and The Medieval Woman
CLOTHING - WEDDING JEWELLERY - BETROTHAL - LEGALITIES
OF MARRIAGE -
WEDDING CUSTOMS - FEASTS - FLOWERS - WEDDING GIFTS
The word wedding comes from the Old
English wed, to pledge. Prior to 1100AD most marriages did not
include a religious ceremony. A public announcement, kiss and
consummation were all that was required. The legal coming of ages
for marriage was 12 for a girl and 14 for a boy, although many
peasant women did not marry but stayed with her parents or worked
for her older brothers in return for food and shelter.
ceremonies and the celebrations that accompanied them largely
depended on the social class and wealth of the bride and groom.
Rarely did a peasant couple have a new outfit especially made
for a wedding. Usually, wedding clothes were often the very best
outfit that a couple owned or was able to make at the time regardless
of colour. Outfits which were made for a wedding would certainly
have been worn afterwards. Veils for the bride were often worn-
but this was part of her usual clothing and not particular to
the wedding itself. Shown at right is detail from the 1350s, The
Marriage by Nicolo da Bologna. The bride wears her best dress
and is accompanied by musicians and female friends or relatives.
The language of love stated that
green was the colour of young love and blue was the traditional
symbol of purity, making these two colours a popular choice with
brides. Dresses of white, a colour associated with mourning, were
almost never worn. Traditionally, a band of blue ribbon would
be worn by the bride and groom, giving us the origins of something
blue. Garters were worn by every woman as part of her daily
clothing to keep her hose fastened securely just under the knee.
These became an important part of a bride's outfit as at the end
of the evening when the couple departed for the bedchamber, guests
would try to take the garter for good luck. A man who gave his
beloved the garter of a bride was said to have assured her ongoing
Wedding rings have been worn for hundreds of years, and the medieval
period was no different. The plain wedding band can be traced
back to the 11th century where it was worn on the third finger
of the right hand. Only in the 16th century, was the ring changed
to the left. Wedding rings from within the Jewish community tended
to be far more flamboyant than those worn by the rest of the community.
The ring at the left is from Colmar, France and is a Jewish marriage
ring dated around 1300AD. Other rings might be plain or be inscribed
with mottoes of love and fidelity both on the inside and outside.
marriage brooch was sometimes worn given by the husband to his
new bride. Johannes de Hauville wrote:
My bride shall wear a brooch,
a witness to her modesty and a proof that hers will be a chaste
bed. It will shut up her breast and thrust back any intruder,
preventing it's closed approach from gaping open and the enterence
to her bosum being cheapened by becoming a beaten path by any
traveller, and an adulterous eye from tasting what delights
the honourable caresses of a husband.
Pictured at right is a Marriage Brooch
dated at around 1430 from the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum.
It is made of gold, enamel and precious stones and probably comes
from Germany or Burgundy.
Betrothal and engagement
Medieval betrothal was almost as legally binding as marriage.
In the case of nobles, betrothals could be arranged at the age
of reason, seven years old, but were not legally binding until
the couple came of age. It was not unusual for the betrothed couple
to have not met until their wedding day many years later- the
most important goal of marriage between nobles being the acquisition
of wealth and to produce suitable legal heirs.
In adult couples, it was not unusual to cohabit prior to the wedding
ceremony and offspring conceive and birthed during this period
could often be legalised at the wedding ceremony. Hand-fast
was a term used for a marriage contract or betrothal contract
which denoted commitment but without the religious ceremony. This
was usually a custom in the very early middle ages and between
the poor. As the influence of the church grew, it became less
frequent. Pictured at left is the Marriage Feast at Canna 1405-15.
There were certain times of the year when marriages could not
be performed; the weeks of Lent and Advent due to those times
being religious observances.
For the nobility and the wealthy,
grooms were often significantly older than their brides, who could
be as young as 13 or 14. Noble women occasionally had the option
of not wedding for the first time until the age of 24, but this
was a rarity.
Rich orphans, female heiresses and wealthy widows often became
wards of the king, and these women or girls could be married to
men of the court who wished to increase their wealth and lands.
A lord could sell his ward's marriage to the highest suitable
candidate to compensate for his own loss of her income. It was
not until the Magna Carta that this practice was somewhat
curtailed although by no means desisted completely. A law book
from the reign of Henry II of England proclaimed:
Even if a female heir is of
age, she shall remain in the wardship of her lord until she
is married according to the desire and with the consent of her
lord... and if a girl... marries without the consent of her
lord, by the just law and custom of the realm, she shall lose
peasants and working classes tended to marry into their own age
and status demographic, preferring to choose healthy women who
would bear children well and be fit enough to work alongside him
if needed, as well as manage the domestic household. The Lord's
permission needed to be sought before a marriage could take place
and if marrying outside of his holdings, a fine or merchet
may be exacted. More than 75% of the population were married before
the age of 19 although amongst peasant men, sometimes a son did
not marry until the death of his father where he inherited his
fathers assets which put him in a position to marry. Wedding contracts
were usually drawn up with particular regard to the bride's dowry
and it's inheritance rights in the event of her death. Inheritance
and property were two reasons why arranged marriages were contracted
at such an early age, although sometimes an proposed merger of
families was to form an alliance. Shown at right is a detail from
a 13th century manuscript.
A woman had the right to refuse an
arranged marriage by buying her way out of the betrothal contract,
however this was often a sum beyond the reach of the average woman
unless she sold her worldly possessions. In 1207, this sum was
set at a hefty 20 marks for widows and substantially more for
women to remain single or have the right to choose their own husbands.
