A French Country Wedding

La Denterie - tiny chapel

Tiny chapel at la Denterie in Cantal

                    

Weddings were in the air a fortnight ago, with the latest royal event. As is often the case, my historical research appetite was whetted. So let’s go back a century or so and see how a wedding would have been celebrated in the French countryside.

Church or civil?

Local Mairie - first port of call

Local Mairie, where marriages are solemnised

Until the French Revolution, marriages were celebrated under the authority of the church. In September 1792, a law transformed the act of marriage into a civil contract that could only be concluded before an official. Only after that ceremony had taken place could the couple go to church for a blessing. The same law instituted divorce in the name of liberty (whose liberty is another question, but let’s not go there).

Despite the laicisation of marriage, the rituals and practices surrounding it probably didn’t change much in the countryside until the 20th century. The civil ceremony was still regarded as secondary to the church ceremony, which was followed by celebrations in which the whole village took part. In the late 19th century, industrialisation and the mechanisation of agriculture led to rural depopulation, and country traditions fell into disuse.

Old-style courting

Remaining single was undesirable, especially if you were a woman, since you were then a charge on your family. Economic and social life were organised around couples and families, and the division of tasks between the sexes. On Corsica in particular, arranged marriages in the interests of the families were very common. In those cases, marriages were negotiated between fathers, or using a go-between.

Espinas - old style washing machine

Old-style washing machine. Task reserved for women.

Until the advent of modern transport, the chances of meeting a prospective spouse outside a radius of about 5-10 km were pretty slim. Marriages were very much a village, or inter-village, affair. Opportunities for getting together were clearly rarer than they are today and were usually confined to fêtes and harvest meals or the veillées (evening gatherings between neighbours).

One of the more popular events of the year was la fête de la Saint-Jean, celebrated on or around 24th June and marking the solstice. This was traditionally a young people’s festival, with a lot of music and dancing. Throughout much of France, huge bonfires were lit. As the flames died down, the young people (especially the young men, but also the girls) jumped over it repeatedly to show their physical prowess.

If adjoining plots of land could be combined as a result of a marriage, so much the better. In France, it was customary for the bride’s family to pay a dowry (la dot), which was included in the marriage contract. This was regarded as her share of the inheritance and she received nothing more on her parents’ death. The bride also provided a trousseau, which included household items such as sheets, tablecloths and napkins.

An account of a country wedding

A memoir, Marie des Brebis, by novelist Christian Signol, recounts the life of a shepherdess in the Lot, born in around 1900. Marie was a foundling who was adopted by a farmer and his wife. She married in summer 1919 and tells, via Signol, how she wore a dress in blue merino wool. Her fiancé wore a black velvet suit with a black string for a tie.

Espinas Les Jeunes Mariés

Les jeunes mariés – mannequins at the Espinas fête

The wedding procession walked to the church behind a pifraïre (flute player): the bride at the front on the arm of her adoptive father; the groom at the back with his mother, as was the custom. The whole village turned out to admire the bride. Since so many young men had died or been maimed during World War I, a post-war wedding was a cause of great celebration.

During the giving of the ring, Marie followed a local custom. The bride had to prevent the groom from pushing the ring below the lower knuckle of her ring finger. This would ensure that her husband always behaved wisely. Recently, I discovered that, in France, the wedding ring was worn on the right hand until the 17th century.

Marie doesn’t mention a civil ceremony, although the couple would surely have had to be married by the mayor. After the church, an aperitif was offered to all the villagers, before the procession went home to a slap-up meal, punctuated with singing and jokes. It was the custom for a young male guest to disappear under the table and re-emerge with a garter, of which he claimed he had divested the bride.

Caylus 4 - country dances under la halle 1

Traditional country dances

After the meal, the festivities continued with traditional dances, often until the small hours, accompanied by the chabrette (a type of bagpipes). They closed with a customary soupe à l’oignon, after which the young couple was allowed to go to bed. Frequently, they had no home of their own and had to live with one set of parents. Honeymoons were rare. Marie and her Florentin spent a day out walking on the causse before settling down to married life.

