As a wedding photographer, I have a bit of interest and knowledge of the historical traditions that come with he whole wedding scene the Best Man origin story is one of the least politically correct origin story of many of the different wedding traditions around, but this is the case with many things that have their roots many hundreds of years ago. In modern times, being asked to be the ‘Best Man’ at a wedding is seen as a great honour and a sign of friendship and trust between the groom and the Best Man. The Best Man is supposed to make sure the day runs smoothly by organising things like seating, helping the groom get over nerves and ensuring he doesn’t party too hard the night before. All this of course before delivering a comical speech designed to embarrass the groom in front of their wedding guests. The history of being the Best Man is actually quite different.
The Best Man origin story
Back in the 16th century Britain, the practice of abducting brides from neighbouring towns was quite commonplace. It was the role of the Best Man to join the groom and his entourage in their quest to kidnap the Bride from the comfort of her own home. This was of course all before the women’s rights movement, so 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 their marriage. Our custom of the best man is a throwback to this kidnapping custom.
This however was not the historic Best Man origin story, as the practice of having to kidnap the bride goes way back to Gothic Germany (0-200AD) where it was customary for a man to marry a woman from within his own community. When women came into short supply “locally,” bachelors would have to seek out and capture a bride from a neighbouring community. This was of course not a one man job, so the ‘Best Man’ for the job of helping the groom in this task was chosen to help. Unlike in Britain however, where this was a somewhat accepted practice, in Germany there was a real threat of the woman’s family taking up arms to retrieve her. As such it was then the Best Man’s duty to help fend off any attackers. The Best Man and his entourage were often heavily armed and stayed by the groom’s side throughout the marriage ceremony. This is why it’s tradition, especially in the UK to have swords being worn by the men involved at a wedding.
The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (August 24, 1572), depicted below, was a bloody day in the history of France. The murderous events following the marriage of the Catholic princess Marguerite (Margot) and the Protestant ruler Henry of Navarre. History states that the wedding was not one that princess Marguerite really wanted and when the priest asked the equivalent of ‘Do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband’ she did not say ‘I do’, then all hell broke loose. This may have been an over dramatisation of actual events, embellished for later plays and books, but the massacre did actually happen.
Something that is related to all this, but not really to the Best Man origin story is that traditionally the bride usually stands to the left of the groom. This is again due to the unfortunate truth that she may actually be there due to being kidnapped, so the groom needs to have his sword hand at the ready to defend against any family members disapproving of the marriage. Also originating from this practice, which literally swept a bride off her feet, sprang the later symbolic act of carrying the bride across the threshold of her new home. The honeymoon is also related to this event, as presumably the bride’s family would still be quite upset about all of this that the newly weds would have to ‘disappear’ for a time so that to give the bride’s family time to come to terms of what has happened.
Thankfully modern society has no need for sword wielding best men and entourage to protect a bride and groom from ill-wishing relatives! However, the role of the best man in a general sense really hasn’t changed all that much, they are still supposed to make sure the day runs smoothly, be it from rampaging in-laws to negotiating with the reception venue over the price of the drink package. The Best Man is still about mateship, only in the old days this often meant putting your life on the line for your mate, where as today its more about poking fun at each other in your speeches 🙂
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