common Prayer was published for the Church of England. It most definitely included a chapter called “The Forme of Solemnization of Matrimonie.” It was the work of Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, who had spent years helping Henry VIII figure out how to get rid of matrimonie, but that was by the by. This book was published after Henry’s death, during the brief reign of his son Edward VI (son of the third wife and a Protestant), and before the reign of Mary I (daughter of the first wife and a Catholic). Cranmer did not survive Mary’s reign. He was accused of writing heretical books, among other things. And certainly one of those heretical works was the Book of Common Prayer.
For most of you, the entire solemnization of matrimonie will be very familiar. The groom is asked “Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife?” The bride is asked “Wilt thou have this man to thy wedded husband?” Later on the groom says “I take thee to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health, to love and to cherish, til death us depart.” The bride says something very similar, more on the difference in a bit. The priest says: “Those whom God hath joined together: let no man put asunder.” And later on: “I pronounce that they be man and wife together” (Wohlers).
It does not say so, but I presume there would be the same proportions of smiles, tears, and laughter among the wedding party as in any modern wedding. What was different than many a Hollywood wedding is that the grammatically correct answer to “Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife?” is “I will,” not “I do.” And “I will” is exactly what the text says.
I have tried to track down that particular piece of linguistic evolution, and I am, I’m sorry to say, still investigating the mystery. I think it may be a British vs. American thing. The earliest Anglo settlers in the US were Puritans. They were most assuredly not using the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. That book was exactly the kind of practically-the-same-as-the-Catholics nonsense they had left England to avoid. Puritan weddings were much closer to Luther’s ideal. Marriage was not a religious matter, but a legal contract, one that you either do sign or don’t sign. It wasn’t a religious vow about what you will or won’t do in the future. But like I say, I don’t yet have any solid sources with an explanation on that. If you know, send me an email or something on social media.
The other word that catches the ear in the 1549 ceremony is the word “obey”. The groom promises to love and to cherish his wife. The bride promises to love, cherish, and to obey. And oh, how that stings the modern feminist. The sting was in almost every version of the ceremony for centuries, no matter how big a woman you were. I mean, if you are the queen regnant and your husband is the prince consort, then how ridiculous is this obey stuff?
Elizabeth I got round it by not marrying at all. Victoria did swear to obey Albert, despite her concerns, though my source here drily comments “it would soon become obvious that Victoria was unwilling to obey anybody” (Evans). Elizabeth II swore to obey Philip in 1947 (Historic Events). She chose this despite the fact that a number of denominations had removed that word twenty-five years earlier in the 20s. She was a traditionalist at heart and she wanted a traditional wedding.
Thirty-four years later Diana, who was not and was never expected to be a queen regnant, did not promise to obey Charles (Apple). But social customs had changed by then.
It was in the 60s and 70s that it became common to write your own wedding vows anyway, rather than following anyone’s script, particularly not Thomas Cranmer’s. I am curious what percentage of today’s weddings still include the word obey. And also whether it’s hedged about with any qualifications. Because there is an old saying that the best way to get people to obey you is to only command whatever they were going to do anyway. I imagine that held true for many a wife in many a culture.
My sources today include The Roman Wedding by Karen K. Hersch, and Songs for the Bride: Wedding Rites of Rural India by W.G. Archer, and a lot more which you can find on the website herhalfofhistory.com, along with a transcript, pictures, and more. I’m on Twitter @her_half. I’m on Facebook, Instagram, and Patreon as Her Half of History. Reviews, ratings, and recommendations are super exciting. If I am on the ball, there will be a free bonus episode midweek where I read the one and only Thomas Cranmer Solemnizacion of Matrimonie. If I am not on the ball, that may be next week’s episode, but never fear, I will still be celebrating black history month in February with a special episode on the African-American bride because things were a little different for them. Thanks!
Apple, R.W, Jr. “LADY DIANA WON’T VOW to OBEY CHARLES.” The New York Times, 2 July 1981, http://www.nytimes.com/1981/07/02/world/lady-diana-won-t-vow-to-obey-charles.html. Accessed 25 June 2022.
Archer, W G, et al. Songs for the Bride : Wedding Rites of Rural India. New York, Columbia University Press, 1985.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “From Geoffrey Chaucer’s “the Canterbury Tales”, the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, Lines 1-34.” Www.librarius.com, 1400, http://www.librarius.com/canttran/wifetale/wifetale001-034.htm. Accessed 15 Jan. 2023.
Evans, Elinor. ““Nothing Could Have Gone off Better”: The Wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.” HistoryExtra, HistoryExtra, 8 Feb. 2019, http://www.historyextra.com/period/victorian/royal-wedding-queen-victoria-prince-albert-dress-cake-1840/. Accessed 17 Jan. 2023.
Hall, Stanley R. “American Presbyterians and the Directory for Worship, 1645–1989.” American Presbyterians 72, no. 2 (1994): 71–85. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23333363.
Hersch, Karen K. The Roman Wedding : Ritual and Meaning in Antiquity. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Historic Events. “The Royal Wedding of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip 1947.” Www.youtube.com, 20 Nov. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pq6CmuOZx6o&ab_channel=HistoricEvents. Accessed 18 Jan. 2023.
Jenkins, Ernest E.. The Mediterranean World of Alfonso II and Peter II of Aragon (1162-1213). United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
Rothman, Lily. “Meghan Didn’t Promise to “Obey” Prince Harry in Her Vows.” Time, 19 May 2018, time.com/5276780/meghan-markle-harry-vows-obey/.
Schroeder, H J. Disciplinary Decrees of the General Councils : Text, Translation, and Commentary. Internet Medieval Sourcebook, 1937, sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/lateran4.asp. Accessed 15 Jan. 2023.
Szabó, András Péter, and Matthew Caples. “Betrothal and Wedding, Church Wedding and Nuptials: Reflections on the System of Marriages in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Hungary.” The Hungarian Historical Review 3, no. 1 (2014): 3–31. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43265189.
Wohlers, Charles. “The 1549 Book of Common Prayer.” Justus.anglican.org, justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1549/BCP_1549.htm. Accessed 18 Jan. 2023. Yalom, Marilyn. A History of the Wife. London, Pandora, 2004.