Marriage Bed, Rituals of
Marriage Bed, Rituals of
Weddings are complex rituals involving practices that have the same purpose in spite of differences between cultures and changing traditions. Those rituals correspond to the sequence identified by Arnold van Gennep (1960) in his definition of rites of passage: A wedding includes rites of separation, transition, and incorporation into a new life. All those rites celebrate the new status of the spouses and the fact that their union is not only a private matter but also an agreement involving families and their social environment. Processions and exchanges of gifts are recurrent manifestations of this wider aspect of weddings. Traditionally even the most intimate part of a wedding—its consummation—was made public through a series of marriage bed rituals.
THE PURPOSE OF WEDDING BED RITUALS
Depending on the focus put on this crucial part of the marriage contract, friends of the bride and the groom, the mothers and other women in the community, and even the priest who blessed the bed in western Europe until the eighteenth century played their roles in the wedding chamber. The bridal room and the bed were prepared and decorated by women who accompanied the bride to the chamber and often undressed her while the groom was with his male friends and relatives. Practices involving the wedding bed are related to three main preoccupations: ensuring the fertility of the couple, exorcising the evil spells that could prevent it, and proclaiming the honor of the bride's family by demonstrating her virginity.
The importance given to the public exhibition of the bride's virginity is reputed to be a characteristic of Mediterranean cultures and Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious traditions. It also is found in Russia and among the Roma. In northern Europe the focus was on the public nature of the bedding ceremony that legitimized the marriage and the children to come. The bride's virginity was particularly significant in patrilineal societies: those in which the family line passed through the father to the firstborn male child. Legitimacy was essential if that child was to be accepted as the rightful heir. Showing the sheet or the bride's gown stained with blood to both families and to the community provided indisputable proof that her father had proper control over his household, especially over his daughters. His honor as their protector was at stake as he handed his daughters over to another male protector.
Some groups, such as Italian Jews, dealt with possible disputes about the absence of bloodstains of the sheet: Experienced wise women examined the bride before the first sexual encounter and looked at the sheet before and after the act; thus, they could bear witness to her virginity. According to the customs in different traditions, the first witness could be the bride's aunt or the groom's mother. The announcement could be shouted aloud or, as in Bulgaria or Cyprus after the fifteenth century, made by the newly married husband firing a gun. Women would gather in the wedding chamber and congratulate the bride, parents would give money to the couple, and the stained object might circulate among the guests on a platter. It also could be exposed the next morning, hanging on the walls of the house for everybody to see, or could be made available for viewing in a basket placed on the couple's bed.
From the husband's perspective, the public display of the first sexual encounter provided proof of his virility. Just as the honor of the bride's family was attached to her purity, his social image depended on his sexual competence. Symbols of fertility decorating the bed and propitiatory rites meant to protect the wedding bed against magic and evil spells were an important part of what happened in the wedding chamber.
THE NATURE OF WEDDING BED RITUALS
Historians report that in France fear of the groom's impotence on the wedding night assumed epidemic proportions in the sixteenth century. To protect him against a magical spell, rites of exorcism were performed, such as the couple avoiding sleeping in their bed on the first night or having a secret private wedding before the official one. In some places the first sexual encounter did not occur on the wedding night. The tradition might include the Tobias nights, in which the consummation was delayed for 1 to 3 nights as a celebration of conjugal chastity. In other places, such as Savoy, the Vendée region in France, and Scotland, the taboo against premarital relations and the requirement of the bride's virginity were not absolute. Practices of courtship that could go as far as allowing the couple to spend the night together were tolerated under parental supervision.
The public aspect of the first night was common to most societies. In ancient Greece maidens used to sing outside the bridal chamber so that the cry of the virgin was not heard as she was deflowered. In England the bedding ceremony began traditionally with the blessing of the bed by the priest, after which the couple was offered the benediction posset, a cup of sweetened spiced wine. In France it is still customary for young people to offer the couple a chamber pot with wine mixed with a variety of ingredients, accompanied by saucy jokes and lewd banter. Although the ingredients or the recipient may vary, the common element is that friends of the couple participate symbolically in their sexual encounter and legitimize it, integrating the couple into the community as a new conjugal unit. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, and even later in rural areas, this was also a way for groups of young males to exert informal control of the behavior of families and their daughters.
With the widespread acceptance of premarital sex, wedding bed rituals have lost a great deal of their significance. Their disappearance is indicative of a reconsideration of traditional hierarchies and a general questioning of the gender inequality they exemplified. It also demonstrates the effects of the homogenization of cultures, the inevitable accompaniment of westernization and its hegemonic processes.
Monger, George P. 2004. Marriage Customs of the World: From Henna to Honeymoons. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
Van Gennep, Arnold. 1960. The Rites of Passage, trans. Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Verdier, Yvonne. 1979. Façons de dire, Façons de faire: La Laveuse, la couturière, la cuisinière. Paris: Gallimard.
Westermarck, Edward. 1922. The History of Human Marriage. 5th edition. London: Macmillan.