One of the most iconic ceremonies is the wedding ceremony. In this article we’ll look at weddings throughout history and see how you can create weddings that reflect the traditions of your world– or even glance slantwise at our own. Along the way, I hope you find yourself incorporating a wedding into your upcoming games and worlds.
Weddings and marriage have consequences. Some researchers suggest that marriage came about when inheritance switched from a women’s children to a man’s. In matriarchal cultures (like amazons), marriage and weddings are less likely– because it’s completely obvious whose children they are. Once you switch to men holding the wealth and land, it becomes important to ensure which man a child belongs to. A good way of doing that is to swear a woman to one man– marriage, solemnized by a wedding.
Marriage was the only way a woman’s children could inherit any status– even if it is the mother’s land or title that the child stood to inherit. Children born outside of marriage often had an uphill battle for acceptance throughout their life: bastard remains an insult with power through the modern day.
I’ve been a part of several weddings, and while there are several differences in the ceremonies, there were a lot of commonalities too. For many people, their wedding is the biggest, most expensive party they’ll ever have to coordinate. It’s a stressful time for the bride, who feels responsible for everything– many go overboard, spawning bridezilla stories.
Depending on the exact year, weddings have different goals and consequences for the participants. Today, marriages are primarily for love, the match selected by the wife and groom– though sometimes it’s a consequence of youthful lust (shotgun wedding ahoy!) or meddling parents. As you travel further from America and further back in time, arranged marriages are more frequent, but love is still idealized.
- Coverture: A married woman lost many of her rights– they were subsumed into her husband’s. A married woman could not own property, sign legal documents, enter into a contracts, obtain an education against her husband’s wishes, or keep a salary for herself. If she worked, she was required to relinquish her wages to her husband. Fortunately, many elements of coverture were slowly eliminated, beginning in the 1870s.
- Arranged Marriages: Parents know best, particularly in their own eyes. Parents often suggest a good husband or wife for their children, often as a business alliance, or a marriage of peers.
- Caste and Status: Love often finds the way tricky across class and caste lines. Falling in love with a princess can be difficult even today; peers of the realm aren’t likely to encourage their son to settle down with a soldier, even if she did save the hapless groom’s life. Getting invited to soirees might be tricky once you’ve become common. Caste can make things even trickier; you might love an untouchable, but can you condemn your children to that life?
- Culture: Marrying into other cultures is no longer shocking, though there are lots of currents to negotiate even today. Gangs might cast you out of their protection, making the trip to the corner market suddenly dangerous. The Sharks and Jets of West Side Story sing and dance the perils of dating outside your culture. Only 50 years ago, interracial dating often resulted in a lynch mob.
- Religion: Marrying into a new religion can be sticky today, particularly in terms of deciding which tradition the children will be taught. In the past, the barrier between religions was even higher. Depending on the sect that you marry into, your old friends and allies might no longer acknowledge you.
- Same Sex, Polyandry and Polygamy: Sometimes the law doesn’t match the shape of your love. Same sex couples struggle for the rights of marriage in many states today. Polyandry and polygamy are illegal, but seeking love outside of marriage is a long held tradition. Mistresses and lovers on the side are ways to stay within the law, but bastards and shame when the arrangement is revealed often results.
Fantasy and Medieval
Ironically, this era often involved more rights for women; for most classes business took the full efforts of both halves of the couple. In medieval Europe, other than Jews and the moors in Spain, religion was rarely an issue until the reformation. Arranged marriages were so common that courtly love and other romantic forms came into being to channel the passions that marriages weren’t designed for.
In a fantasy world, particularly with the pantheons common to many games, marriage can be tricky. Is it the purview of the goddess of nature and increase, for the children that marriage brings? Is marriage a sacrament of the god of civilization, for the alliances and blending of separate families into a greater whole? Or is it the goddess of love whose priestesses marry couples? Maybe it’s something stranger: what if your world’s marriages are presided over by the god of death? That gives “til death do you part” a different feel, no?
Marriage is a great opportunity to acknowledge several gods in one ceremony. While this is more common in history, it’s pretty unusual for most game worlds. Marriage could be a sacrament that all gods offer– which encourages you to consider the difference that comes from being married in the Sun God’s church versus the God of Strength’s shrine.
