Courtship and Marriage Superstitions in the 1700 and 1800s

Eighteenth and nineteenth century couples had to navigate through an extraordinary number of peculiar customs and fanciful superstitions when it came to courtship and marriage. Among these superstitions was the belief that “a piece of wedding-cake placed under the pillow [would] produce a dream of a future husband or wife.”[1] In the Irish Sea, on the Isle of Man, no groom or bride dared visit the wedding altar without a pinch of salt in their pocket. In England it was different. English bridegrooms were encouraged to carry a miniature horseshoe in their pocket to enjoy good luck forever. However, there were many other courtship and marriage superstitions. Some of these included superstitions about the bride herself, the wedding, and, of course, superstitions after a couple married.

Parisian bridal couple in 1826. Author’s collection.

When it came to love, superstitions abound. Some people claimed a woman could tell whether a man loved her by tossing an apple seed into a fire. If the seed cracked, the love was said to be “hearty.” A somewhat similar belief was related to All Hallow’s Eve. A young man and woman threw two nuts (indicative of themselves) into a fire. If the nuts burned steadily together, it was believed the couple would marry. In Scotland, it was maintained that if an engagement ring was altered from its original size it was bad luck, and, supposedly, there were many engagements broken because of adjustments in ring size. Another Scottish belief involved brooches and bad luck: “no young man or woman, in the tender relation, [would] take a pin from the other without returning the same after use.”[2] Pins and needles similarly were emblematic of the extent or cessation of friendship and affection.

marriage superstitions

Painting by Edmund Leighton (1853-1922). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Several marriage superstitions were associated with the bride. In Scotland, many buxom lasses were willing to come to fisticuffs to rub shoulders with the new bride. This was because they believed that the first unmarried female to do so would also be the first one to wed. At the wedding feast, legend claimed the first lass to secure a piece of cheese from the bride’s own hand would shortly be happily married. So, it was with great enthusiasm that Scottish lasses tried to be the first to get the cheese. In the South of England, just as in America, it was claimed to be unlucky for a bride to look in a mirror before she went down the aisle. So, to avoid bad luck, some small article, such as a glove or a ribbon, was put on the bride after she took her final look in the mirror.

The wedding itself could bring good or bad luck depending on the circumstances. For instance, in Scotland, if a swine crossed in front of the wedding party, bad luck was likely to occur as it was “an omen of the direst import.”[3] But if the swine crossed behind the wedding party, it was a sign of a happy life for the couple. In England, it was also good luck for a bride to wear something borrowed as it encouraged good fortune. The Irish bride who dreamed of fairies the night before her wedding was said to be “thrice blessed.” However, according to superstitious people, if during the wedding ceremony, the wedding ring was dropped, “the bride may as well wish herself unborn, for she will always have evil luck.”[4]

There were also other beliefs:

“Bad luck will also attend [the nuptials] should a pet bird die on the wedding morn, or a dog howl on the preceding night. On the way to the church fresh dangers are likely to be encountered, for bad luck will follow should a hare, dog, cat, or reptile cross the path of the wedding party. Toads or spiders, however, are lucky omens; but a priest is by no means a desirable person to meet on such an occasion; and woe, indeed, may be expected should a funeral be seen, or an open grave in the churchyard.”[5]

“The Bride is Embellished by her Girl Friend,” 1859. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Great significance was attached to the month that a marriage took place. The month of May was considered a particularly unlucky time of year to marry based on the fact that the Romans celebrated the festival of the dead during that month and that is perhaps why numerous women avoided marrying in May: Princesse de Lamballe married the Prince de Lamballe in January, Marie Louise married Napoleon Bonaparte in March, Madame Récamier chose April to marry Jacques-Rose Récamier, Princess Hélène of Orléans married the Duke of Aosta in June, Madame Tussaud married François Tussaud in October, Elizabeth Patterson married Jerome Bonaparte in December and Eliza de Feuillide also to marry both her husbands (the Count of Feuillide and then Jane Austen’s brother, Henry) in the month of December.

Napoleon and Marie Louise Wedding. Courtesy of Coutau-Bégarie & Associés.

Significance as to the day of the week or the time of day supposedly encouraged good or back luck. It also encouraged the following rhyme:

“Monday for wealth,

Tuesday for health,

Wednesday the best of all.

Thursday for crosses

Friday for losses,

Saturday no luck at all.”[6]

Further, there were several other things that brought bad luck. A wedding after sunset was one. Brides who married after the sun wet down would supposedly suffer “a joyless life, the loss of children, and an early grave.”[7] In southern Scotland, a rainy day marriage was considered unlucky because of the common saying, “Blest is the bride that the sun shines on.”[8]

Once married, the superstitions did not end. One early superstition involved the newly wedded couple being driven from the church by gray horses because they supposedly ensured the couples future felicity. The first time the bride entered her new home, it was good luck if an elderly person threw a cake of shortbread into the doorway before she entered. Finally, on the wedding night, the first of the newlyweds to fall sleep would also be the first “to fall into the last sleep from which there is no waking.”[9]

(Right to left) April 1881 bridesmaid costume, wedding toilette, and bride’s traveling costume. Author’s collection.

Superstition surrounding many of these cherished myths of love and marriage have continued into the twenty-first century. For instance, in Ireland, bells are rung not just to ensure a harmonious marriage but also to ward of evil spirits, and, in Italy, couples break a glass or vase so they will enjoy a pleasant marriage. Twenty-first century brides also indulge themselves by searching for some happy omen. New brides are still carried over the threshold, despite this belief originating in Medieval times. Rare also is the bride who does not wear some old thing or something new, borrowed, or blue. Furthermore, newlyweds continue to count on that old shoe, but the old shoe that is thrown after them now trails behind them next to clinking cans, just to be sure the newlyweds will enjoy a long and happy marriage.

References:

  • [1] “Marriage Superstitions,” in Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 21 August 1886, p. 10.
  • [2] “Superstitions,” in Hampshire Telegraph, 24 June 1893, p. 12.
  • [3] “More About Marriage”, in Hampshire Telegraph, 25 March 1893, p. 11.
  • [4] “About Superstitions,” in Hampshire Telegraph, 6 March 1897, p. 11.
  • [5] “Marriage Superstitions,” 21 August 1886, p. 10.
  • [6] “Marriage Superstitions,” in Huddersfield Chronicle, 27 November 1876, p. 2.
  • [7] “Superstitions,” in Hampshire Telegraph, 24 June 1893, p. 12.
  • [8] “Marriage Superstitions,” 27 November 1876, p. 2.
  • [9] “Marriage Superstitions,” 21 August 1886, p. 10.

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