A Nice Day (Eventually) for a White Wedding in the Middle Ages (Medieval Mondays #5b)

Medieval wedding ceremony (note the location and the bride's dress)

Medieval wedding ceremony (note the location and the bride’s dress)

In modern times, when a couple gets engaged to be married, they next begin planning the wedding celebration.

In the medieval times, long before the engagement, after overcoming the various challenges of finding a suitable partner discussed in last month’s post, the next step was to plan for death.  In particular, that of the man.

That is to say, there would be negotiations regarding the endowments the would-be bride and groom would grant each other.

According to Frances and Joseph Gies, authors of Women in the Middle Ages,

The bride’s family contributed the dowry or marriage portion, which for aristocrats or merchants usually consisted of land or money, for peasants, clothing, furniture, and utensils. (p. 31)

A dowry was an absolute must for a woman to get married, to the point that providing one for a poor girl was an accepted form of medieval charity.

No woman could get away with coming to her husband’s house empty-handed, for all that everything she brought outside of the dress on her back instantly became his property.  According to Marty Williams and Anne Echols, authors of Between Pit and Pedestal: Women in the Middle Ages,

A father’s failure to deliver his daughter’s dowry is a case of the husband, rather than the wife, being deprived of his rightful property. (p. 72)

That being said, if the husband died before any children were born, the dowry usually reverted back to the bride.

Meanwhile, as for the would-be husband’s endowment to the woman, in Life in a Medieval Castle, the Gieses explain that,

The bride brought a marriage portion and received in return a dower amounting to a third part of her husband’s estate, sometimes specific lands named at the church door on her wedding day, which became hers on her husband’s death. (pp. 79-80).

The Gieses further describe the dower as “more in the nature of insurance than a gift” (pp. 31-33).  The purpose of it was so that the wife would have a means to provide for herself after her husband’s death since the majority of his land and assets went to his male heir.

The widow’s claim to the dower was only for the duration of her life, and only so long as she remained unmarried.  The land remained permanently part of the husband’s estate; the wife could neither dispose of it (through sale or subinfeudation) nor carry it with her into marriage to another. Once the wife died, the dower reverted to the heir.

A long (time coming) engagement

Dowry and dower negotiations could be time-consuming, involving months of consultation between the prospective husband and the father (and often mother as well) of the bride, indefinitely prolonging confirmation of the marriage contract.

Medieval coinsOnce the endowments were agreed upon, however, still the marriage could not proceed.

Although already long practiced in northern England and France, following the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, the Church decreed that all marriages must be preceded by the reading of the banns, that is, the public announcement of an impending marriage within the parish churches of both the intended bride and groom.

On three successive Sundays (or holy days with at least one day between each), this announcement took place in the vernacular tongue, with members of the community encouraged to come forward with any known reasons why the couple should not be wed.

The sort of reasons this line of inquiry sought to discover, rather than such things as incompatibility of personality or past misdeeds of one or the other person, were considerably more practical in nature: either a previously contracted marriage, or the fact that the couple was consanguineously related within the prohibited four (previously seven) degrees by way of either blood, existing in-laws, or spiritual kin (i.e. the relatives of one’s godparents).

It was only once the third reading of the banns had occurred with no impediment to marriage brought forward that the couple could finally be formally engaged (termed a betrothal or trothplight in contemporary parlance).

According to the Gieses in Women in the Middle Ages,

Betrothal played an important part of the medieval custom – celebrated in a ceremony very similar to the church rite of marriage, it was evidently a relic of an older, secular marriage service, and was regarded as almost as binding as marriage. (p. 32)

Often following betrothal, a couple would immediately start living together as man and wife, such that by time the actual wedding took place, the woman might already be pregnant.

Among peasants, premarital pregnancy was often a prerequisite to marriage in order to ensure the woman would produce the children needed to work on her husband’s land.

Gold, silver, and blue

When it finally came time for the actual wedding, most ceremonies, simple affairs that they were compared to the modern day, took place outside the church door.

This was the case regardless of whether the couple was nobly born or peasants.  The ceremony was attended by family, friends, neighbours, and allies, who witnessed the proceedings in case later called to testify that the marriage indeed took place and the groom had named the bride’s dower.

Simplicity notwithstanding, medieval wedding ceremonies are remarkably unchanged from those performed today.  Outside the church door, the woman stood on the left of the man, as occurs today, to symbolize that Eve, the first woman, was created from the left rib of Adam.

Only the woman received a ring; it, along with a gift of gold or silver coins, served as a symbol of her dower (in Old English, a wed, hence the word “wedding”).

But, like today, she wore it on the third finger of her left hand.  The reason for this is because the Ancient Romans claimed the ring finger contained a vein that ran straight to the heart, thereby signifying affection.

Medieval marriage ceremony

One notable difference between medieval wedding ceremonies and modern ones is that medieval brides did not wear white – this despite the extreme importance of what that colour historically symbolized (i.e. the bride’s virginity).

The white wedding dress owes its origins to the Victorian era, as first introduced by the eponymous queen herself.

As indicated in earlier Medieval Monday’s post on medieval clothing, both men and women loved brightly coloured clothing, which served as a status symbol due to the high cost of dyes and materials that held dyes best.