Modern marriage problems are just the tip of the iceberg in fantasy and medieval worlds: all of the problems listed under modern marriages can also apply. Below are additional challenges unique to fantasy and medieval worlds…
- Officiant: Which god(dess) is responsible for the marriage ceremony? Do evil gods acknowledge marriage? Do different gods, sects, or priests demand different things during their ceremonies (which could lead to restriction shopping for weddings)?
- Clan and Family: As Romeo and Juliet found out, vendettas can make permission difficult wheedle from parents and kin. Rival dwarven clans and haughty high elves looking down on their wild brethren can make mere human rivalries look positively modern.
- Races: Fantasy worlds often have several intelligent races, which can lead to interracial love and marriage. Some pairings are commonly supported in the game world– half-elves are often mentioned– while others are much less common. If your world includes brutish races like goblins and orcs, do they have weddings? What do they promise in their ceremonies? Are weddings performed by the god of that race, or the same god humans use?
- Alliances: A wedding could be a cheap way to annex a neighbor’s land, if you’re willing to wait a generation or two. Marriages and betrothals are also common elements of an alliance, or a convincing element in a peace deal. The Hasburgs married into rulership over the Holy Roman Empire, the Spanish Empire, Burgundy, Bohemia, Austria, and Hungary. Similarly, Bloody Mary‘s marriage almost delivered England into Spain’s hands.
- Jus primae noctis: Have you watched Braveheart? While it appears to be myth rather than reality in our world, lords taking the “first night” rights from brides was plausible enough to spur academic debate. Include something like this in your fantasy world and you’ll incense characters– perfect for encouraging a timely revolt.
In science fiction, weddings can have any of the complications of the modern day, plus analogs to all of the fantasy issues (alien races instead of fantasy, unifying stellar empires or ending a galactic war, settlers from different colonies worshiping divergently, etc.). In addition to all of the above, a few additional complications are common in science fiction.
- Contract marriage: In many science fiction universes, contract or time limited marriages are common. The impermanence of the marriage (in contrast to modern “til death do you part”) means even a great relationship may come to an end– and a couple that would stick together today decides to see if the grass is greener at the end of the contract. Similarly, marriages designed like contracts– with each clause debated for inclusion– brings focus on what elements really are marriage. A great way to examine marriage with a twist in perspective.
- Genetic engineering: Designer children, correcting genetic defects, and “scientific matches” based on DNA are just a few shadows that genetic engineering casts over marriage in sci-fi today. Similarly, your groom’s “qualities” can be critiqued by overbearing mothers-in-law with the exactitude of science.
- Symbiotes: Are you marrying the symbiote or the man around it? Is love at first sight possible if you’re dating a creature inhabiting another body? When the body dies, are you ready to continue the relationship with the much more alien exterior that follows?
- Telepathy: Is that reluctance you’re sensing wedding day jitters, or is it something deeper? Is it right ethically to read your wife? Sure, knowing exactly what she wants might make your sex life great– but doesn’t she deserve privacy? Can telepaths only find true union with their own?
- Time travel: Are your own grandpa? What if you kill an ancestor of your wife’s and undo her existence in the process? Enemy time travelers can cause you a lot of anguish by messing with your wife– and if they’re ever going to trouble you, your wedding is the perfect time. Heck, if they don’t disturb your wedding, is that only because they know it’s going to cause you more pain later?
- Virtual world weddings: Is marrying someone’s character online cheating on your real world spouse? What happens when virtual experiences reproduce every feeling and emotion? Can you love someone you’ve never met? Someone who is only a thought in the matrix, or even only lines of code? On the other hand, you can have wonderful views: get virtual married in the center of the galaxy, at the top of icy peaks under methane skies, or wherever else your VR filter can render.
Worldbuilding, all wrapped up
Weddings and marriage fill useful roles in the real world: defining lineage, uniting enemies in peace, providing an opportunity to display wealth and style, or even advertising important skills. If you don’t have weddings and marriages in your world, what fills their roles? Is it all a matter of custom contracts?
If your world does have weddings, what are they like? Are they exactly like ours, or has the different history and setting altered what they are? Is the wedding a week long celebration, a ritual kidnapping and hiding of the bride for a month, or something else entirely?
In your game
Weddings are a great excuse to gather people together. An ally marrying an enemy is a great way to get the PCs in the same room as their foes– and on good behavior to prevent spoiling their ally’s big day.
