One day in early February, my daughter called me from Houston with an urgent question. “Mommyo, I really need to know. Weddings. How long have those things been invented?”
I confess, this question overwhelmed me, so I put it off. But this morning, I realized I’ve been thinking about it all wrong. Instead of providing a detailed history of the cultural institution of marriage, I could simply state, as Wikipedia does that “the institution of marriage predates reliable recorded history.” In other words, people have been getting married pretty much as long as there have people around to do it.
Of course, some of those marriage ceremonies wouldn’t look much like weddings to us.
Ancient Romans had different types of weddings, depending on whether the bride would join her husband’s family after the ceremony or remain in her father’s house under her father’s authority. Brides who wished to become part of their husband’s family participated in an official wedding ceremony complete with witnesses known as a conventio in manum. Brides who remained in their father’s house participated in a type of free marriage known as sine manu.
Rome may have had formal wedding (and divorce) ceremonies, but in Ancient Greece, marriage required only that two people agree to be married. Medieval Europe took a similarly casual approach. Until 1545, weddings could be as simple as two people saying to each other “I marry you.” No priest or witnesses required. (The wording apparently was important though. If you slipped up and said “I will marry you” instead, you would only be engaged.)
Of course, things could not always remain so simple.
The modern white wedding was born in 1840, when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in a white wedding dress. Queen Victoria’s daughter, also named Victoria, elaborated on her mother’s original wedding design by adding choral music to the bridal processional when she married Prince William Frederick of Prussia in 1858.
Full-scale formal weddings for the masses really took off after World War I, when professional wedding planners made it possible for mothers without permanent social secretaries on staff to plan incredibly elaborate ceremonies for their daughters.
- The wedding of Nicholas II and his Alix of Hesse. (madameguillotine.org.uk)
- A Traditional Japanese Wedding Ceremony at Meiji Jingu (mappingwords.com)