All About Handfasting
Plants and flowers have been used to decorate weddings since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. In many ancient cultures, the Greeks included, paid homage to the gifts of nature by incorporating them into all of their celebrations. Brides from the earliest records wore a crown of flowers upon her head. This circlet of flowers is seen in cultures from all over the world have been a part of wedding attire since weddings have been celebrated.
With the advent of the British Navy bringing treasures to honor Queen Elizabeth more then gold and coffee reached England. This was the dawning of the plant hunters. With each ship that entered the British ports new plants were introduced to the English. Ever since the countryside became a place of relative peace and people no longer needed to live within protective town walls gardens grew. Life was still hard, by modern standards, but the pleasure garden came into its own during this period. Landowners set aside areas simply to plant for beauty and pleasure. This timed well with the influx of plant materials. Weddings bore witness to this new trend in gardening, as nosegays were being made up with roses, dianthus, foxgloves, and even daffodils.
Even as late as the sixteenth century the word herb referred to all of the plants in the garden. What we now call herbs were planted in among all the other plants in a garden and were used similarly. We must keep in mind that flowers as well as what we now refer to as herbs were used in cooking, medicines as well as decorations.
In period the bridesmaids would take care of all the floral decorations, they would make the bouquets and garlands as well as making little posies for each of the guests. This is probably not practical for a modern wedding. But many brides choose to have some hand in making their own flower arrangements. If this idea appeals to you I suggest you make some practice arrangements in advance to determine how many flowers you will need and how long it will take you. Keep in mind that you will have a lot of other things to take care of at the last minute, and you don't want to stay up all night arranging flowers the night before your wedding.
The fashion during Elizabethan England was to strew fresh rushes and herbs on the floors to sweeten the atmosphere. They also made it a common practice to prepare potpourri, to freshen the air. For special occasions, like weddings, they would be sure to include special herbs and flowers in the strewing herbs.
Gardens in Elizabethan England were used in a variety of ways. They were a source of food, and medicines, as well as a trysting place for lovers, they supplied flowers and herbs for nosegays and decorations as well as strewing herbs for the floors, and there were many a banquet served in a formal garden. Queen Elizabeth had a Maid of Honor on a fixed salary, whose job it was to keep the queen supplied with fresh flowers and nosegays. The office of "Herb Strewer to the Queen" was kept in place until as late as 1713.
Fresh flowers and herbs were a major component in masking the odors of every day life as well as brightening up a room visually. Dr. Liminus, a Dutch traveler, wrote of his stay in England 1560: "Their chambers and parlours strawed over with sweet herbs refreshed the mee; their nosegays finely intermingled with sundry sorts of fragraunte flowers, in their bed-chambers and privy rooms, with comfortable smell cheered me up, and entirely delighted all my senses." He went on in a comparison of England to Holland "Altho we do trimme up our parlours with green boughs, fresh herbes or vine leaves, no nation does it more decently, more trimly, none more sightly then they doe in England."
The tradition of bridal bouquets dates back to before the Crusades. The Saracens brides carried sprigs of orange blossom. The orange blossom has long been a symbol of eternal love and fidelity, as well as a symbol of fertility. The orange is evergreen and produces both fruit and flowers at the same time. Some of the Crusaders brought this tradition with them when they returned home. But as orange trees did not like the climate in England the flowers were chosen from what was more readily available. Though some wealthy brides would have had access to orange blossoms even in England. One choice for medieval brides was a small bouquet of gilded marigolds that were dipped in rosewater. The marigolds were thought to have aphrodisiac qualities and were sometimes eaten after the ceremony.
Remember they did not have professional floral designers in period. The flowers were done by loving but possibly not skilled hands. They would have been gathered from the garden and local fields. The bouquets should be kept simple, with herbs and simple old fashioned or wild looking flowers. Tie them with ribbons that match your gown and maybe even bind a poem in with the flowers.
Nosegays were the first step towards formal bouquets. Prior to the Middle Ages a bride might have carried a loosely gathered bunch of herbs or wild flowers. During the Middle Ages this clutch of loose flowers became a small but more formal round posey of herbs and cultivated flowers. These were often chosen for meanings, but most frequently for their scent. The word nosegay comes from a Middle English word that meant "something pretty for the nose to smell."
The bride's bouquet was usually given to her, by her mother, and there was great significance in the choice of flowers and the arrangement.