A medieval wedding dress might thus be any brilliant colour, of which blue – the colour often used in depictions of the Virgin Mary – was a popular choice for conveying purity and virtue in a bride.

(Perhaps this is a much earlier origin of the traditional “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” rhyme, circa England 1898, that a bride is supposed wear to ward off barrenness).

A very small departure

The wedding vows, which were spoken after the endowments yet before the ring and the giving of the bride by her father (also the same as today in traditional wedding ceremonies), are almost identical to modern vows, changed more by the evolution of language than in content.

The book Women’s Lives in Medieval Europe: A Sourcebook, edited by Emilie Amt, contains the complete “Liturgy for the Marriage Service” from the 11th to the 16th century.  In it, the climactic moment of the ceremony is presented as follows:

[T]he priest shall say to the man, in audience of all, in the vulgar tongue,

“[Name] wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife, wilt thou love her, and honour her, keep her and guard her, in health and in sickness, as a husband should a wife, and forsaking all others on account of her, keep thee only unto her, as long as ye both shall life?” (p. 84)

An affirmative answer to the above question, rather than the “I do”, was actually, “I will”.

The woman would then be posed the same question, differing only in that while the man was expected to guard his wife, a woman was to obey and serve her husband.

The personal wedding vows in the medieval times went as follows:

“I [Name] take thee [Name] 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, till death us do part, if holy church will ordain it: And thereto I plight thee my troth.” (p. 85)

Again, the woman’s vow contained the additional proviso of obedience:

“…in sickness, and in health, to be gentle and obedient, in bed and at board, till death us do part….” (p. 85)

Medieval wedding ringAn interesting thing about the phrasing, “till death us do part”, which sounds odd to the modern ear: it used to sound even stranger in earlier centuries – “till death us depart”.  Here “depart” had the sense of the verb “to separate”.

While bestowing the bride with the ring, the groom had the following to say:

“With this ring I thee wed, and this gold and silver I thee give: and with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly chattels I thee honor.” (p. 86)

There is no mention in the Liturgy of a kiss following the pronouncement of man and wife.

From there, the ceremony was often moved inside the church where the nuptial mass took place.  At the conclusion of the mass, the couple knelt at the altar and had a cloth stretched over them.

Sometimes, any children already born were also placed beneath the cloth, thereby rendering them legitimate and transforming all members of the party into one big (happy?) family.

A/N: Coming next month: What was medieval married life like?

Read all Medieval Mondays posts

(Image source #1, #2, #3, and #4)

12 thoughts on “A Nice Day (Eventually) for a White Wedding in the Middle Ages (Medieval Mondays #5b)

  1. Interesting. The 3rd book in the Eragon quadriology had a similar marriage ceremony. The bride and groom announced what they were bringing to the marriage at the beginning of the ceremony, and their guardians had to publicly accept the terms before the ceremony could continue. Both people were orphans, so other people from their village had to fill the role of the parents in the dower and dowry negotiations. Of course, the guardians had already come to an agreement on the terms days before the ceremony began, so the public announcement during the ceremony was just a way of sealing the contract before witnesses. I would say more about the promised dower and dowry items, but that would actually give away some important plot points for the series so I’ll refrain 🙂 Until your post, I didn’t know the ceremony in the story was inspired by medieval practices.


    • Until your post, I didn’t know…
      My work here is done! Thanks for not giving away the plot, as I may yet read that series one day. I’m not surprised to hear that the marriage ceremony was historically influenced; from what I understand, many aspects of that fantasy world are.


  2. The main concern of man is the production of more of the same to take care of him when old, and pass on the material goods to.

    The latter part is the human part. It’s kind of weird to discover you’re part of a network of relationships, and I’ve always loved that we all go back, in an unbroken line, to the first humans.


  3. How fascinating Janna. As to a dowry of land, presumably on the widow’s remarriage this would revert to the husband’s heir, as on her death? Presumably she might wish to remain widowed in that case.

    I can even now recite the banns as read from the pulpit every Sunday in my childhood. I believe the Church of England still have them.


    • That seems right, Roy, that if a widow had a son, her dowry would go to him. I’m not entirely sure what happened to it if she only had daughters. Perhaps it became part of one of their dowries.

      Yes, according to Wikipedia, the banns are apparently still utilized in England, Wales, and France. I also read on Wikipedia that in Ontario (Canada), back in 2001 before same-sex marriage was legal, two same-sex couples were successfully able to wed since Ontario law states that reading aloud the banns in the church(es) of the betrothed is a legal alternative to obtaining a marriage licence. The province of Manitoba apparently allows banns in lieu of a marriage license as well.


  4. This was SUPER interesting and I actually took notes because there are things I can use in my own fantasy series.

    I wonder when the kissing part became a thing.


    • Glad you liked it, Sam. I do strive to be entertaining and educational, lol.

      I did a bit of Googling to find out more about the kiss, but it was inconclusive. Apparently, for the Romans, kissing was the legal bond that sealed contracts. I wouldn’t be surprised if this practice didn’t survive in hyper-repressive medieval Christianity. However there were regional variations on the marriage liturgy I quoted in the post, so perhaps marrying couples did kiss in some parts of Europe.

      There is a theory, apparently, that whenever kissing at weddings did become a thing, it was done to ward off evil spirits. I have no explanation for why this should be.


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