Women’s History Month: Bedding Rituals in Scotland

Bedding rituals have been a popular part of a wedding in many parts of the world and can be found in societies dating back several thousand years. Although the nuances of the ritual vary from place to place, a bedding ritual usually incorporates a newly-wed couple being put to bed on their wedding night by their friends, family and wider community. So, in sixteenth-century Germany, newly-weds were put to bed to the sound of pipers and drums, as well as ‘obscene’ noises, and after the wedding party withdraw from the bedroom, the family continued to celebrate, drowning out the expected noise from the bedroom. Part of this ritual often involved the bride and groom being dressed for bed in separate rooms, before being brought together in the marital bedroom. It might also incorporate other rituals, such as decorating the bed and bedroom with flowers, or as in Shakespearean England, playing ‘fling the stocking’ where the bride threw a stocking into the crowd, giving good fortune to whomever caught it. In sixteenth-century Sweden, after the couple were put into the bed, their family and friend sat on it and shared food with them, before leaving them. However, in most of Europe, unless you were the heir to the throne, no one watched the consummation itself! Instead, the bedding ritual symbolised the consummation and the community’s investment in that consummation.

In Scotland amongst the lower-classes, it was not uncommon for couples to be put to bed by their family and friends at the end of the wedding, a symbolic behaviour showing the communities endorsement of the marriage and the following consummation. Like elsewhere, it was not uncommon for the wedding party to continue to celebrate in the couple’s absence, and at some weddings, the bedding is purely symbolic. The couple are only left together alone for a few minutes, before they rejoin the party. In some communities where irregular marriage was common, the bedding was effectively the only ritual that signified the completion of the marriage. So for example, in 1778, David Mackie and Margaret Ferguson were put to bed in lieu of a wedding ceremony. Margaret described being asked to go to the house in Maybole where David was with a group of male friends. When she arrived, they asked her whether she wished to go to bed with David and told her the local minister, Mr Wright, had advised them this was the best course of action. She, having no friends to advise her, agreed to the proposition, and took off her gown and climbed into bed with David. The couple were then left alone for ten minutes, when the men returned, bringing with them several other people from the local community.

In presence of these people, Blair [a friend of the groom] came up to the Bedside and said “Who is this here? Young folks I think.” Then addressing himself to the parties he says “You David McKie, take this woman to be your married wife.” To which McKie replied, “I do before God and these Witnesses,” and then put the same question to the Defr To which she, from the confusion arising from her situation before strangers, answered “Yes”. Whereupon Blair addressing himself to the Company, said, “Friends, you hear and see this”, and then the parties instantly came out of Bed before all the Company.

Following the bedding, the company all toasted their health and gloves (a common favour) were distributed as wedding gifts. Blair wrote marriage lines for the couple, which they signed. Margaret later claimed that she did not realise the marriage was valid, as nothing indecent had happened whilst they were in bed. David, on the other hand, claimed this wasn’t true arguing ‘they were found by the Persons who came into the Room when the Defender wore the pleasant smile of Satisfaction and acknowledged her being the Respondents Wife it will naturally be presumed that they were very properly employed while they were in in Bed for upwards of an hour’. The court found them to be married.

Given that the bed is an object with connotations of sex and sexual intimacy in this culture, we can begin to understand the emotional signification of the bedding ritual, in marking not only the sexual consummation of marriage and the community’s endorsement of the marriage, but the ways that they placed certain forms of sexual intimacy at the heart of marriage. We can see the ways that friends and family are drawn into the marriage relationship, authorising sexual intimacy through the act of bedding the couple, but also highlighting the extent to which this is not something ‘private’ for the couple, but a form of intimacy that the community is invested in as well. Such a ‘public’ investment in something that we see as a private emotional experience complicates understandings of intimacy as being intrinsically tied to the personal and to interactions between individuals. Instead, it reinforces the sense that this is an emotional relationship that is centred on a couple, but incorporates the group. In turn, this helps explain the presence of the numerous nosy neighbours during this period that monitor sexual unions and report bad behaviour to the Kirk, or who testify to what they have seen in court. Rather than such surveillance being an invasion of privacy – an intrusion on the intimacy of others – their presence was accepted as a dimension of sexual intimacy in this community. As a result, sexual intimacy is both a private and public experience, illustrating the blurring of spheres amongst the poor where small one or two room houses and sharing beds were common. At the same time, while the marriage bedding ritual is only performed once, going to bed as a married couple should be a daily occurrence, and so in a sense, the couple repeat this ritual in the everyday and through doing so are daily reminded of the importance of sexual intimacy, family and community to their marriage.

Katie Barclay is interested in the ways that rituals shape our emotional lives. She is a historian at the University of Adelaide.