The History of the Wedding in the West

Tying the knot used to be a simpler affair.

Posted Jul 01, 2018

Source: Iofoto/Shutterstock

For most of the history of the Catholic Church, people could, and did, marry simply by saying so. There was no specific formula or ritual, and they did not need the authority of a priest or the permission of their parents — although in practice, especially in the upper classes, families often arranged the marriage or, at least, approved of the partner. Some people got married at the church door, sometimes with the blessing of the parish priest — whence the elaborate porches that still adorn some older English churches. But many tied the knot on a hill or cliff or other beauty spot, down at the pub, at home, at a crossroads, in bed, or pretty much anywhere!

The engagement

It is only in 1184, as part of a move to condemn the Cathars, that the Council of Verona decreed marriage to be a sacrament alongside the other six Catholic sacraments: baptism, confirmation, eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, and holy orders. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council headed by Pope Innocent III required couples to announce their intention to marry, or "cry the banns," so that any impediments to their marriage could be voiced. This is, most probably, the origin of the engagement and engagement period. 

The priest and witnesses

The requirement for a parish priest (or his delegate), along with at least two more witnesses, only came about with the Tametsi decree, issued in 1563 by the 24th session of the Council of Trent. But many regions did not follow Tamesti, and it is not until the Ne Temere decree, issued in 1907 by Pope Pius X, that the canonical form of marriage with a church minister and two witnesses became a universal requirement.

The white dress

So when in all this did the white dress come in? Traditionally, brides simply wore their best dress to their wedding. White dresses were impossible to clean and beyond the means of most. In any case, the color of purity in those days was not white, but blue — which is why the Virgin Mary is usually portrayed in blue. White wedding dresses only became fashionable during the Regency, and only really took off after Queen Victoria wore one to marry Prince Albert in 1840.

The bridesmaids and veil

The tradition of putting the bridesmaids into matching dresses is, however, much older, going back to Roman times when it served to confuse the evil spirits threatening to curse the bride. Also protecting Roman brides from evil spirits was the bridal veil, which symbolized the virginity and modesty of the bride. Traditionally, the father or groom lifted the veil at the time of the kiss to reveal the bride, and at this point the groom — almost literally — took her into his possession. Now, like the dress, the veil has grown into an overblown status symbol. 

Something old, something new

For luck — at least in England — the bride would wear, as per the opening line of a Victorian rhyme: "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue." These four items represented, respectively, the bride’s family and her past, her future, borrowed happiness, and virtue. At the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, the bride wore Carrickmacross lace as something old, a pair of diamond earrings from jewelers Robinson Pelham as something new, one of the Queen’s tiaras as something borrowed, and a ribbon sewed into her dress as something blue.

The bouquet

Historically, the bouquet held by the bride consisted of herbs like garlic and rosemary to ward off evil spirits. Rather than posies, flower girls carried sheaves of wheat to symbolize fertility — so properly speaking, they were "wheat girls" rather than flower girls. At her wedding, Queen Victoria opted for fresh flowers, and that's when flowers caught on. After the wedding, the bride tosses the bouquet over her shoulder into a crowd of unmarried women, and the one to catch it is said to be next in line for marriage.

The garter

Owning a piece of the wedding dress brought good luck, and wedding guests would rip the bride’s dress to shreds as they led the newlyweds to their bedchamber. This developed into the tradition of the groom removing a garter from the bride and tossing it into a crowd of braying bachelors, both to keep them at bay and as proof of consummation. The man who caught the garter would put it onto the woman who had caught the bouquet, the idea being that he would then begin to court her.

The wedding ring

The wedding ring goes back at least to Ancient Egypt, where the circle was a symbol of eternity. It is placed on the fourth finger, the annularis, because the Egyptians believed that the principal vein in that finger, the vena amoris, runs straight to the heart. In 1549, Edward VI of England decreed that the ring should be worn on the left hand, where it has remained ever since. Upon their betrothal in 1477, Maximilian of Austria (grandfather of Charles V) gave Mary of Burgundy a diamond ring, popularizing the diamond ring among the upper classes—long before the extremely successful De Beers "A diamond is forever" marketing campaign, which took off in 1948. In that period, and at least until the Reformation, the betrothal ring, rather than the wedding ring, was the primary ring associated with marriage. Before engagements came about, the betrothal and wedding rings would have been one and the same. For a long time, only women wore wedding rings, and in England, upper-class men such as Prince William still do not.

The best man

At the wedding, the ring is often carried by the best man. Once upon a time, the best man assisted the groom in capturing the bride from her kinsmen: To this day, the groom stands to the right, so that his sword hand is free to fend off any assailing in-laws.

The wedding cake

The Egyptians tossed rice or grain at weddings to underwrite the fertility of the couple, but the wedding cake itself comes to us from the Roman era, when, for fertility, guests would tear a loaf of bread over the bride’s head. Wedding guests in medieval England brought along small cakes, which they stacked up for the newlyweds to kiss over — a practice which inspired the French croque-en-bouche cake. Queen Victoria’s 300-pound wedding cake was covered in pure white sugar, which was very expensive and, like the white wedding dress, became a means of flaunting one’s wealth and status. Sugar rationing did not end until 1953, but still the Queen’s wedding cake in 1947 stood 9 feet tall and weighed 500 pounds. After the wedding ceremony, it was served up at a celebratory "breakfast" (lunch) at Buckingham Palace.

The honeymoon

Only in the late 19th century did people begin to hold weddings in the afternoon — often in the month of June, named for Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage and wife of Jupiter. June is also the season for the harvesting of honey: In Ancient Rome and a number of other cultures, after the wedding, the bride drank honey mead or honey wine every day for one moon to help her fall pregnant. The modern "holiday" honeymoon dates back to the Belle Epoque, before the Great War put a damper on jollies to the French and Italian rivieras.

The wedding today

According to a survey by Hitched, in 2017, the average cost of a wedding in the U.K. shot up to over £27,000 (about $36,000). The exorbitant cost of the modern wedding owes to a combination of factors, among which the rise of romantic love, egalitarianism, and the Internet, with people playing prince and princess before the altar and then having the pictures posted to their social media streams. At the same time, marriage is morphing into a middle-class and middle-age institution, with the poor and young, who would have had simpler weddings, increasingly opting for cohabitation or singledom.

If we do have a wedding, should we have a big one? According to a recent study, high wedding attendance is positively associated with marriage duration — as is having a honeymoon, regardless of its cost. So far, so predictable: but the study also found that marriage duration is inversely associated with spending on the engagement ring and wedding ceremony. In particular, brides who spend $20,000 or more on their wedding are 3.5 times more likely to divorce than those who spend half that amount!

So, yes, we should have a big wedding, but not an expensive one. 

Now take a look at my related article, A Feminist Critique of Marriage.


Francis-Tan A & Mialon HM (2015): A diamond is forever’ and other fairy tales: The relationship between wedding expenses and marriage duration. Economic Inquiry 53(4):1919-1930.