Since I have been working with couples in celebrating weddings, I have become curious about the history behind many of the customs and rituals that are part of today's weddings, and thought I'd share what I've learned. What I've discovered is an incredibly rich and interesting history here. Everything we do has a fascinating history; none more than the notion of the Best Man, Ushers and the "Wedding Party".
Many centuries ago, before the women's rights movement, men who had decided upon a wife often had to forcefully take her with him (or kidnap her) if her family did not approve of him. The tradition of a "best man" probably has its origin with the Germanic Goths, when it was customary and preferable for a man to marry a woman from within his own community. When women came into short supply "locally," eligible bachelors would have to seek out and capture a bride from a neighboring community. As you might guess this was not a one-person operation, and so the future bridegroom would be accompanied by a male companion who would help. Our custom of the best man is a throwback to that two-man, strong-armed tactic, for, of course the future groom would select only the best man he knew to come long for such an important task.
During the "marriage by capture" era, close friends of the groom-to-be assisted him when he kidnapped the bride from her family. The first ushers and best men were more like a small army, fighting off the brides angry relatives as the groom rode away with her.
The role of the best man evolved. By 200 AD his task was still more than just safeguarding the ring. There remained a real threat that the bride's family would attempt to obtain her return forcibly, so the best man remained at the groom's side throughout the marriage ceremony, alert and well-armed. He continued his duties after the ceremony by standing guard as sentry outside the newlywed's home. Much of this is German folklore, but is not without written documentation and physical artifacts. There are records that indicate that beneath the altars of many churches of early peoples (the Huns, Goths, Visigoths, and Vandals) there lay an arsenal of clubs, knives, and spears. The indication is that these were there to protect the groom from possible attack by the bride's family in an attempt to recapture her.
Bridesmaids and the bridal attendants came about later in history and for less adventurous reasons. Bridesmaids and maids of honor became more common when weddings were planned. For several days before the marriage, a senior maid attended to the bride-to-be. This maid or matron of honor, as we know her today, ensured that the bridal wreath was made and helped the bride get dressed. All bridesmaids helped the bride decorate for the wedding feast.
So, as you choose your attendants, know these men and women are part of a quite interesting and, especially for the men, a perhaps dangerous history.