About wedding traditions.

I was reading something the other day about the vast range of wedding traditions and how many derived from ancient times, when it struck me that I sit there with my string quartet playing for a church wedding ceremony, or civil marriage ceremony and have no idea of the historic basis of this whole wedding thing. Similarly, I play for evening wedding receptions with my ceilidh and barn dance band, yet have no idea of the background of this whole highly structured happening.

And it's not as if I just play for one or 2 weddings. I worked out that roughly, over the last 15 years, I have played for something like 600 weddings as the leader of my string quartet. This has been a mixture of church and civil ceremonies, where about 70% have been Church of England and the other 20% catholic services. The civil ceremonies, in the early days of playing I played for a lot of humanist wedding ceremonies, which of course were not legally binding but very meaningful for the couple. The civil ceremonies with the registrar and more recently, civil partnerships. So I really thought I must look into this whole business of ancient wedding traditions, religious connections often going back to the gods of the Romans, superstitions (my father in law was a Cornishman, so I know all about superstitions) and so on and so forth.

Having played for some Jewish wedding ceremonies, with the traditions are very marked and very different, it seemed sensible to have a good look at marriage throughout history and throughout the world. We do it in a particular way in this country, but what about other countries and what about other times? I remember seeing a mosaic, or is it a wall painting, I'm not quite sure, in Pompeii which seem to depict some sort of marriage ceremony, with gods and musicians playing in the background. So things really haven't changed very much for the last 2000 years or more.

Despite a common belief that we are in an age of rationality, even at the beginning of the 21st century, wedding folklore is still strong and healthy. Not many weddings happen, even now, without some element of old marriage customs and beliefs being incorporated.

Some of the wedding traditions date back to mediaeval times before. At the beginnings of human society and culture, brides were obtained by purchase, capture, servers (that's how Jacob got his wives) or barter, with purchase and capture being the most common methods. (Perhaps, with the advent of online mail order brides, and the scandals that have happened in this field, it shows that society hasn't moved on too far in some ways.)

So wedding folklore has a long and, perhaps not illustrious, history. Few realise that the proverbial hostility between son-in-law and mother-in-law, and the rules and traditions of best man and bridesmaids, together with the honeymoon, are all derived from a marriage by capture. (Just so well portrayed in the television series Throne of Kings.) Is so well portrayed in this cult fantasy series, which has now reached series 6, marriage by choice was not the way things happened in the past. It is something that arrived, but only very gradually, with Christianity. Love and marriage were not necessarily connected, and if love and marriage happened to coincide, it was just by chance.

Gaining brides by capture still goes on today in some parts of the world, despite efforts to change things. The khonds of India, a scheduled tribe in the Andhra Pradesh state, still maintain this tradition in parts of their society. The women fight off the men throwing stones and fighting with sticks, but gradually the bridegrooms party reaches the bride. In the early 1900s, an observer of pride by capture ritual, wrote "the fighting is by no means child's play, and the men are sometimes seriously injured." (Note that it is the men who get injured, not the women, which proves my theory that it's the women who are the vicious species of this planet and not us men!)

This custom happens in other societies too. There is an old Irish custom of "dragging home the bride" and Gypsy weddings there is a tradition of guests who are soon to become married themselves, dragging off their women during the evening, for (I know not what, I am so innocent), possibly a reflection of this "pride by capture" tradition. The Irish tradition extended to throwing darts at the company who attended the bride, but fortunately far enough away, to make sure that nobody actually got hit, but this is not a modern practice, or at least I don't think so. Records of this go back to the 1680s in Ireland, but in island one stumbles across so much tradition that is difficult to know if it may continue in some places. (This is something I really must be wary of next time I play with my Irish ceilidh band at an Irish wedding. They certainly do get quite wild at times, but always in the most jovial of ways, but I will keep my eye skin for people with darts. Perhaps if I play too many wrong notes they might focus their attention and dart throwing skills at me!)

