6 Terrible Wedding Traditions From History That We Thankfully No Longer Do

by JR Thorpe

Tradition is a strong part of wedding ritual in any culture, from the widespread global phenomenon of throwing rice to specific, slightly weirder ideas, like the Scottish practice of "tarring and feathering" brides and grooms before their ceremony. And with the wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry coming up in May, we're all looking forward to its combination of tradition and new, fresh ideas; they've already broken with royal custom by having a non-fruit wedding cake, for instance. Some wedding rituals are charming, others are simply harmless, but there are many terrible traditions in the history of weddings that deserve to stay in the past. Because weddings in the modern day can be enough of a to-do as is.

The idea of the wedding has evolved considerably since its beginnings as a means of transferring "ownership" of a woman from her father to her husband. And the rituals around it have changed accordingly. While some old-school customs kind of deserve a comeback — I quite like the idea of getting married in a flame-colored veil, which was the practice in the Roman era — others need to stay firmly in the waste basket of history. Don't be tempted to bring them back "just for a joke."


"Joking" About Being Married — Then Having It Stick

In the medieval period in Europe, weddings could be far less formal than modern ceremonies. And that could lead to confusion and underhanded behavior. According to tradition, men and women could exchange gifts called "weds" that declared them married — usually rings, but also other gifts, like belts. A huge quantity of weddings in the fifteenth century — up to 92 percent, in one estimate — took place informally without any church or legal intervention. People just declared themselves married with "weds," preferably with some witnesses.

Once the "wed" was received, sex between the couple was societally accepted, since they were married in the eyes of society. But the English church in 1217-19, History Extra recounts, had to issue a warning that men weren't allowed to:

“place a ring of reeds or another material, vile or precious, on a young woman’s hands in jest, so that he might more easily fornicate with them, lest, while he thinks himself to be joking, he pledge himself to the burdens of matrimony."

Men might do this deliberately, to more easily have sex, but they might also accidentally end up married without their necessary forethought. Weds were taken very seriously.


Stealing Bits Of The Bride's Dress For Luck

Brides have often been seen as a good luck charm, portending fertility. And wedding guests in early modern Europe were known to take that metaphorical aspect to extremes. It was traditional to attempt to rip off a piece of the bride's wedding gown to keep, which occasionally left the bride herself in rags and her best dress in tatters (before the age of the bridal gown in the 18th and 19th centuries, many women just wore their best clothes to marry). It's thought that this tradition evolved into the throwing of the bouquet and the tossing of the garter, so people could "grab" the luck of the ceremony without causing any extensive damage.


Stopping Brides From Seeing Their Husbands — And Leaving Them Out Of The Ceremony

When it came to aristocratic marriages in Florence in the fifteenth century, things were incredibly long and drawn-out — and even after the two participants were legally married, their families could keep them apart while they squabbled over money. After a "marriage broker" got the families to agree on a dowry from the prospective wife's parents, there was an engagement party — and the girl wasn't even invited. Instead, her father and the prospective husband agreed terms and gave each other a formal kiss of fealty.

The woman was only invited to the next stage, the "ring day," where the couple became husband and wife — but after that she had to go back to her family until they paid the dowry, at which point the actual "wedding day" was staged and the couple could finally go home together. Families arguing over the dowry could keep the legally married couple apart for months at a time.


Exchanging One Sister For Another As A Bride

Double weddings have fallen out of fashion now, but they've been very popular in the past, usually with pairs of siblings from the same family marrying at once (Jane Austen's double wedding at the end of Pride & Prejudice is one of the most famous in fiction). Royal families and dynasties did double betrothals and weddings a lot; in the 16th century, the Portuguese Princess Maria Manuela married the future King of Spain, and her younger brother married the future King's younger sister at the same time. But in aristocratic marriages of the time, sister exchange was also a thing. If, for some reason, one sister proved not to be acceptable before a wedding (or died), it was considered perfectly OK for another to be substituted at the altar.


Getting Married In Your Underwear

This shows up in weddings in England as late as the Regency period, aka the early 1800s. Women came into marriage bringing not only their personal attributes but their debts, and the new husband was responsible for settling them. Somewhere along the line, a folk belief sprung up that if a woman married in her "shift" (which was effectively her underwear), or naked, she wouldn't bring any of her debts into her marriage.

This idea travelled all the way to New England, where "smock weddings" are recorded in the 18th century, but it had no legal basis. Nevertheless, it was apparently pretty common among widows, who could carry hefty debts from their husbands who had passed. One widowed bride in 1775, marrying her second husband, “went into one of the pews in the church, stript herself of all her cloaths except her shift, in which only she went to the altar, and was married, much to the astonishment of the parson, clerk, &c.”


Throwing Things At The Happy Couple

Rice is nothing: couples in history have faced far worse from the public when it comes to their debut in public. In Renaissance Italy, a law had to be passed forbidding anybody from throwing "stones or garbage" at brides and grooms, probably because of class tensions or family disagreements over the dowry arrangements. And couples in southern France still throw coins when they leave the church as a throwback to a more ancient tradition, where child beggars were allowed to harass newlyweds. They'd often prevent them from leaving the church grounds until the groom paid them to go away.