Marriage Customs Of France, Holland And Belgium
( Originally Published 1897 )
THERE are many ways of encouraging or discouraging a lover's attentions besides saying in so many words that he is welcome or had better be gone. The Dauphine maiden is past mistress in this art. When a swain's visits are pleasing to her, she makes his soup thick with grated cheese ; if the contrary, he will find a handful of oats in his pocket. Should he still persist, she will turn the blackened ends of the firebrands towards him, a sign there is no mistaking. The peasant girl admits a favoured lover to a parlement, which corresponds to a consent to keep company," as we say in England. The swain is now allowed to dance with and call upon her, and to make himself useful in a thousand little ways. Should no better suitor come forward, the two will probably become man and wife. But Frenchwomen have a shrewd turn for business, and, if a richer lover comes across her path, the chances are Jeannette will not let him sigh in vain. So Jean, who has been admitted to a parlement at the New Year, finds his privileges withdrawn at Easter ; while Jacques, who has a larger vineyard or expectations from a rich uncle, now carries her basket and chats with her at the well.
But with the better classes there is little opportunity for courtship. In Paris young unmarried girls go out occasionally into society ; in the provinces this is not allowed. The jeune fille bien elevee, who as an ideal of innocent and ignorant girlhood quite surpasses the young person" of our own island, has no social intercourse outside her own family. The late Mr. P. G. Hamerton, whose long residence in the country made him intimately acquainted with French habits, states that a young man rarely catches sight of his fiancee until she is promised to him in marriage. In one of his charming books I he tells a story of an acquaintance who was engaged to one of two sisters, neither of whom he had previously seen. When first presented to these ladies the young man applied to his mother, who had doubtless arranged the affair, to know which of the two was to be his wife !
When a young man resolves on matrimony, and hears of a lady whose family and circumstances are in every way suitable, he makes informal inquiries, through a priest or some lady of her circle, about the girl's domestic qualities—and amount of dowry. This last particular is of the highest importance. It is rare for dowerless girls to marry in France, though the portions which wives, even of the comfortable middle-class, bring their husbands, only consist of some hundreds or at most two or three thousand pounds. On receiving satisfactory information the suitor, who wishes to do the thing in a decorous manner and avoid the unbecoming suspicion of being " in love," does not attempt to see the young lady of his choice, but commits the affair to some elderly woman, perhaps his mother or aunt. This good lady hastens to acquaint the girl's family with the offer, and in her turn informs them of the suitor's unimpeachable character and good circumstances. Should the business prosper, they may be married in two or three weeks. In orthodox families the clergy frequently act as ambassadors, and are said by anti-clericals to be very clever at securing large dowries for the faithful sons of the church.
Mr. Hamerton was once asked to negotiate a match between a friend of his and a certain young lady whom he also knew. She was domesticated, sensible, pleasant, and very beautiful. " I don't wonder," said he, " that you admire such an admirable young lady. She becomes more and more beautiful every day." "Is she pretty ? " was the reply. "I have never seen her. Some people say she is pretty." Mr. Hamerton's feelings, " as an Englishman believing in love, and an artist believing in beauty, being outraged by this answer," he quickly rejoined, Then for what reason on earth do you want to marry her? " It was the suitor's turn to be surprised. After opening his eyes in astonishment, he said, "I have reached the time of life when men take wives. I have made careful inquiries, and, from all I can learn, this young lady would make me a good and suitable wife. They say she is well brought up, and can manage a house, and has good manners. I know that she has a suitable property, which is essential."
Here was the matter in a nutshell. And the young man laid the greatest emphasis on the last and most important item. The essential thing was truly the
suitable property." French people have a whole-some dread of anything like a misalliance.
At La Sologne, near Orleans, when a young couple marry without the means of commencing housekeeping, the contributions of the neighbourhood are always forthcoming to supply the deficiency ; the mode of collecting these is whimsical enough. Five young peasant girls, dressed, of course, in their best costume de fete, proceed to beg among the assembled company, which consists for the most part of nearly the entire population of the parish. They conduct their operations in the following manner. The first holds a distaff and spindle in her hands, which she presents to each of the company, while she sings a song telling how the bride has no hemp to spin her trousseau with. The second damsel receives the offerings produced by this appeal in the husband's drinking cup. The third acts the part of Hebe and pours out a draught of wine, which she offers to each contributor to the store. The fourth carries a napkin, with which she wipes the mouth of each guest after his draught, and thus prepares the way for the performance of the duty entrusted to the fifth, always the prettiest of the party, that of rewarding him for his generosity with a kiss.