Some bride's bouquets had love knots hanging from them. Sometimes there would be dozens of them, with small flowers or buds tucked into the knot. Other brides chose to have three knots, on to represent herself, one for her groom and one for future children.
If a bride was wealthy enough to own a prayer book she might have carried that in place of any flowers. If you are not interested in carrying flowers and are not religious then you could consider carrying a small book of poems or a small elegant journal with your vows written inside. This journal could also be used for your attendants to write you personal messages or remembrances of your special day.
There are several options that would have been used by a Medieval or Renaissance bride. One of the most prevalent garlands was made of rosemary and roses. Anne of Cleves in her wedding to Henry VIII in 1540 wore a gold coronet encircled with sprigs of rosemary. There are period references to brides carrying the garland until after the ceremony then the garland was placed on her head for the celebration.
Corsages would not have been worn. However in period everyone carried a posy or had scented flowers or herbs on their person, sometimes they were pinned onto or sewn into their clothes. One option for the people you would ordinarily give a corsage to in a modern wedding is a small posy or a tussie mussie. It should be made with herbs as well as flowers, maybe decorated with ribbons.
You may want to have ribbons that match the colors of your gown or the maid's gowns given to the men. They could be tied around their arms or pinned on to their costumes as you might pin a boutonniere. If you really want to have boutonnieres you can create small posies like miniature versions of the Bridesmaids posies and pin them to the men's attire. It was not uncommon for men to wear small posies made of fragrant herbs about their persons to mask the smells common to every day life in the period.
There would not have been flowers on the alter, however a garland of greens and symbolic flowers and herbs might frame the door or even decking the ceremony site.
If your site allows flowers to be tossed by the flower girl you could include fragrant herbs to her basket. Rosemary was one of the most popular strewing herbs for period weddings because of its association with remembrance and friendships.
Mint and rosemary were both popular strewing herbs and were often used in weddings. The rosemary symbolized constancy and friendship, the mint was thought to refresh the brain and make one more alert, and improve the memory. In the Middle ages mint was dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Feel free to garland everything with greens. It was not uncommon to have garlands of herbs; berries and greens hung for Christmas and other holidays and weddings would not have been left out in the desire to make a space more festive. Suggested greens for garlands that are in period would be boxwood, ivy or laurel.
Wheat and grains played a major role in period weddings as a symbol of fertility and in reference to prosperity. As a centerpiece or general decoration that is a direct tie to the Middle Ages you could have a sheaf of wheat bound with ivy standing on a table or buffet.
The elaborate centerpieces we have come to expect at a modern wedding would be out of place in period. Though as far as I can tell, according to paintings and manuscript illuminations the flowers were not generally placed on the tables. I have read descriptions of banquets that the master required servants to place fragrant flowers and fragrant waters around the room on any other flat surface. As to how they would look, they would most likely have simple vessels that held water and the herbs & flowers gathered from the garden and nearby fields. You can use pitchers or simple vases. Try to avoid arrangements that obviously make use of floral foam, as that is truly a modern invention.
You can use fruit; however try to keep in mind that most European especially northern countries would not have access to summer fruits in the winter. We can get just about any kind of fruit at any time of year but they could not air freight fruit and did not have the level of hybridization we have now that gives us such variety. You can make a pyramid of fruit on a platter, a wreath, or in a bowl or compote if they look authentic to the period.
If you are having long tables or would like to consider small arrangements for each place setting you could core apples or a large green pears and fill with tiny herbs & flowers. These are decorative smell great, without overpowering, and if you choose edible flowers they can be eaten.
Decorated napkins. If you are using cloth napkins & napkin rings or have the napkins folded in an appropriate fashion you could tuck a tiny nosegay of herbs & flowers into the fold/ring. Instead of traditional napkin rings you could make up slips of paper with the symbolism of the herbs & flowers you have chosen for their posies and tape/glue them into rings for the napkins to be rolled into.
A popular decoration at Elizabethan weddings was the kissing knot. The bride and groom would be seated under knots of ribbons with sprigs of herbs tucked into them. An alternative is a wreath of herbs (primarily rosemary) decorated with ribbons suspended above the heads of the bridal couple.
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Copyright 2001 by Sarah Dressler, PO Box #157, St. Georges, DE 19733 Floriligeum@aol.com. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.
Sarra the Lymner (a.k.a. Sarah Dressler)
Feel free to visit the authors web site, she does flowers for weddings!
This article included with the permission of the author, 3/2/2002.