Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

By way of relief let me try to put a little flesh on these dry bones of canon law by describing the marriage ceremony as it may actually have occurred towards the end of the Middle Ages, and in the early days of the Reformation.

The bridal procession would set out from the house of the brides father: first, the bride, accompanied perhaps by two pages, bearing a branch of rosemary,”gilded very fair” in a vase and hung about with silken ribbons. Next would come the musicians, fiddling and blowing, then a group of maidens. These would all be dressed in the same way as the bride, in order to confuse any demons, who might have been attracted by the odour of contamination, as to who was actually the bride; and if the bride happened to be called Mary they would all be in blue — the deep blue in which the Virgin is usually shown as being clad in medieval paintings. In Reformation times some of the bridesmaids would be carrying great bride cakes, others garlands of wheat finely gilded, or wheat sheaves on their heads — symbols of fertility and memories of Ceres — and they would throw gilded wheat grains over the couple. (137) Thus it is in honour of a pagan deity that today trees are felled in Sweden or Canada, and converted into coloured paper discs that we may throw them at weddings and miscall them by the Italian name for a sweetmeat, ‘confetto‘.

Last would come the bride’s family. In Saxon times, the father would sell his daughter, for at that time women were valued as a source of labour, and the father was felt to suffer a loss. But the Crusades, and other wars, had caused women greatly to exceed men in number, and now he only comes “to give her away”. The priest, appearing, asks if the man will take the bride to be his wedded wife — the ‘wed‘ being the bride price — and he promises. The bride, promising in almost the same words as are used in England today, takes a similar oath, but adds the promise to be “bonere and buxum in Bed and at Boorde, if Holy Chyrche will it ordeyne”. The bride and groom drink the wine and eat the sops — the Hereford missal attached special importance to this act, which was still practised in Shakespeare’s time, as we know from the reference in the “Taming of the Shrew“. (233) After the Bride Mass has been said, the priest kisses the groom, who transfers the benediction to his bride by kissing her. The married couple, followed their friends, might then play follow-my-leader all round the church and end by sitting down to the wedding feast in the body of the church, which would be, of course, free from obstruction in the form of pews. The body of the church was always felt to belong to the local people, only the parts about the choir and altar being reserved to the clergy, a distinction which is easily perceived in any great cathedral, such as Salisbury.

At nightfall there would be a banquet and dancing at the house of the bride’s father, and bride and groom might remain there a week or more before going to their own home.

But the ecclesiastical precautions are not yet finished. The married couple retire with their friends, who help them undress and help them into bed, where they sit wearing their dressings gowns. Next comes the ceremony of throwing the stocking. Two of the groom’s friends sit on one edge of the bed, two of the bride’s maids on the other; each man then throws one of the groom’s stockings over his shoulder, hoping to hit the bride; then each girl throws one of the bride’s stockings, in an attempt to hit the bridegroom. If the stocking hits, the thrower is likely to marry before the year is out. Now appears the priest, and the benediction posset. This drunk, the priest blesses the bed, sprinkling holy water on the couple and censing the room, to dispel the demons who will undoubtedly be attracted by the performance of the sexual act which is presumably to follow though not, if the couple are devout, until the three Tobias-nights have passed. Finally, the curtains of the bed are drawn and the guests withdraw, leaving the newly married couple to their own devices. (137)