Many of the ancient customs of the Bretons are rapidly dying out, but in certain out-of-the-way corners of Lower Brittany some still survive. Here a young peasant who is in love confides his passion to the village tailor. The latter then seeks out the damsel in question and speaks to her privately, laying before her the swain's suit. If the girl is willing, the respective parents are consulted. On a certain fixed day, the tailor, with a white rod in his hand, and with one purple and one red stocking on his legs, accompanies the youth and his father to the house of the future bride. Here the parents discuss ways and means," while the young people enjoy a long private and uninterrupted conversation. The meeting over, they join the old people, and partake together of white bread, wine and brandy, using the same knife between them and eating from the same plate. On another day the view " (velladen) is held at the same house.
On this occasion there is much display, every one appearing in holiday costume, and the conditions of the marriage-contract are then fixed. The guests inspect the trousseau.
The bride must choose a bridesmaid, and the young man a groomsman. These, accompanied by an inviter, or " bidder," as the person is called in Wales, who bears a white wand, go and invite people to the wedding. On so important an event as a wedding nobody is forgotten, however humble his condition in life may happen to be ; and nowhere in the world are the ties of kindred stronger than among the people of Lower Brittany. A thousand persons have been known to assist at the wedding of a prosperous farmer ! The friends and acquaintances are so many that the task of bidding " often occupies several days. On the previous Sunday every one who has accepted the invitation is expected to send some present to the young couple. In the case of a farmer, the bearer of the present is one of his farm labourers, very carefully dressed, in order to produce a great impression of his master's consequence. Sometimes the gifts are of considerable value, but they usually take the form of some article of domestic use or something for the feast.
At an early hour on the wedding-day, the young men of the village assemble near the bride's house, where the bridegroom meets them. As soon as a sufficient number have gathered together they depart in procession, preceded by the " Ambassador of Love " (basvalan) with a band of music—the bag-pipe being conspicuous—to take possession of the bride. But parents do not give away their daughters too easily, and so pretend at first to refuse. Accordingly, when the procession has arrived at the farm, there is profound silence—except for the barking of savage dogs. The doors are closed, and the place appears to be deserted ; but even a hasty survey of the homestead reveals the fact that preparations are being made for an approaching festivity—chimneys and cauldrons are smoking and long tables have been arranged in every available place.
Long and loudly does the ambassador knock, until at length there appears an envoy of the bride's family. This person, with a branch of broom in his hand, replies in verse, pointing to some neighbouring chateau, where he assures the basvalan such a glorious train as his is sure to find a welcome on account of its unparalleled splendour. But this polite excuse is foreseen ; the basvalan answers his rival, verse for verse, compliment for compliment, saying that they are in search of a jewel more brilliant than the stars, not hidden away in the chateau but here in the farmhouse. Upon this the family envoy retires, and presently leads forth an aged matron, and presents her as the only jewel they have got. Of a truth," replies the ambassador, a most respectable person ; but it appears to us that she is past her festal time. We do not deny the merit of grey hair, especially when silvered by age and virtue. But we seek something far more precious. The maiden we demand is at least three times younger. Try again ; you cannot fail to discover her from the splendour which her unparalleled beauty sheds around her ! " But even after this it is not correct to produce the true bride ; so first the man brings an infant in arms, next a widow, then a married woman, and then one of the bridesmaids. These candidates are all rejected very politely, so as not to wound their feelings, until at last the dark-eyed blushing bride is led forth arrayed in her wedding dress. The bridegroom's party then enter the house ; the family envoy, falling on his knees, slowly utters a Pater noster for the living and a De profundis for the dead, and asks the family to bestow a blessing on their daughter. Then the scene assumes a more affecting character ; sobs are heard, and tears fall while the man is speaking. There is generally some sad episode in connection with these rustic festivals. Perhaps the thoughts of both father and mother are led to the memory of a dear one whom they have loved long since and lost awhile." But, in any case, there is the sad present trial of parting with their jewel. When the procession is about to start for church the mother severs the end of the bride's sash, and addresses her as follows ----
The tie which has so long united us, my child, is henceforward rent asunder, and I am compelled to yield to another the authority which God gave me over thee. If thou art happy—and may God ever grant it—this will be no longer thy home ; but should misfortune visit thee, a mother is still a mother, and her arms ever open for her children. Like thee I quitted my mother's side to follow a husband. Thy children will leave thee in turn. When the birds are grown the maternal nest cannot hold them. May God bless thee, my child, and grant thee as much consolation as He has granted me ! "
The wedding procession is interrupted on its way to the church by groups of beggars, who climb up the slopes bordering the roads—which are very deep and narrow, like Devonshire lanes—in order to bar the passage by means of long briars, or to hold up prickly thorns in the faces of the party. The groomsman removes the barriers, and scatters coins among the mendicants. When the distance is considerable, the number of such barriers is often great ; but the groomsman must patiently remove each one, never losing his temper for a moment, and always liberally throwing the money.
