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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You might also like:
Copyright © 2018 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved