A fourteenth century wedding

Friday, December 12, 2014

I had promised to write this, and a lot earlier actually, but I had not come round to doing it. So finally, here it is: the piece about the fourteenth century Dutch wedding DB had organised in Archeon.

As in 2013, Archeon would have a cooking-themed event in the last weekend of september. Last year, DB had visited this event, and we had just been cooking and preparing some late Medieval dishes. It had been a lot of fun though. This year however, we were thinking of making it a tad more festive. Around march already, we had plans for a little banquet. The event would coincide namely, with the LPLG (the Dutch umbrella foundation for most Living History groups in the country) which was held in Archeon as well in 2004, and during which the earliest composition of our group agreed to merge with other members of the LHO, as they had basically the same idea as we, a group of citizens and craftsmen from a Dutch city in the second half of the fourteenth century. Thus, we were basically celebrating the tenth anniversary of the group. As I - Laurens - myself, and Nijso had our birthdays earlier in september as well, this called for a feast. Also, we had heard that our German friend from MiM would pay the park a visit as well.


But to add to this, Vera, who has also been an employee of the historical theme park for seven years, was very keen to organise a wedding. She had picked up that in 2008, when she first came to work there, Mirjam (a former collegue, and also a friend of mine outside of Living History) had had plans to do a wedding  with her boyfriend at the time, Sander, who is also my good friend and former Archeotolk and DB-prospect. But as the relationship ended, this plan would never take place. Earlier, in 2004, there had been a wedding as well by Mante and Matthijs, then in a relationship, and in the two years following, between Wike (a former member of DB, who migrated to Sweden) and myself, even though we never dated.
Because Vera had the strongest connections and influence inside Archeon, she would take up the task of arranging it from within, and Bertus (although he was engaged in other activities mostly) and I would do some external work. This resulted in a small research on medieval wedding customs that proved helpful, as we had entirely lost all information Mante had sorted out in 2004 (and also I found out some new information).

As Vera became ill in the week before the event - she was struck with influenza or something - there was some slight panic. In the worst case, she couldn't make it and her collegue Maaike, who was also her trusted ceremony-mistress, or someone else had to fill in as the bride. Up untill the last moment, there was some uncertainty about whether she should make it, and also who exactly would play the groom, but in the end, she felt well enough and everything went as planned. The groom would be played by Daniel van den Woldenberg, one of the members of MiM, because he has a fancy outfit. This would add something extra to the wedding, as German customs were slightly different from Dutch ones, and we could have both (or none, where information was lacking). One thing, for example: apparently the bride wore red in Germany, which was lucky because Vera had just finished a red surcotte.

Historically, the bridal couple to be would make it's intentions public, with the approval of the parents (or guardians) at a public but sacred place, often in the church yard, or near a chapel or convent. Not inside the church though, as this was, at the time, solely a house of prayer (this would change in the next two centuries, getting all sorts of church-unrelated activities inside, which would have been one of the nuisances of Dutch protestants, even though they kept weddings inside the church afterwards, as it became a sacred bond).
When the engagement had been proclaimed, three instances on which banni (objections to the marriage, as the couple might be related or one of them was already married) could be uttered, were presented. If all was well, the wedding could take place.
Normally, the couple to be would visit the priest one or two days before the wedding, to be blessed and be educated in how to be a good christian couple, so as to make sure their offspring would not be raised as heathens, and both spouses would be well aware of their marital tasks. Although the husband was formally the head of the family, these tasks were not all in his favour: he too had a lot of work to do to please and sustain his wife. Although the church would not officially admit to pleasure during marital sex, of course a priest knew that the bride and groom would have a much happier marriage if some enjoyment would take place.

On the day of the wedding, it was advised by clerical writers, to do this at a 'good hour' which was supposedly between 7 an 10 AM, or between 2 and 4 PM. Because of the Archeon day-planning, this was however not very practical. We decided to let the ceremony take place at noon, which was much more agreeable for everyone. The ceremony, as far as I could reconstruct it, consisted of the bride walking to the groom waiting with the priest and the witnesses, to be presented to him by her father or guardian, as is still common. They would then shake hands as all agreed it was a good match, and bride and groom would be led by the priest to the entrance of the church, or a little chapel, or maybe even a sacred object in the church-yard. They would not enter the church. As opposed to modern times, the priest would not ask anymore of anyone opposed, because they would already have had three chances before. The bride and groom would then repeat after the priest their vows (in this instance, rather uniform), and the ring and some wedding gifts, often coins, would be placed in a bowl of silver, or precious material, with a linen cloth covering it. The couple would be placed under a long decorated or white cloth, held by their respective fathers, or other male relatives in their absence, as some sort of blanket to represent the wedding bed. It also has symbolical associations with either the heavens, or with the robes of the Holy Mother looking after married people and of course their children. The priest would then lift one part of the cloth and get the ring (or this might be presented to him by an acolyte), bless it with holy water, and hand it to the groom, who would then place it on the hand of the bride. This would not happen vice versa, as Medieval people had a sort of aristotelian idea about how men would be much better in controlling their urges, thus not needing to show the world they were married, whereas women, always prone to lechery, would have to show they had been married off and had become decent enough women. In reality, however, one can imagine that, ring or no ring, either man and woman could find tricks to indulge in adultery, as many fourteenth century stories tell us (they were officially 'high class literature' but often seem upon us as some sort of comical porn novels with a morale at the end, such as, don't be a stupid man, or, women need loving too).
After all this, the couple would be blessed and a mass would be held inside the church, not only in their honour, but of course, mostly in the honour of God, and to remind them again to be good, decent christians.

