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Customs of Birth, Marriage and Death, Part Two by Charles Mossop


~~ Worlds Apart ~~ Editor ~~ Charles Mossop ~~

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Hatched, Matched and Dispatched:

Customs of Birth, Marriage and Death, Part Two



To begin this month, let’s have a short review.


The aim of this column is to assist you, as a writer, in the task of building—creating—a world in which to set a story.  Obviously, this is not too much of a problem if your story is set in the present and in the society with which you and your readers are completely familiar—the world in which your lives are led.  The world of today doesn’t need the kind of “creation” process that is required if your story is set in the past, or in a speculative time and place.  I write historical fiction, so that’s what I tend to concentrate on in this column, but the same general principles apply to speculative fiction, although the cultural elements you employ will be the products of imagination, rather than research.


The premise of this series of columns is that by describing, or otherwise referring to, significant elements of society and culture—as and when appropriate—in your stories, you can build a picture of the world in which your characters are living.  By doing this, you will give authenticity to your writing, and instil in your readers an appreciation and understanding of the social and cultural forces that act upon your characters in the time and place you have set for them.  This reference to such forces serves as one further way of explaining why your characters behave as they do, and such explanations are a critical part of characterization—the creation of believable and realistic characters. 


In addition, characters can be brought into conflict with social and cultural pressures and mores, and conflict is at the very heart of fiction writing.   Much can be shown about your characters by placing them in a position of conflict with the behavioural expectations of those around them.  Your readers will come to know a great deal about your characters as they read about what they do and do not do when faced with choices about what they desire and what society expects.


With this review in mind, therefore, let’s now continue with our examination of the social and cultural elements you can consider using to build your world and bring it vibrantly alive for your readers.




Last month, we looked at the first of three significant rites of passage in a person’s life: birth.  We noted that all societies mark the occasion of birth in many different ways.  The same is true for the second of these rites of passage, which is marriage.  Today, in order to avoid the ire of the political correctness police, we’d probably have to say something like the establishment of a partner relationship between any two or more persons, but marriage ceremonies are still held, and in the realm of historical fiction, the chances are excellent that you will be dealing with what we in the West describe as traditional marriage: the socially sanctioned union of a male and female for purposes of companionship and procreation. 


Marriage is made in heaven when it comes to fiction writing, because it offers almost boundless opportunities for romance, and, above all, conflict.  For much of past history, marriages were arranged for young people by their parents.  Even if an emotional bond had formed between the potential bride and groom, the approval of parents was usually still required.  Think also of political marriages in which young men and women, sometimes betrothed at birth, were simply expected and required to marry, whether they liked it, or each other, or not.  And they often didn’t like it!  Their unions had precisely nothing whatsoever to do with an emotional or romantic attachment; it was purely a matter of statecraft or family power and economics.  Just think of the opportunities for the introduction of conflict in telling such stories.  You need not look further than Henry VIII and his six wives to see the potential of it.


Even if you are not using romance and marriage as a vehicle for conflict, they are still powerful tools to employ in showing your readers what life was like in the historical period and place in which your story is set.  You could simply say, for example, that one of your characters got married, and it would no doubt be perfectly accurate and true, but a few words about the betrothal and ceremony will have far more meaning for your readers as a source of entertainment and interest.


For example, suppose your story is set in sixteenth century England, and two of your characters are to be married.  You can offer a realistic insight into their world by providing some detail, as follows:


Edward and Carolyn’s betrothal was announced by Edward’s father at a large feast, although it had been agreed to years before when they were both small children. To commemorate the occasion, and seal the betrothal, Edward gave Carolyn a six band gimmel, a ring with six interlocking sections, on each of which was inscribed one line of a poem.  When the ring was properly assembled, the entire poem could be read.


Carolyn’s dowry had been agreed upon years before, and in token of it, Edward’s parents settled a jointure upon her which would provide her with a sum of money if she were widowed.  A number of friends, as a mark of respect for Edward’s father, came forward to guarantee payment of the jointure from their own resources should he be  unable to pay it himself by reason of death or destitution.


After the wedding itself, celebrated in church before noon, as custom required, the afternoon and evening were passed in lavish feasting and high revelry during which vast quantities of food and rivers of ale and wine were consumed. At sundown, the newlyweds were carried to their bedchamber by a rowdy group of well-wishers.  Carolyn’s bridesmaids helped her out of her nuptial gown and into her sleeping garments, while the groomsmen simply bundled Edward into bed in his under-linen.  Willing hands helped Carolyn into bed, and the onlookers offered much advice to both of them on the arts of love.  Father Wilfred then blessed their union, the bed, the bedchamber      and finally blessed what he referred to as their earnest endeavours, and, following that, the assembled company was herded out by the groomsmen and the newlyweds were at last left alone.


There are many ways of providing this detail, and you would find the way that best suits your own style and the needs of the storyline, but to offer that detail is to help build the picture of the world in which Edward and Carolyn lived.


What, then, do these passages show?  Here’s a partial list:

  • Marriages were arranged by the parents
  • Ostentatious consumption was considered to be necessary
  • Financial matters were important to the marriage, which was seen as the union of two families
  • Widows were not to be left destitute
  • Marriages were a function of the established church and were ritualized in a church
  • The procreation purpose of marriage was openly recognized and encouraged


Now, of course, none of the characters in your story may have occasion to get married, and in that case there is nothing more to be said.  However, if a marriage is found somewhere in the plot, you can use it to good advantage, and don’t forget as well the numerous plotting opportunities that things like betrothals and arranged marriages can offer the fertile imagination.


Write on,



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