Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Historical Wedding Customs - Fantasy Writing - Part 1

I just returned from a family wedding and have to say that with each generation they tend to become more...well let's just say more. This one had thousands of dollars of candy at a table for guests to bring home. In light of that, I thought we'd take a look at weddings in fantasy writing based in a more historical setting.

Fantasy writing includes historical customs and traditions that offer flavor and distinctiveness to a novel's world and plot. History overflows with wedding customs that by today's ideology stand out as peculiar. Including such practices in your writing develops an element of For instance, if your character plucks their hairline to create a higher forehead to be attractive for their wedding, the detail makes for a peculiar tradition but it's really a historical practice from medieval times.

Some historical wedding customs by today's standards would be considered strange and others are a clear variation of modern traditions which tie the reader to the story. Research customs and traditions and alter the practices to fit your developing fantasy world. Unique customs translate into believable practices creating depth to the scenes as well as invitations to plot twists leading up to and including the wedding.

One fact to make note as you plan your novel's wedding is that historically grooms were much older than their brides. Most women were married by age 19. Plus marriages among nobles were arranged. Many times the bride and groom didn't meet until days before the wedding. These types of relationships overflow with possible plot threads.


Brides of any era want their hair to be perfect for the big day. But what does that mean in your fantasy culture. Historically, because blond hair was admired many women coveted lighter hair for their wedding day. Of course back then, it took a lot more work to get the desired result. The process of sun bleaching took time. Other lightening process included doses of henna or concoctions made from animal innards.

Style is another matter to consider. Most hairstyles during medieval times consisted of the hair being braided and up rather than hanging loose. The wedding day was one of the few times a woman wore her hair unfastened, flowing with loose curls. Instead of a veil, brides wore a wreath of herbs and flowers. In fantasy, herbs and flowers can also hold magical properties. Do they wear a single ringlet, or do they weave the flowers into a braid circling the crown of her head? Something more to consider as you construct the bridal crown: where do servants or others have to travel to get the flowers or herbs and what do they offer the bride? Is it risky? What is the significance?

As I mentioned in the opening of this article, plucking the hairline was another medieval custom. Brides desired a high forehead, which at the time was the coveted look. Bringing an unusual custom like this into your story sets your world apart. Creating a female character with a high forehead would show the reader that the woman cares about how she looks and wants to be desirable.


Do the customs in your fantasy world support a ritual bathing of the bride? Does it include your bride and groom bathing together? Perhaps it's part of the wedding ceremony. If so where does it take place? Public baths? If public baths exist, are characters usually separated by sex except for the bridal bath? Or does everyone bathe together on a regular basis?

What about the wood needed to heat the water? Is there enough? If forests become depleted will taking a bath be expensive? Historically, by the mid-1300s, firewood to heat water became a luxury for the very wealthy. Lack of firewood forced the general population to walk around dirty most of the time.

Something you may or may not want to include in the bathing ritual is religion. How do religious leaders feel about bathing? Do they oversee the wedding ritual? Or are they not involved. Creating rules based on religion creates a unique world. For example, in medieval times it was against the rules to look at your body while bathing. If you incorporate such a rule and it is broken, what is the penalty? Rules like this work to create tension within the plot.

Another superstition that caused people not to bathe was fear that water carried disease into the body through the skin. These "medical reasons" forced people to wipe dirt off without bathing and to use perfume. People still bathed but infrequently. The perfumes came from the oils of flowers combined with spices. Trade for such ingredients can be worked into the plot as improved trade strengthens a kingdom. Trade routes open opportunities for story lines. For example, if a cargo of special "wedding" ingredients is high-jacked to prevent a marriage from taking place it draws lines of conflict.

Taking historical facts as a foundation opens the door to unending possibilities. Does a perfume hold a magical quality that causes infatuation rather than distain as a marriage relationship thrusts two strangers together? Does one of them already love another? Yes, marriage unions provide an avalanche of details that thread throughout the storyline.

In part two of this article we'll take a closer look at the wedding setting), and in part 3 we'll see what it takes to feed the guests.