Officially, there was no strict need to have the actual marriage and the wedding feast on the same day, but it will often have taken place anyway. There wasn't even an official need to invite anyone to your marriage, which would probably be handy if you tried to marry without consent, but otherwise, I reckon, your parents would dislike it. I even found that up until 1560, the church disapproved of, but condoned clandestine weddings, where a couple would just agree to be together from the next time they had sex onwards. The children from these bonds would be legitimate and they would certainly help if one of the partners had been promised to someone she or he didn't want. The only problem was, that if one of the partners decided to divorce, because he or she wanted to marry someone else, or the parents threatened to do something nasty, there was absolutely no guarantee for you. If the partner would just deny that you were married, it was off. The only thing the church could or would do, was try to reconcile them, and tell the duped party that they should have been married before the church, so everyone would know and it was written down. Through accounts of these cases, it is that we even know of this practice. The greatest problem was, that from that moment on, the children would be deemed illegitimate and had no security for their future (unless the remaining parent was super rich or something).
In the earlier Middle Ages, it was even a custom to have a man and a woman live together for a while, to have them experiment with their bodies, and they would be as if married, but only for a while. If the partners and their parents agreed, they could then officially marry, if not, they would separate. I'm not sure what happened to incidental offspring of these temporal bonds. From other research, I have found that even in the fourteenth century, it was a custom rather than an exception, that a man and a women would have a sexual relationship outside marriage, from which they had children, and these would be bastards, but apparently the parents of the couple were totally fine with it. I reckon that in some instances, either the parents or the lovers recognized that they weren't suitable marriage material but liked to be together and fuck, or the custom of temporal bonds had continued up to this age. If the parents came from rich noble families, the bastards would often receive grants of land from them or their unofficial families.

Now, back to the event. We had no mass after the ceremony, because this would take too long, and it would bore the public and ourselves. Instead, we moved straight on to the wedding bed ceremony. Originally, the couple would be brought to their bed by the parents and family and friends and have some sort of paganistic ritual where the family would hold up the blankets (as seen before in the ceremony) and everyone would watch them have sex or something. Christianity wouldn't have any of this, so the ritual was transformed into something more prudish: the couple would be placed on the bed, clothed, probably laying down on top or under the blanket, and receive blessings from the priest again. Officially, the should remain abstinent for one to three days out of respect for this blessing in the face of God, but I doubt they would have. Vera and Daniel just sat down on the bed and received the blessing, to talk to the public afterwards about what the whole ceremony had been about.

We now took a short break, to relax, and this was especially necessary for Vera, who was still somewhat ill and super stressed. Luckily, both days were absolutely tremendous considering the weather, it was still like summer, and that at the end of september (then again, 2014 is said to have been the warmest year since some 300 years). This would soon prove to be a slight problem, as we had set up the tables for the wedding feast on the hottest spot of the medieval market square, at the middle of the day. It must have been somewhere between 25 and 30 degrees Centigrade still. While the cooks, the personnel and the public reclined in the shade, we, as the wedding guests, were seated in the hot sun during dinner. It was worth it though, because the food, prepared by MiM, under the supervision of Ronald Vetter, the chef, was delicious.

Then, during this feast, came the prime moment. You might even wonder why I have not elaborated about this before, or even mentioned it, but this is because this momentwas seperate from the church ceremony. These days, it is custom to have the couple kiss at the altar after they have given eachother the ring and have been bleesed by the priest, but in the fourteenth century, this was not so. The couple would face eachother in the middle of the U-shaped table formation, surrounded by all the guests, and a pile of cakes would be held or placed in between them. The pile of cakes, or rather cookies, had been made by Renate, the baker, and she held it up, while Vera and Daniel had to stand on the tips of their toes to give a quick smooch. Seeing the pictures, this was apparently enormously funny.


After the feast, most of the vistors went to see the gladiator show, and after that, slowly left the park. Some people thought the wedding was real and came to congratulate the couple and thank them for the small portions of food they had been allowed to enjoy. Now it was time for us to relax. We had a few drinks, talked, and cleaned up as much as we could before it became dark. This happened early, as it was officially autumn, and unlike the summer, dusk fell about 8 PM. Vera, not too well, went home around this time, shortly after that followed by Bertus and Isis who live in Alphen. The Germans of MiM slept in the Roman inn, and the few remaining DB-members, namely Reinier, Marije, Christie and myself, slept in the tents we had brought.


On saturday we had been joined by Wilg and Bryndis, and Bea, on sunday by the Wessels family. Nijso also left on saturday evening. The sunday was mostly the same as saturday, but Ronnie (Ronald) and Taija Vetter had to leave early for home (they live in Edinburgh now). After the cleaning and breaking up of the stuff, we went home, except for the remaining Germans, who would leave the next morning.

Laurens Feijten

All photo's are made by Hans Splinter

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