Thiezac - chabrette

Chabrette (left) and accordion (not a good photo – sorry)

I found this fascinating article about the marriage customs in different regions of France. It’s in French only, but you’ll get the idea that practices were many and varied.

Finally, reader David kindly sent a photo that he took at a relative’s wedding in the Loire: the good burghers of Tours show their appreciation by waving their napkins during the final celebrations of the wedding. These took place over three days, apparently. I haven’t come across this custom myself, but when I Googled it, I found references to napkin-waving “in the French style”. I’ll be interested to know if other readers have experienced this.

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You might also like:

A French Country Upbringing
A Film Record of an Aveyron Family Post-WWII
French Country Life a Century Ago

Copyright © 2018 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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10 Responses to A French Country Wedding

  1. Stuart Webster says:

    Vanessa,your latest article reminded me of many years ago when my children were quite young we were travelling towards Caen and as usual cutting it very fine to catch the ferry home.
    Somehow we found ourselves in the middle of a wedding procession with as varied a collection of vehicles I had ever seen and with much honking of horns. The children of course found this great fun as we joined in and thought it was probably the best part of the holiday.
    Unfortunately we had to decline the “invitation” from some of the guests to join them at the reception otherwise we would never have made the voyage home.
    Another notable one I witnessed in the Loire region involved funnily enough fireman (mentioned by another contributor who had elaborately staged the bride and groom settling into the back seat of their “limousine “ whilst the driver pulled away in the front half of the vehicle which had been cut down the middle much to the bemusement of the happy couple!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Sorry to be slow coming to this. French weddings are delighfully exuberant. The honking horns are common around here – you always know when a wedding is on! Love the practical joke with the limousine cut in half.

      Like

  2. Oh, I wish I could attach a photograph to this response/question. I went to my brother-in-law’s wedding (first, which is a bit odd for such a pronouncedly “We are CATHOLIC!”family….but, then, I wouldn’t be the first to have noticed that the French version of Roman Catholicism is not necessarily what one might expect). In any case,…..What is WITH this business of everyone’s waving and exuberantly twirling their napkins around when the speeches are given at the reception? My partner’s family is/was patentedly haute bourgeoisie from Tours…not at all a rustic, “country family”. I was told that the napkin twirling was a common custom. At the time (which was well past both the ceremony at the Marie and the church ceremony, and many bottles on wine later), all I could think was that several of the taller men were likely to put out the eyes of several of the older ladies, Oh…I wish I could send you one of the photographs…..emaqil me at dterrydraw@aol.com if you’d like one. It’s one of the weirdest customs I’ve ever witnessed…..
    Sincerely,
    David Terry
    Quail Roost Farm
    Rougemont, NC
    USA

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Now that is interesting. I have to admit that, despite my 21 years in France, I have been to very few French weddings. I’m afraid that funerals are rather more the order of the day in country areas with an aging population. The tradition of waving napkins is new to me and may be a specifically Loire custom. I haven’t heard of it down here in the SW. But when I was researching this post, I was struck by the variety of customs according to the region concerned. I’ll have to look up this particular idiosyncrasy. And documentary evidence in the form of photos is clearly a must. Thank you for this insight. I’m always keen to hear of readers’ experiences.

      Like

  3. Osyth says:

    We were married in Cantal nearly 5 years ago. The village we were married in was home until last September and our flat, in the old school building and overlooking a parc containing the salle de fête meant that we were invited to join in the first (non sit down) part of many wedding celebrations. Your interesting article makes sense of some of the things we noticed but hadn’t necessarily understood. And the Fête de Saint Jean is celebrated in that parc too – they always cut a young tree and built the fire around it. Some said that if the tree was still standing in the morning there would be good luck all year and others quite the opposite – the young men, fueled by far too much booze were happy to leap about over the fire and it always felt rather hair-raising (particularly as several of them were part time pompiers!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I remember your posting about your flat in the former school building. How nice to have been invited to some of the wedding celebrations. Some of the customs I mention have probably died out, but I was surprised by how varied they were according to the region. I plan to write a post about the Fête de la Saint-Jean, which is coming up in a few weeks’ time.

      Liked by 1 person

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