by Wendy Hughes

Welsh wedding rings

Returning from a visit to Cambridge this week we passed through a village where a wedding was taking place and as June and July are traditional months for time weddings I thought I would lift the veil of time and take a closer look at how Welsh ancestors celebrated courtship and marriage in days gone-by.

 

It is claimed that Welsh Laws once regulated the rights of women, but sadly details of any ceremony connected with courtship and marriage are scarce.  However if we look at traditional tales we find a trace of those by-gone customs.  For example in Culhwch we have an instance of the taking of wives by force and the giving of the woman in marriage by the kindred to the fourth degree.  According to the Laws it appears that from the twelfth birthday, a daughter was legally exempt from paternal correction and restraint, I suppose we could say that by this age she was assumed to have reached adulthood.  She was also entitled to give herself in marriage, although it was normal for of a daughter to seek parental consent, possibly from an early age, and this decision may have rested with the kindred group to the fourth generation.  In the earlier Celtic tales we find the expression, oed i gysgu – the appointed time to sleep (together) usedPerhaps our ancestors were more forward thinking than we are led to believe as this suggests that there may have been a pact that consummated the contract of marriage by the act of sleeping together – testing out a partner for suitability before marriage!

ornate lovespoons

It also seems that after the ‘delivery’ of the bride, certain formalities were observed and promises made. A gift, called a agweddi, was given to the bridegroom the day before the marriage day, and another gift, known as cwyll, was payable by the husband to the wife at the same time, the amount depending upon the status of the wife’s father.  A payment called amobr was the purchase price, paid to the father or other relatives who might give the girl in marriage, particularly if her parents had died.  This payment was transferred afterwards to the King or Overlord representing the King.  The most important difference in this Kymric custom compared to those of other primitive customs elsewhere in the world, is that the customs was used equally for free women as well as slaves – the amobr being paid to all classes, irrespective of status.

wedding dress

Customs relating to courtship and marriage are numerous in Wales, and the tradition of giving tokens of love, love-spoons, although well known throughout Celtic traditions, are also very sparse where documented evidence is concerned.  Fine examples of love spoons can be seen in museums and private collections throughout Wales, but an especially fine collection can be seen at the Welsh Folk Museum at St Fagans Cardiff, and well worth a detour of anyone’s trip.

Although the offer of a love-spoon by a suitor, and its acceptance or refusal by the lover could be interrupted as an offer or decline of marriage, there is no evidence to support this theory.  We do know, from written diaries and other documents, that the giving and receiving of love-spoons was a very personal and intimate affair, and that it increased in popularity during the 17th and 19th centuries.  However, it is impossible to discover if love-spoons were being used for this purpose before the 17th century, again because of lack of evidence, although we can safely assume that the carving of wooden spoons for domestic use was carried out from medieval times.  We do know that the tradition of spoon-making during the long winter months on the farm was a common practice, and it seems likely that the practise of sending love spoons could be much older than the oldest known surviving example, which dates from 1667.

Welsh cup cakes

Some of the earliest examples of love-spoons show a clear similarity to the metal spoons of the period, and because many placed in museums have not been credited to the original owner or collector, or indeed the area from which it came, it is impossible to study local forms of the spoons or even date them.  Instead we can only speculate that perhaps the first wooden spoons were given as love tokens, but were also given to the girl to use as her own personal implement for eating (similar to the apostle spoons in metal).

Welsh lovespoon with heart, lock and wheel

Since the maker of the spoon made the gift himself he would have taken great care to emphasise his feelings on the elaborate designs on the spoons, and again we can only speculate that each part of the design would have had a special meaning to the recipient.  This would have been displayed in several different ways.  The handle of the spoon was enlarged, either my making it rectangular or by giving it a flat form, like a panel.  The bowl of the spoon was rarely altered, and nearly always left undecorated.  However one development with the accompaniment of the broad panel handle was the introduction of the twin or even triple bowl.  There was no purpose for the extra bowl, but it did give the carver an opportunity to show his skills to his best advantage on a broad handle.  Most spoons had provision for hanging, which indicated their ornamental rather than domestic function.  But it was the handle that was the most significant part of the spoon and used to display the carver’s skills.  The designs were usually geometrical, and we can assume that this shape enabled the carver the least chance of going wrong with his design.  However, circles, hearts, locks and keys, figures, initials, anchors and ships were all amongst the most popular designs.  Carver’s would use their skills in ingenious ways.  For example, some had slotted handles, swivels and chain links, and when you consider that these spoons were all carved out of one whole piece of wood, you can begin to appreciate the man hours that would have gone into an intricate design – an obvious labor of love!

Welsh wedding cake

Regional types of spoons, as mentioned, are not easy to identify, but it seems likely that in Caernavonshire a plain small glazed spoon was popular.  In Pembrokeshire, other forms found have included the large twin panel type in which two panels are joined by a loop, but a great deal more research needs to take place before we can comment further on these delicate objects.

 

Today the tradition of love-spoons is a significant craft, which is being rekindled with many workshops, craft studios and retail outlets all eager to demonstrate the craft and sell their wares.  These can be found throughout Wales, and a visit to one is a must for any visitor to Wales.

Welsh wedding dress