After the religious ceremony comes the feast ; the multitude of guests form a lively and variegated picture. The arrival of the newly-married couple from the church is announced by the firing of muskets, and the sound of bagpipes ; pipers, fiddlers, and single-stick players head the returning procession ; then come the bride and bridegroom, followed by relatives and guests. The neighbours who have stayed to help in the cooking desert their posts and rush from the kitchen, or the yard, where fires are burning, to watch the arrivals. Presently, when the confusion has subsided, the guests find their places at the long narrow tables formed of rough planks, supported by stakes driven into the ground. They eat soup from wooden bowls ; meat is cut up and eaten in the hand, or as they say, " upon the thumb."
Beer and wine are served from rough earthenware jugs, and cups are shared. It is considered polite to hand one's cup to a neighbour, so that he may assist in emptying it ; and a refusal would be considered extremely rude. The bridegroom and his relations wait on their guests, pressing each one to " take care of himself." Compliments are showered upon them, and they drink from time to time the cups that are offered to them. The feasting is not continuous, but goes on at intervals. After each course the musicians play, and all rise up from the tables. One party gets up a wrestling match—for the Bretons are famous wrestlers like their Cornish brethren. Others play at single-stick, or run races, while some dance, and beggars partake of what has been left on the tables.
Then games and dances give place to another course of eating and drinking ; and so they continue till midnight.
In some parts of Brittany the two tailors, representing the bride and bridegroom respectively, hold a quaint dialogue at the house of the bride, to which the young man comes with his friends on the wedding day to demand hospitality. The lady's poet replies that possibly the party are vagabonds, and had better pursue their way. At last the man's poet declares the real object of his visit and sets forth his friend's good qualities. How he can plough as much in a day as three hired labourers. How he can set up a cart that has been overturned ; what a champion he is at wrestling matches. The other one then dwells on the lady's good points, enumerating her many perfections of body and mind. " She is as light and supple as the blossom-covered branches of the broom," &c. " But," he adds, " she has unfortunately left her father's house ! " Of course the bridegroom's man refuses to believe this, and insists that the fair one must be somewhere within. " Young girls," he says, " are made to grace the home of a husband. Do not drive us to despair ! Lead hither the one whom we desire, and we will place her at the wedding feast near the bridegroom, under the eyes of her friends."
Among the Dutch peasants (Boers) a young man goes courting on a Sunday, being too busy on other days. He must call at the house where the young woman lives. Should her parents offer him a chair, he may conclude that his presence is welcome. The elders then retire, leaving him to speak for himself. If, however, the young woman herself feels coldly towards him, she tells him plainly to make for the door, and there is an end of the matter. In certain parts of Holland, when a youth takes a fancy to some girl, he stands at the door of her house and asks for a match to light his pipe. Should he repeat the visit, her parents have no further doubt in their own minds that he intends to propose marriage. On his calling a third time they inform him whether his suit is viewed with favour or no. Should they be willing to accept the lover for a son-in-law, they ask him in, and the match which he asked for is given ; but if not he must retire, and light the pipe with a match from his own pocket.
Those who are betrothed must enter their names in a book at the Town Hall (Stadhuis) at least a couple of weeks before the marriage, in order to allow any one who has the right to make an objection the opportunity of doing so. The bride-elect and her betrothed send out printed circulars to their friends and hold receptions at which they themselves sit in chairs on a platform under a canopy decorated with evergreens. Parents and relations arrange themselves on each side, making a family circle." The visitors entering in small parties, from time to time, make little formal speeches and retire to partake of the refreshments that are always provided on a liberal scale. Bridal sugar " (bruid suiker), a kind of sweetmeat, and spiced wine, called " bride's tears " are offered to all the visitors.
The door of the bride's house is painted green, and flowers are scattered near it by the wedding guests, as the bride and bridegroom leave for the Town Hall, to be married before the Burgomaster with civil rites.
Formerly it was the custom to invite the guests through two bachelors, who went, armed with gaily-decorated wands, to every house and repeated a. number of verses.
According to another custom, which appears to have died out, it was usual for newly-married couples to provide themselves with planks of elm, from which their coffins might be made when they were dead ; and a bride's trousseau usually included a cap and a shroud. At the marriage feast there is much merriment, together with singing and dancing. A large silver bowl, filled with brandy and raisins, is handed round to the guests. One of their favourite songs, beginning with the words,
"How sweet it is where friendship dwells,"
is invariably sung on. these occasions.
In Belgium they print their wedding invitations on a double sheet of paper, one containing an invitation from the parents of the bride, the other from those of the bridegroom. These are paid for by the bridegroom, but the bride has to provide the funds for the wedding mass, the church decorations, and beadles in splendid uniform. The man and the woman are enthroned before the altar in two big chairs while the Mass proceeds, the bride's veil being spread out behind her. Certain acquaintances of their respective families sit with them as witnesses, and these are always the most important people of their acquaintance. An interesting feature in these marriages is the collection for the poor, made by the bridesmaids, under the usher's escort. The money is thrown to the beggars at the church door as the marriage party leaves the building. The happy pair usually take a drive in the park, and then pay a visit to the photographer. The wedding breakfast takes place at some hotel.