The Bizarre Reason Brides Stand on the Left at Weddings

Spoiler: It involves swords!

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Question for all the men out there: Don’t you just hate it when you’ve kidnapped a woman to be your bride, and her family comes charging out the portcullis after you with their swords and lances waving? Isn’t that just the worst?

Marriage by capture,” as the practice is known historically, is no easy feat. (It’s also incredibly misogynistic, which is probably why it isn’t the default mode of tying the knot anymore.) The idea of a man abducting a woman to make her his bride has nevertheless been practiced for thousands of years, addressed in Greek mythology (think, Paris abducting Helen of Troy), in the Bible, and in endless historical accounts. While bridal abduction still exists among some cultures in Africa, Central Asia, and elsewhere, its legacy has stuck around the Western world in an unexpected way—where the bride and groom stand at our weddings.

Traditionally, the bride stands on the left at the altar and the groom stands on the right. According to The Knot and Compton’s Encyclopedia, this is not a coincidence: In historic, swashbuckling times, a man needed to keep his right arm free to draw his sword. Like the mythological Paris battling his way to the sea with Helen captured in his left arm, a prospective groom had to expect some resistance from the bride’s family or rival suitors well into the middle ages. As a majority of men are right-handed, it made sense to keep one’s bride on the left and leave one’s sword-arm free.

Incidentally, the tradition of marriage by capture is also where we get our habit of electing a “best man” at weddings. When a young groom intended to whisk his bride from her family home, he had to bring backup to the brawl. Many of them formed a raiding party of groomsmen, often fellow bachelors spoiling for some action, and among them was the “best man,” who was literally the best man at handling a sword.

Today, of course, the wedding party is picked as a ceremonial honor to beloved friends or family, and many grooms take the right without really thinking about it. These modern bachelors will hopefully have secured the approved of their bride’s family—but just to be safe, it doesn’t hurt to keep that plastic cocktail skewer handy.

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