29 June 2015

Weddings in History: Creating the Wedding of a Fictional Priestess in 14th Century Wales

By Ginger Myrick

My current project is The Welsh Prophecy, a work of historical fiction with a fantasy twist. It is set in 14th century Wales and spans the reigns of Edward II and Edward III. The tale begins in the general area of Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales and ends up in a town called Ashford in Kent, England. This very real setting sounds like a decent enough basis for straight historical fiction, but I had to complicate things by adding a fantastical element, which can be challenging, especially when this author wants that particular element to ring true.

The story opens on the main character’s wedding day. Family history holds that Briallen is descended from a legendary cult of priestesses. Because many of the traditions of the British Isles are unofficial and oral in nature, research material is scarce. Fortunately, accounts from the widely varied cultures share many like elements. The legends of Avalon and the Mabinogion—a collection of Welsh mythological tales—feature heavily in the local folklore and have been preserved in written form for centuries. These were the main sources I used to make the story come to life. The priestesses of Sena were a common theme and were described as far back as the first century in this account by Roman geographer, Pomponius Mela:

“In the Brittanic Sea, opposite the coast of the Ossismi [of Brittany], the isle of Sena belongs to a Gaulish divinity and is famous for its oracle; whose priestesses, sanctified by their perpetual virginity, are reportedly nine in number. They called the priestesses the ‘Galligende’ and think that it is because they have been endowed with unique powers; that they can stir up the seas by their magical charms; that they turn into whatever animals they want; that cure what is incurable among other peoples; that they know and predict the future - but that it is not revealed except to sea-voyagers, and only those travelling to consult them.”

Considering the strong influence of fantasy, I could have simply made up the rites and rituals of Briallen’s mystical binding ceremony, but I wanted it to be believable and tie into the cultural superstitions of the native peoples. Both the winter and summer solstices held great importance for the indigenous tribes of Britain. The summer solstice would seem the obvious choice for a wedding—with the feting of the sun during its longest day on earth, festivals hailing the abundance of nature’s bounty, and the fine weather permitting long revels, even after the object of celebration slips below the horizon—but the winter solstice has equally compelling reasons for hosting a wedding.

Although the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, thus the darkest, it also marks the turning of the sun and the beginning of the days getting longer. It presages the coming of spring and the promise of rebirth and potential growth, appropriate themes for the union of bride and groom. Also, in my eyes there is something exceedingly romantic about cold weather and a snow covered landscape. It begs for its own showcase with images of a ceremony attended by family and friends in plush furs and rich cloaks, their breath hanging in delicate clouds on the frigid air, candles producing mystical circles of haloed light in the haze, and all of this followed by a wedding night snuggled under an animal skin in front of a blazing fire. For dramatic effect, I chose the winter.

The vows themselves were a bit easier. The concepts behind them are timeless and enduring, so I just thought about what lovers have been saying to each other through the ages. The fantasy element, along with the fact that organized religious ceremonies would not have been readily available in the setting, gave me a bit of license. When the vows were written, though, I did have them professionally translated into Welsh to lend some realism.

“I love you with my entire being. I bind myself to you of my own free will that we may face our future—whatever it may bring—as one mind, one heart, one spirit. I will love you forever. As I say, so shall it be.”

“Rydw i’n dy garu gyda’m holl hanfod. Fe’th glymaf fy hun atat o’m hewyllus rhydd, fel y medrwn gwynebu’n dyfodol—beth bynnag a ddyfod—fel un meddwl, un calon, un ysbryd. Fe’th garaf am byth. Fel hyn y ddyweda i, fel hyn y bu hi.”

Details, like clothing, had to be realistically portrayed to give the scene authenticity. In the 14th century, few people in Britain had access to fine exotic fabrics like silks and satins. In Wales, which was a land largely considered untamed and its nobility less sophisticated than in England proper, even the landed gentry would not have possessed such garments, nor even have call to wear them in the unpredictable and extreme winters of the wild Welsh countryside. The main character of my story, Briallen, is from the rugged foothills below the Bannau Brycheiniog mountain range in Wales. Not a whole lot of international commerce going on there—mostly just sheep farmers—so her gown logically would have been made of wool dyed with plant material from the woodland surrounding their home. This was one concession to realism that I did make.

But I could not help topping it off with a more elaborate garment to signify her revered position within the community. I gave the bride a cloak of red and gold brocade lined with white feathers. Although materials like silks and satins may have been impractical and scarce, a thicker woven fabric like brocade would have been more suitable to the climate and more accessible. Again, not every working man of the era, indeed no common sheep farmer, would have the means to purchase a fine red and gold brocade, but a sought-after healer with rich patrons must have received many such trinkets in payment for her services.

In borrowing heavily from tradition, peppering in a few embellishments of my own, and dropping the whole of it into a documented historical setting, I hope I’ve been able to achieve my goal of creating a believable historical wedding and accompanying mythology with its own prophecy, fulfillment, and ensuing legacy, that should render a compelling trilogy when finished.

Ginger Myrick was born and raised in Southern California. She is a self-described wife, mother, animal lover, and avid reader. Along with the promotion for BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD, WORK OF ART, THE WELSH HEALEREL REY, and INSATIABLE: A MACABRE HISTORY OF FRANCEshe is currently working on novel #6. A Christian who writes meticulously researched historical fiction with a ‘clean’ love story at the core, she hopes to show the reading community that a romance need not include graphic details to convey deep love and passion.