The stress of preparing a wedding can explain a great deal of odd behavior from either half of the happy couple. The need to acquire money for an extravagant ceremony could spur a gentleman robber to activity, or turn a mild woman into a cunning bank robber.
Weddings can be a great time to show the differences in cultures; a Hindu wedding will be much more colorful affair than a Victorian styled white dress ceremony.
So, have you used a wedding in your game sessions? Was it everything you imagined: knights marrying their loves and beginning the next generation of the saga? Have you had a great wedding fight, with stray explosions spraying wedding cake over guests? Tell us about great wedding moments in your games in comments!
Interesting that jus primae noctis is a myth. I guess it spread more because our culture thinks dominant males should get more sex.
I had this one bizarre mutated semi-cultic anarchist PC playing in one of my games. He married a woman who had the head of a horse. If I recall correctly, he tried to cause all the guests to mutate as a part of the ceremony.
I think that a funny thing to do with a fantasy marriage would be to make it magically binding. You cheat, you die, or something like that. It’d be pretty interesting to have such marriages as a part of an in-game culture, and see how differently the culture developed because of it.
If you look at the history involved in Europe (where the word was coined), the term “bastard” only has weight of an insult (classically) when used by someone in the insultee’s peer group who isn’t one.
As evidence I offer up no less authority than Her Majesty’s College of Heralds who would (and still will) happily denote you as a distaff son (women didn’t count as they didn’t bear arms in the period we’re discussing)upon the heraldic device on your shield. Bastards were proud of their ancestry, or why would they announce to the world they were one? In a highly class stratified society such as Wars of the Roses era England the line of descent was important, even when it traced into the world of the wrong side of the sheets.
As for Matriarchal societies, I’ve often wondered why, if they have so much to offer a culture, they are virtually non-existent in this day and age. I don’t say that to be confrontational, just to point out that the benefits of such a society are apparently so volatile they don’t withstand contact with patriarchal cultures well.
@Noumenon – I was pleasantly surprised too. I guess it’s hard to live up to all of the worst we imagined. (Though, as the article pointed out, it’s not like they couldn’t get away with outright rape– no need for a law.)
@unwinder – The binding marriage is excellent– in fact, the great Skeeve of Possiltum presented rings linking the lives of two monarchs in Hit or Myth.
@Roxysteve – Being a bastard nobleman was better than being a commoner…
Matriarchal societies are interesting, and make great fiction. Ursula LeGuin has many novels setting up sex and society in interesting ways– if you haven’t already read her short story The Matter of Seggri, you might enjoy its take on a matriarchal society.
I wish that I could use things like this in my world. Often things like marriage make great world flavor but do little for the PCs. I’m trying to get my group to stop making loners and adventurers who love adventuring. People do not want to spend their lives being nearly killed- but I just can’t get my players to learn that.
Thanks for focusing on an oft-overlooked aspect of culture and tradition, Scott. I think a magical “mark of infidelity” would replace the pre-nuptial agreement as a source of much debate and negotiation before a fantasy wedding…
It hasn’t come into play yet, but only 25% of the Dwarves in my campaign are born female. Instant matriarchy (and polyandry)!!
Rationale: Dwarves are greedy and hard working so they can earn enough fortune/fame/talent to marry into a good family, and hopefully spread their seed.
Twist: Not every female Dwarf looks forward to the life of an (admittedly well-treated) brood mare. More than a few have ‘gone Yentl’.
@Scott Martin – *Anything* was better than being a commoner. I think you’re missing the point 0 – being a bastard is only a problem if it buggers up your inheritance or is being used as a class taunt. Commoners of the age I was talking about didn’t care about either since they couldn’t own anything.
The modern insulting use of the term is probably just that – a modern usage, born of modern sensibilities to wedlock.
@Razjah – You can slowly work things like this into the world; sometimes it just takes some play to dig deeper. Or you can just use a wedding as the event going on when the goblins raid next….
@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – I like the “mark of infidelity” idea– makes perfect sense in a world with active priests and magic.
My Empire of Iron game also messed with dwarven culture and reproduction. I guess there’s just something about dwarves and sex in world building…
@Scott Martin – “Dwarves and sex in world building…”
Now there’s an image I’m going to have to burn out of my skull with a flamethrower. 😀