As far as I can tell there is no country, culture, religion or tradition that does not celebrate marriage. In this column I’d like to explore the history of weddings, but I’ll confine it to our roots in Western civilization – I couldn’t possibly explore the entire planet, this topic is big enough already! Here are some highlights.
The earliest evidence of weddings is found to be about 4,350 years ago. Before that anthropologists believe that families were loose groups of about 30 people, with multiple leaders and shared partners. There is good evidence showing a marriage ceremony from about 2350 BC in Mesopotamia. And it spread from there, being embraced by the ancient Hebrews, Greeks and Romans.
The earliest known examples of wedding rings are from ancient Egypt. This tradition, traced back to these ancient Romans and Greeks, was adopted by Christians in Europe in the Middle Ages. The earliest rings were braided or woven out of reeds or leather, but for the rich and powerful, beautiful metal rings have been unearthed, often made of gold. Many museums display them.
Tossing rice and carrying bouquets have deep roots as well. Because growing food and producing children was central to survival, rituals involving grains developed. You can be sure anything involving grains was used to petition the gods for successful crops and successful births. A bride’s bouquet was made of various herbs also meant to promote fertility, but also ward off evil spirits, and ward off the smell of the unwashed. Today fragrant flowers are still used, so take a deep breath and toss the rice!
Contrary to what we see in the movies and television, ancient unions had little or nothing to do with love, or even religion. They were a way to guarantee that the man’s children were truly his, biologically, and thus his property. Marriage also had to do with power and the alliances of families, as well as expanding that all important labor force: the family.
Monogamy is seen as central to marriage, but historically polygamy was very common, especially in Biblical times. But the man with many wives was probably a man of high status, most men had just one. That makes sense statistically, because otherwise there wouldn’t be enough women to go around. Monogamy became the standard somewhere between the sixth and ninth centuries, as the kings and nobility battled it out on this principle with Catholic Church. Guess who won?
Speaking of the church, the next big step in the history of marriage was the rise of Roman Catholicism in Europe. By the eighth century marriage became a church sacrament. In 1563 it was written into canon law.
In an interesting contrast, ancient Judaism also negotiated marriage for alliances and property, but women did have some rights and could actually even get a divorce. The marriage agreement, call the Ketubah, spelled out those rights and is still used today. The belief that men ‘owned’ their wives persisted for centuries in almost every religious sect. Only about 250 years ago did the idea of love in marriage gain traction.
Elizabethan weddings mark the start of most of our modern traditions. Between 1558 and 1603 marriages were mostly still arranged and women could consent at age 12, and men at 14, but some of the customs we are familiar with began then, including the bridesmaids and groomsmen, the processional, a religious officiant, and an extravagant feast.
During our Colonial Era marriage licenses appeared, invitations were sent and the ceremony now took place in the home, although a minister presided, and they held a nice party afterwards.
The Victorian area (1800’s) brought us the famous white wedding dress, along with veils and flowers, and back to church for the ceremony. A small dinner followed the ceremony but a larger breakfast party was given the following day.
The modern wedding as we know it today really took its form after World War II. In an era of prosperity and peace, impressing your friends became important not only for the rich, but for the growing new middle class. A crucial influence was the new mass communication – newspapers and magazines, and eventually television – so that modern couples developed a shared vision of what a wedding should look like, or at least what they were told it should look like.
This brief review simply illustrates that we can be quite sure many of our customs and rituals for weddings can be traced way, way back in time. I find that amazing, and strangely wonderful. Human beings – aren’t we something else? Guess we always have been.