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Modern marriage is far different from how it was in the early medieval period. For one, the primary motivation for marriage today is (arguably) to formally recognise the couple's love and devotion for each other, rather than a concern for inheritance rights and the legitimacy of any offspring.
Based on the sources, there are certain ritual elements and customs that might be incorporated into a reconstructionist ritual, that will be outlined below. While references will generally be made to a bride and bridegroom to maintain the context of the references I'm referring to, this is not intended to suggest any exclusion of same sex couples or people who identify as gender queer. See the CR FAQ.
In general, as marriage was a legal contract there isn't much in the way of references to ritual. Consents were given on behalf of both parties, and that to all intents and purposes, it seems that was that as far as the wedding ceremony itself was concerned. The main focus in terms of customs were the details surrounding the making of the contract – little or big things that were done to ensure the luck of the couple.
In preparation for the wedding, in Scotland, we have:
The glanadh-nan-cas – 'washing of the feet' This was a sort of game, with ritual undertones, whereby some people tried to wash the bride or bridegroom's feet, while others tried to dirty them with soot, black treacle/molasses, or even shoe polish.
Offerings made at a local holy well – an apparent variation on the glanadh-nan-cas, where the bride-to-be visited a holy well with some friends and underwent a ritualised washing, with the help of her friends, before leaving offerings of bread and cheese to ensure health and plenty for any future offspring.
The wedding dress – were not generally the white meringues popular these days, but were usually new dresses specially made or bought for the occasion, of any colour. Green and black were avoided for their unlucky associations with fairies and death, while blue and silver were often favoured.
Omens – let's not forget the taking of omens all along the way...From seeing how well the wedding ale brews, to the weather on the day, the details all mattered.
On the way to the wedding, we have the traditions of:
The procession – This was done in Ireland, Scotland and Man, but with some local variations on the same theme. Music was an important accompaniment everywhere, especially fiddles and pipes. In Scotland, part of the procession involved the 'winning' of the bride; in Man, the bridegroom had a shoe thrown after him, and then so did the bride as they left their house to make their way; in Ireland, the couple were followed by two 'attendants' who held sieves of meal above their head to ensure good luck and prosperity in their future together.
The 'honest folk' – a Shetland tradition, where a (happily, one would presume) married couple led the procession effectively saw to the necessary details such as looking after guests, making sure everything was taken to the wedding that was needed (drink!) etc. Effectively the best man and maid of honour of modern weddings, it could be argued, but their status was specific, and their role in distributing the first toast to the couple after the ceremony was complete was important.
The sunwise turn – The procession ended with a sunwise turn, three times round the church or the place where the couple were to be married, before going in to the ceremony.
And then after the wedding:
The 'ba-siller' - On leaving the venue, the couple might throw an amount of pennies, usually silver these days (in Sterling, those would be denominations of 5p, 10p, 20p, or 50p) for the children attending the wedding to scramble for. All good fun, and lucrative for the kids.
Races – in Ireland, there was a race on foot or horseback for the guests to make it to the place where the wedding feast and celebrations were to be held. The prize was usually a bowl of broth or bottle of good whiskey.
Feasting – Naturally food, drink, music, dancing, and general good fun were all part of a wedding. In Scotland a great show of making a good strong wedding punch, or Het Pint, was a big part of it all. The Het Pint was often passed around in a Bride's Cog – a large wooden 'loving-cup' (quaich) – so that everyone might share a sip to the couple's health. This is somewhat reminiscent of the wife bestowing a cup of mead or ale on her husband (generally the king, or a champion) at the inauguration/wedding feast, so this could be incorporated into the proceedings if desired.
Toasts and blessings – Any disputes or show of ill will were considered an ill omen indeed, and wishing the couple well was hugely important. A traditional Scots Gaelic blessing is as follows:
“Saoghal fada, sona dhuit,
Do choluinn fallain, slan,
Do both gun bhoinne snighe ann,
Do chiste-mhine làn.
May you have a long, happy life,
A sound and healthy body,
A cottage which does not leak,
And a meal-chest which is always full.”1
Strawboys – The strawboys were, and for some in Ireland still are, an integral part of a wedding celebration. Scotland also records the practice. See here for a video on the lore and making of the costumes, and here for a very brief glimpse of some strawboys in action.
After the wedding:
Visiting the well - In Scotland, there is an example of newlyweds visiting a local holy well the morning after the wedding, with the guests in tow, so that everyone could drink a pledge to the couple's luck.
The bonnach bainnse – (As it was known in Scots Gaelic) While this was generally part of the rites wedding day, since the celebrations usually took place at the newlywed's matrimonial home, the crumbling of a specially blessed bannock could be incorporated into the proceedings on the couples arrival at their home, whenever that might be. The tradition is attested to in Ireland as well.
And one last comment, I promise:
There are some things I've missed out for one reason or another, namely the custom of the beddan, and the ceremonial installing of the wife as a housewife and (female) head of her own household for the first time. My assumption is that most people nowadays have already been living together for a while before they get married, and so the beddan itself loses the significance of it acknowledging their first time together (except as a married couple...but arguably a lot of the mystery has been lost by this point), and the installing of the wife is therefore unnecessary. And basically sexist...
It is, of course, a matter of preference.
1 Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p92.