The Dark History of Groomsmen

Weddings are a time to celebrate with family and friends. And for the couple, they also can be extraordinarily stressful — especially the planning part. The couple needs to decide on a wedding date, pick a venue, deal with a caterer, maybe commission a cake, seal all those invitations, and of course, choose your bridesmaids and groomsmen. 

And you also may need to plot — or thwart — the kidnapping of your wife-to-be.

Well, not anymore. (At least not usually.) But unfortunately, bride kidnapping was a familiar ritual in many cultures until a few hundred years ago. And it’s why picking groomsmen was so important.

In modern times, marriages are usually the consensual union between two adults — and really, no one else is involved. But that wasn’t (and still isn’t) always the case. In many cultures across history, the process was more transactional than courtship-driven, and the families of the would-be bride and groom were very involved throughout the process. In some cultures, the couple could agree to wed on their own, but the man would have to ask a woman’s family for her hand in marriage. In more restrictive situations, the families of the couple would pre-arrange the match, sometimes even a decade or so in advance of the actual marriage. In other cultures and eras, the man would have agency over who he married but the woman would not; her family would decide on her behalf. And there are many other examples — far too many to list and describe here — of situations where the woman didn’t have any say, whatsoever, in who she married. Her family decided on her behalf.

For love-struck couples, that could be a problem. If the woman’s family did not approve of the marriage, there’d be no nuptials — unless the groom wanted to force the issue — by physically removing his future spouse from her family. He would, literally, kidnap her from her father’s house. As National Geographic explains, “such abductions usually masked a voluntary elopement: a way for love-struck couples to escape arranged marriages.” 

But of course, he couldn’t do this alone: the groom would need help. Not everyone can afford to hire a genius Sicilian, a giant, or a master swordsman, so these young men would ask their friends to help. Originally called “bride-knights,” according to Wedding Wire, “during a large portion of the history of groomsmen, these men served as the groom’s army, fighting the bride’s relatives so that the groom could abscond with the bride.” With the young woman now free from her family, the first half of the groomsmen’s duties were complete.

The second half: protect the couple during the wedding ceremony itself. The family of an abducted bride wasn’t likely to let her go uncontested, and the couple was particularly vulnerable to attack on the wedding day itself. So during that ceremony, the groomsmen would stand by their man, ready to protect the couple from any such threat. And the one best suited to protect the couple — literally, the “best man” — was positioned closest to them as a solution of last resort. Wedding Wire continues: 

Back in 16th century Europe, the best man was chosen for his fighting skills—the best swordsman. During the wedding ceremony, the best man stood to the right of the groom so that he could easily access his sword with his right hand if someone tried to kidnap the bride, or she tried to run away. The best man would stand next to the groom for most of the wedding in case of an attack—in some cases, even guarding the couple’s door on their wedding night.

Unfortunately, the practice of bride kidnapping expanded to situations where the woman didn’t consent to be married as well. In some cases, the “bride-knights” were grabbing a woman for their friend, even though she had no interest in marrying the man; similarly, as Reader’s Digest notes, “the best man then stood next to the bride during the ceremony [ . . . ] to make sure she didn’t run away.” In modern times, this type of bride kidnapping still exists in some areas of the world; as the BBC reported in 2018, “the ritual is still common in the Caucasus and Central Asia, where cases of genuine bride kidnappings also occur despite being illegal.”

Bonus fact: In Ukranian tradition, would-be grooms have to ask their beloved’s family for permission to marry. That’s not unique to Ukrainians, of course, nor is the risk that the family will say no. But unlike the rest of the world, a “no” response didn’t mean that the man would leave empty-handed. As NPR reports, “an old tradition held that a would-be suitor would visit a woman’s house to propose. If the answer was yes, there was family toasting and celebration. If no, the poor guy was silently handed a pumpkin.” Why the gourd became the consolation prize of choice isn’t known, but to the rejected man, it didn’t really matter — the stigma of carrying a pumpkin around town was real. NPR continues: “in medieval times [ . . . ] many Ukrainian men would only propose at night so they wouldn’t be seen with a pumpkin in their hands if rejected.” And while the tradition has run its course, the symbolic value of the pumpkin remains: “Ukrainians still use the word harbuz, or pumpkin, in casual conversation to make clear they are refusing something,” per NPR.

From the Archives: Groom Kidnapping: Yes, that happens, too.