Before this strange idea of romance and marrying for love, buying a wife was just a basic business deal. (So you see, the song Love and Marriage Go Together like a Horse and Carriage, which we often play at weddings with our string quartet, is a relatively recent concept, but then on the timescales of these changes I guess a string quartet is quite a recent invention going back, in its present form, to the late 1700s and our friend Joseph Haydn.)

 Certainly arranged marriages still happen in many parts of the world, and this is well known. Some of them are truly arranged marriages in which the bride is just a commodity, but in many parts of the world this tradition has changed considerably, and the arranged marriage is more like an off-line dating agency set up by families who know each other, the couple meeting at parties or social events arranged by families, just as may happen in any society, and the families just supporting those who are in love of their own accord. So there is a complete spectrum of arranged marriages from the old bride purchasing and family fortune building origins to the most benign and considerate.

But in the traditional arranged marriage, it's a business deal for the betterment of family fortunes, with long haggling to establish a bride price and diary. Although arranged marriages, even the good intention ones, are looked down on by many people in British society, it has been put forward by sociologists that arranged marriages, supervised by the families based on the contract, complement sense about who is chosen and a cash transaction, are just as likely (or should it be unlikely), to turn out to be long and happy marriages as those that follow the Western norm of romantic love. The marriage contract in a legal sense is also part of the Jewish wedding tradition, and a general marriage contract is now becoming more common in other parts of Western society. (I've played with my string quartet at many Jewish weddings where the tradition of stamping on the glass during the ceremony, is carried out.)

For those of superstitious temperament, (which includes most of the Cornish – my father-in-law was a Cornishman), evil spirits, especially hostile to those who are about to become spliced, if been believed to brood over bridal parties, and charms and rituals still abound to protect against the spirits. Malevolent Demons were chased away by bellringing or gunfire, and can been added to nowadays by the blasting of car horns. Some brides, even today, will get someone standing for them during the wedding rehearsal – just in case the Demon gets them before they can get married.

Just as with herd animals, where there is protection in numbers, the same can apply at a wedding party who traditionally clustered together so that they can't be picked off individually by the evil spirits. (You thought it was because they still were suffering from a hangover from the party the night before, or had perhaps had imbibed a few glasses of bubbly to calm their nerves as they were getting ready. Shame on you. Now you know the truth is protection against evil spirits!)

Marriage had traditionally been about children, bearing a male child to continue a dynasty, bearing children to work on the family farm to work in the mills of the Industrial Revolution, or children to continue the family name in the face of high infant mortality. But by the 1920s, in Western societies, the focus on childbearing as a primary purpose of marriage has changed. Large families are less common, and many couples decide that they do not wish to have children. However, back in the days when it was important to have children to work for the good of family and its economic survival, this is still the case in unrecognised agricultural communities around the world, the fertility of the bride may well have to be established beforehand by a trial marriage, (a sort of try and buy process. With the farmer by horse without trying it first? So why buy a wife except on the same basis?)

The confetti, flowers and rice that are thrown at the couple are a symbol of plenty, of increase, fertility.

By getting married, the bride and bridegroom change from their family group that they were with where they were brought up, to a new life and new social grouping. This is marked by rites of passage such as the announcement of the engagement in the local paper, the stag party, a gift from the office colleagues. In the Jewish tradition this is also marked musically. We have a piece of klezmer music that we sometimes play in our folk band, ring right, or our Jewish speciality band called The Bagels, that is called (translated into English) Leading the In-laws Home. It is hauntingly sad and beautiful piece of music that was traditionally played as the in-laws were led back to their home, having lost her child to the marriage. (By the excitement and joy of other piece of klezmer music we play, I assume that the in-laws were let back to the party and everybody had a really good time and that all the families were brought close together so that this was just a symbolic piece of music. I would hate to think that with my ceilidh band I was playing something that represented something that was genuinely so saddened final was that, but I'm sure it was not. As was said repeatedly in the musical "Fiddler on the Roof", which I played violin for along with a superb pianist for local production some years back, then it is all about "Tradition My Boy, Tradition!"