Here are some fascinating facts I learned about the origin of wedding ceremony elements and ideals of marriage from Stephanie Coontz's masterfully researched and spellbinding book. Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage (Penguin Books, 2005).
The transfer of authority over a woman's life from father to husband was arranged at the betrothal, when the father declared:
I give you this woman for the procreation of legitimate children,
And the husband replied:
I take her
And the amount of the dowry was announced.
Rome recognized the difference between marriage and cohabitation as a question of intent, i.e. a "marital attitude" of the couple. Quintilian, an educator living AD 35-95 is quoted as saying: There is no obstacle to a marriage being valid by reason of the will of those who come together, even though a contract has not been ratified. It is useless to seal a contract if it turns out that the will to marriage [does] not exist.
In Germany and throughout the medieval period, acceptance of a ring as a token of betrothal created a binding obligation.
Middle Ages in Europe
Before the 12th century, marriage was considered valid if it was 'entered into by mutual consent and then sealed by sexual intercourse.'
In the mid-twelfth century, Peter Lombard, Bishop of Paris, pointed out that a requirement of sex would throw shade on the marriage of Mary and Joseph, that requirement was officially removed from church doctrine. That led to two updates: sex wasn't required, but a promise to marry in the future wasn't quite enough. Instead, the vows had to be made in the present, i.e. "I take you as my husband/wife."
The result was that marriages didn't technically need to have any witnesses under that ruling. So in 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council put the kibosh on 'clandestine marriages' and declared three things necessary for a valid marriage:
1. The bride must have a dowry
2. Banns (announcements) had to be read aloud for 3 consecutive weeks in the local church
3. The wedding vows had to take place in a church
However, officially requiring a marriage to be officiated by a priest was actively rejected by Pope Alexander III on the grounds that it would be impractical. It wasn't until the 16th century in Europe (1753 in Britain) that governments and/or churches could enforce specific legal and religious formalities to validate a marriage.
1525 (Zurich): vows had to be attended by two upstanding witnesses
1534 (Nuremberg): parental consent (up to 25 for men, 22 for women) was required
In general, a married woman was under coverture and had no legal standing as a separate being from her husband. However, married women in France and Germany could petition the court and win the status to do business (sign contracts, take on debt, hire apprentices) as if they had no husband as a Feme Sole or MarktFrau.
16th Century England
Birth of the opening words of a marriage service within the Church of England:
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today in the sight of God... to joyne together this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony, which is an honorable estate, instytuted of God in Paradise"
Vows: With this ring I thee wed; with my body I thee worship; and with all my worldly goods, I thee endow.
Shift to view marriage as a private contract with public consequences, rather than a public institution for families' strategic formation of political alliances and asset protection.
John Locke dared to suggest that marriage was a contract between two equals.
In Russia, forced marriages were officially outlawed, with the bride and groom required to swear they had each freely consented to the match.
In France, marriage considered a freely chosen civil contract.
General shift from understanding marriage as an economic alliance to an emotional one.
Newlyweds took "bridal tours" to visit family members unable to attend the wedding. In the second half of the century, it shifted towards what we now think of as a honeymoon - a trip away from family.
Queen Victoria wears white for her wedding instead of the traditional silver and white gown/cape combo. This begins a new approach to weddings as a grand and glamorous event as opposed to intimate, familial and spiritual.
Philosopher John Stuart Mill starts a new trend when he officially renounces his legal rights over his wife, Harriet Taylor.
1960s - 1970s United States
The idea of "marriage contracts" comes into vogue thanks to feminist observations about the unequal division of household labor.
Racist laws against marriage of people of different ethnicity start to be challenged and overturned. U.S. Supreme Court rules marriage "one of the 'basic civil rights of man,' fundamental to our very existence and survival."