This would leave a woman in a state of being financially unable
to support herself and so the marriage went ahead. There are records
of women who did successfully escaped arranged marriages. It is
Quenild, daughter of Richard
FitzRodger owes 60 marks and 2 palfreys that she may be able
to marry whomever she pleases, with the advice of her friends,
as long as she marries no one who is an enemy of the king.
Records show that although some women
took their husband's surname as their own, not all did. In the
case of heiresses, the groom took the name of the wife, thus keeping
the traditional family holdings in the same family name. One sample
of this is the case of the remarriage of Sarah, the widow of Robert
le Wyte. Her second husband was afterwards known as Gilbert le
It was not unknown for the bride to undertake a virginity test
to assure her future husband of her purity. Konrad von Megenberg
wrote of a test in use in the 14th century. The girl was required
to drink water which had been steeped with black amber for three
days. If the bride to be could not hold her own water, it was
thus proven that she was not pure. The test does not specify how
long the bride was required to hold.
The custom of throwing money over the heads of newlyweds is documented
in the Warderobe accounts of Edward II. It tells of a wedding
in February 1321, where
money to the value of £2
was thrown by the King's order at the door of the King's chapel,
within the manor of Havering-atte-Boure during the solemnization
of the marriage between Richard, son of Edmund, Earl of Arundel
and Isabella, daughter of Sir Hugh Le de Spencer, junior.
Upon the announcement of the betrothal,
it was often customary for the bride to receive a ring with both
names engraved on it and for the groom, a sleeve from her dress
or a stocking. These were both intimate gifts, a hint of things
to come and highly prized.
The best man at a wedding was exactly that- the best swordsman
that could be found or hired by the groom to ensure the wedding
was not interrupted. It was not unusual for the best man to be
hired and not a relative or friend.
those of noble class, the wedding procession to the church was
often accompanied by minstrels. The order of the procession depended
on which family was the wealthiest- the bride preceded if her
family was higher ranked with the groom and his family behind
The illumination detail at left is from the 14th Century Maria
of Brabant Marriage.
Before the marriage took place, the
priest would meet the couple at the door of the church which had
previously been closed to prevent entry and ask of them the relevant
questions. Were they of age? Did they have parental consent? Were
they not related in a way which would prevent them from wedding
in accordance with the law, that is have a common great great
grandparent? The dowry would be read aloud and the groom would
present his betrothed with a small bag of gold coins to distribute
to the needy. This symbolised his willingness to give her financial
management on his behalf. There would be a short sermon on the
steps, vows exchanged, the ring placed on the bride's finger,
coins distributed by the bride and then the church doors would
be opened for all to enter. Prayers and a mass were said under
a canopy or cloth, then the kiss of peace was given by the priest
to the groom which was passed to his new wife. Children of the
union produced after the betrothal might be included under the
cloth. The blessing was pronounced and the service itself ended.
It must be noted that although the church considered premarital
children legalised in the eyes of God, lawyers felt otherwise.
The custom of placing a child in
a bride's arms to wish her fertility and a gold florin in her
shoe to bring financial prosperity could also be performed after
the wedding service. In the case of the 15th century wedding of
Margery Rygon and George Cely, three live rabbits were let loose
as a gesture of fertility for the bridal couple.
The bride's family was responsible
for the dowry which, in the case of the wealthy, was usually money
and land holdings. Commoner's dowry would most likely include
household utensils, tools, furniture, clothing and livestock.
If the husband deceased or the marriage was annulled, the dowry
reverted to the bride. This would then be passed down to her sons.
If the widow remarried, the dower reverted back to the husband's
wedding feast was often a lavish affair with many specialty dishes.
Francesco Datini, a wealthy Italian businessman married Margherita
on the week of Carnivale and the wedding feast included: 406 loaves,
250 eggs, 100 pounds of cheese, two quarters of oxen and 16 of
mutton, 37 capons, 11 chickens, 2 boars heads and feet for jelly,
an unspecified number of pigeons and waterfowl, local provincial
wines and Chianti imported from Tuscani. While this was quite
a feast by regular standards, it was quite modest compared to
those given by royalty at the times of their own weddings.
If a couple were poor, they might
be treated to a bride-ale by their family and other well-wishers.
Guests would not only bring food for the feast itself but often
assist with goods and money to help them set up house. Shown at
right is a detail from an illumination, 1405-1415, Marriage
Feast At Canna.
It was usual for at least three wedding gifts to be exchanged
by the bride and groom themselves. The bride's dowry was supplied
by the bride's parents, guardian or her benefactor. A large dowry
made a woman more attractive as a potential wife if she was otherwise
not as comely as others. In this instance, a bride was seen more
as a prize than a beloved.
It was also traditional for the
groom to give a present to his new wife after the marriage was
consummated to compensate the for the loss of virginity. This
could be any number of items, including small and valuable pieces
of furniture. The groom or his family was responsible for providing
a suitable home including income, although in many cases the groom
would have been working alongside his father in a family business
or trade for a number of years prior to his nuptials.
Gifts would be given to the couple
only after the ceremony has taken place, usually at the marriage
feast. Guests would often also receive a small gift from the couple
which reflected the status of the guest, not of the couple. A
gift would also be given to the priest who performed the ceremony.
Lilies and roses were popular choices for weddings and would be
strewn on the floor among the rushes at the marriage feast. The
guests would release the fragrance of both as they trod on them
underfoot. Carrying a bouquet of flowers does not appear to have
been a medieval tradition, although they may have been worn as
a chaplet in the hair by less affluent women. Rosemary rosmarinus
officinalis, symbolic of memory and fidelity, was used in
wreaths for marriages.