(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)
A truly comprehensive survey of wedding customs around the world and throughout history would probably fill several volumes. I’m not going to attempt that; we’d get so far down into the weeds we’d never see the sun again. Instead I’m going to do a more top-level sweep of the steps involved in getting married, with some attention to the specifics of how those can manifest.
It starts with engagement, i.e. the promise to get married later on. This doesn’t have to last for a long time — it can be as short as the gap between “hey, want to get married?” and finding an Elvis impersonator at a drive-through Las Vegas chapel to hitch you two together — but the longer the gap is, the more preparation you can do. Today’s wedding-industrial complex pushes the ideal that you should do a lot of prep (and spend a lot of money on it), which echoes yesteryear’s necessity of assembling a wedding trousseau. (I’m reminded of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s line in The Lion in Winter, dismissing the likelihood that Richard and Alais will get married any time soon: “The needlework alone can last for years.”)
But even engagement can involve more than mere agreement. There may be a prenuptial contract to negotiate, or permission to secure: from parents, a master, a liege lord, or anyone else with the authority to gainsay a match. Posting the banns is or was required in a number of Christian countries, giving the general public a chance to raise objections — though usually only within set limits, e.g. “he’s got a wife in another town.” This also creates a mandatory waiting period, helping to stave off the buyer’s remorse that often afflicts the clients of those drive-through Vegas chapels.