Wedding Tradition – the ghost of nuptials past?

Recently WeddingChaos ran a survey to find out how many people were intending to have a traditional Church wedding.  Interestingly, perhaps not surprisingly, given the dwindling church attendance in the UK, only 48% of those surveyed said that they were considering a Church wedding. This state of affairs prompted me to wonder about the time honoured traditions surrounding the wedding – the traditions we have now and those that are no longer observed.  Are our modern wedding traditions truly ancient, or do they actually say something about the society we live in? Is perhaps “tradition” simply another word for “fashion”?  I would like to begin by looking at the cornerstone of Christian wedding tradition in the UK; the Church wedding and why we have them.

Giotto - Scrovegni - -24- - Marriage at Cana“You promised and swore a sacred oath to wed my sister Damiata and quickly celebrate your engagement.”

This is how the Catalan knight Joanot Martorell1 on May 12th, 1437, accuses his second cousin, Montpalau, of breaking a promise to marry, a peculiar problem in medieval Europe, one which constituted a form of “one knight stand” if you like, where the man (usually a knight) would declare his love for his lady when they were alone and marry her on the spot, with God as his witness.  Unfortunately, for the lady, once the knight had his way, this was followed by a serious bout of amnesia, a state of affairs that invariably led to the lady being dishonoured and thus unfit for marriage, and in some cases murdered by her family.

I hear you ask; what has this to do with Church weddings in the UK?  Well, traditionally, a marriage was a contract between the families of the bride and groom, one that was witnessed, usually by family, but obviously when in a fix, God would surely do, unless the groom was conveniently forgetful.  So, to patch this nuptial loop-hole, the Protestant Reformation had reformulated marriage as a life-long covenant,2 while in November 1563 the Council of Trent declared that the validity of a marriage was made dependent upon it being performed before a priest and two witnesses.3

Previous to this the Church’s involvement in the events around the marriage itself was purely as a witness, this appearing in France around 1100.  The involvement was twofold, firstly to establish that both the bride and groom actually wanted to get married and secondly for cognatic reasons – no, nothing to do with needing a stiff drink – the priest would need to confirm that the bride and groom were not closely related,4 as this is forbidden in the bible.  However, in practice this rule seems to have been flexible, with famous examples such as Henry VIII, who had technically committed incest by marrying Catherine of Aragón, betrothed, shortly before his untimely death, to Henry’s older brother Arthur, making her Henry’s sister in the eyes of the Church!  Yet historians are uncertain of the practicalities of this system of early genetic control worked4 and one supposes that a few backhanders would assure the match.
Therefore, until the Council of Trent, the marriage contract simply betrothed the bride and groom.  Yet, interestingly, it was the sexual act that wedded them and committed both parties to the contract.  In medieval France, for instance, the tradition was that after the marriage the bride and groom were escorted to bed by close relatives and it seems the relatives stuck around to make sure that the “deal was signed”!  It was not unheard of for the wedding to take part before the marriage, and so it was perhaps for this reason that when the Church formulated the religious marriage that the order of events was clearly spelled out – that is, for marriage to be followed by consummation.  Indeed fiancés traditionally were allowed sexual contact, but all this was stopped, because of the obvious abuse of the system, especially if the marriage deal hadn’t been completely hammered out.

It seems that the modern tradition of marrying in church is down to the dishonesty of a few chivalrous amnesiac Lotharios and is thus a relatively modern “invention”, given the two thousand year history of the Christian Church.  However, the Church Wedding is perhaps testament to the flexibility and creativity of the Church in its willingness to address the social issues of the day.

About the Author

Richard Tilbury BA (Hons), MA

I am a part-time student at Birkbeck College in London  Currently studying for a PhD, my primary area of study is the use of propaganda in renaissance paintings.  Catholic married to a Baptist, in an Anglican church.

1 Trans: David Rosenthal, “Tirant lo Blanc” (Picador, 1984: London) pp. viii - ix

4 / 5 Ed: George Duby, “A History of Private Life: Revelations of the Medieval World” (Havard University Press, 1988: Cambridge, Massachusetts and London) p. 124