History of Western Weddings

Celebrations during an ancient Greek wedding

Throughout Western history, marriage has existed as an important social contract and cultural event. However, weddings and the institution of marriage have changed dramatically since ancient times. In fact, the earliest weddings barely resemble those celebrated by today's brides and grooms.

First Western Weddings in Ancient Greece and Rome

Western marriage traditions date back to Ancient Greece and Rome, where marriage was much more of a legal contract than a romantic endeavor. The Society for Ancient Hellenic Studies reports that marriage was an important part of Ancient Greek and Roman culture, possibly dating back to 8,000 BCE. Instead of taking place between a man and woman, the marriage was actually a contract between two men: the groom and the bride's father. Women had no choice about whether they would marry or who would become their husband, and they may not even have laid eyes on the groom before the wedding day. Typically, Ancient Roman and Greek grooms were in their late twenties or early thirties at the time of marriage, but brides were much younger, usually only teenagers. In marriage, the woman's primary responsibilities included bearing children and caring for the home.

A wedding ceremony in the classical period might have included these elements:

  • Several smaller pre-wedding or engagement feasts
  • Exchange of gifts between the bride and groom
  • Sacrifice of an animal, such as a goat
  • Bride's procession to the groom's home
  • Exchange of vows and handshake between groom and father of the bride
  • Bride being carried over the threshold
  • After-wedding party

Marriage Becomes a Legal Contract in Medieval Times

Medieval Wedding

Prior to the Medieval period, marriage was more of an informal agreement, and there was rarely any contract or document that legalized the ceremony. However, according to History Undressed, that began to change around 1076 CE when laws began to affect how a marriage was performed. These laws meant that women were no longer allowed to be bartered, sold, or exchanged for goods of any kind. If a couple wanted to get married, a priestly blessing was required first. It was also illegal for secret wedding ceremonies to be held. A wedding was still arranged in many cases, and contracts were even drawn up listing the terms and rights of all parties involved. Weddings among royalty and aristocracy were often arranged when the bride and groom were only ten or twelve years old. These weddings were more about property and inheritance than love.

During the Medieval period, a typical wedding may have included the following:

  • Pre-wedding betrothal ceremony
  • Bride dressed in fine silk, if she could afford it
  • Ceremony conducted by a priest
  • Cakes brought by guests
  • Throwing of rice or grain
  • Exchange of rings, if families could afford it
  • Elaborate feasts

Elizabethan Weddings Are the Start of Modern Traditions

During the Elizabethan era, which occurred between 1558 and 1603, most marriages were still arranged. According to Elizabethan-Era.org, women had very little say in who or when they married. Women could legally consent to marriage at the age of 12, and men could marry at 14. Many couples did not meet before the wedding day, but some well-to-do grooms may have been presented with a picture of his betrothed beforehand so he would know what she looked like. Prior to the wedding, the groom accepted the bride's dowry. In many cases, this was the reason behind the wedding. A dowry wasn't necessarily money; it was also land or goods. While technically paying a "bride price" was illegal, a dowry was more or less considered a wedding gift. The families were able to get around the bride price law on this technicality.

A number of modern wedding customs have their roots in Elizabethan weddings, which often included the following:

  • Bride preparing with her family
  • Couple attended by bridesmaids and groomsmen
  • Procession of the bride and her family to the church
  • Ceremony conducted by a religious official
  • Exchange of rings
  • Extravagant wedding feast

Women Were in Demand During the Colonial Era

According to Genealogy Magazine, marriage in American colonial times, from about 1620 to the late 1700s, had some unique characteristics. Because most of the colonial settlers were male, white women of marriageable age were in great demand. Sometimes, women were even shipped to the colonies and sold to the highest bidder. Although the specifics of the marriage customs and ceremony varied depending on the person's culture, marriages were still more business arrangements than loving relationships. Courtships and marriages were arranged, usually by the father of the young men, who would write a letter to the young lady's father requesting permission to court. These letters would usually list the attributes of the young man in question and why the union would be a profitable one for all concerned. If the father of the young lady agreed, courtship and, after a negotiation of dowry, marriage would eventually take place.

Weddings varied quite a bit in the South and North and among German, Dutch, and English immigrants; however, a colonial wedding may have included the following:

  • Documented with a marriage license
  • Invitations sent to guests
  • Took place in bride's home
  • Conducted by a minister
  • Followed by a party

Brides Wore White in Victorian Weddings

Victorian Wedding

In Victorian times, which constituted most of the 1800s, a woman would "come out" into society as soon as she finished school (around the age of 17 or 18). This was a very important and exciting time, as she had been groomed for marriage all of her life. New clothes and accessories would be purchased so she would look her best and impress any potential suitors. Men, of course, viewed courtship as more business than pleasure. Land, money, and the family business were all carefully researched, since what belonged to the woman would be turned over to the man upon marrying. The upper classes would usually meet at social engagements such as parties. The lower classes would meet through church and church-sponsored functions. After Queen Victoria wore a white dress to her wedding, brides in England and America began to take up this trend.

According to Manners, Culture, and Dress of the Best American Society, a book published in 1893, a typical Victorian wedding might include the following elements:

  • Included bridesmaids and groomsmen
  • Veils and flowers worn by bride
  • Ceremony conducted in a church
  • Small dinner following ceremony
  • Larger wedding breakfast the next day
  • Calling cards sent by wedding couple to their friends

Ancient Traditions in Today's Weddings

Although today's couples can choose whom they will marry and have unlimited options when it comes to their ceremony, attire, and customs, modern weddings still have their roots in Western weddings of the past. If you throw rice, exchange rings, get carried over the threshold, or wear a veil, you are living those traditions in today's modern world.

History of Western Weddings