Brides, knights, and pet dragons

Marriage traditions… Some of them have been around for centuries, some have died away, some are forgotten, and some are fondly remembered, but not practically applied. The white dress, bride bouquets, or the waltz dance are cute, harmless, and absolutely impractical.

But for most of human history is was vice versa. Marriage traditions were often horrendous, dangerous, and very pragmatic.

There was a tradition among Tibetan mountain tribes that a bride must have sex with at least four perfect strangers (people not from the village) before marriage was allowed.

As strangers were a rare occurrence in Tibetan villages, her father would set up a tent beside one of the major roads, with a special sign welcoming passersby to help the bride in bringing her marriage date nearer by having sex with her. Finding four strangers who wouldn’t be monks could take weeks.

It was a simple solution to a genetic problem: the tribes would wither out without an inflow of fresh genes,  a possibility to which many Royal houses that wiped themselves off the face of the planet could testify.

There was a time in Russia when its population declined to a dangerous low in the 17th century. Peasants would try to marry single women who were already pregnant, and it didn’t matter from whom. Pregnancy was a sign she could bear children, so the risk of staying childless after marriage was minimised. Two centuries later, suicide became the only option for a “soiled” woman.

The need to survive shaped most nuptial traditions that today we consider cruel, inhumane, or outright crazy.

Medieval Europe was not much better.

A love union was a lottery jackpot: people suspected it existed but had never personally met anyone who’d win it.

For girls, engagement at 8, followed by marriage at 14 was the norm, with horrible maternal mortality rates because of pregnancies at that age. Dowry negotiations had to be completed prior to engagement, which had a higher status than marriage.

Museums and galleries across the globe proudly exhibit the Renaissance cassone, a beautiful vestige of that epoch. It was a chest, given to the bride as a storage for all or some of her dowry. The richer was the family of the bride, the more elaborate the cassone’s design.

Morelli-Nerli cassone, 1472 at Courtauld Gallery, London
Morelli-Nerli cassone, 1472 at Courtauld Gallery, London

Besides a purely utilitarian purpose, a Renaissance cassone often had a moral function as well. Its front side was painted with a story that should remind the bride of her duties and obligations as a wife.

Renowned Renaissance masters would happily pick up cassone’s painting job, as it was the only way to paint something different from religious themes commissioned by the Church. Having secular fun with reclining nudes before the genre was invented by Giorgione in 1510 was not an opportunity to be missed. Look up the photo of a nude that opens this post. It dates back to 1445.


Back to brides, though.

In the 15th century girls wanted chivalrous knights to fight for their hand. Not that much different from the 21st century, isn’t it? St.George was an exemplary saint marrying vanity with celestial glory, so many cassone panels had him represented.

My favourite is the one from Sforza castle in Milano, a 15th century piece:

2014-07-26-5536It is not as elaborate as those coming off the richest families, but it is remarkable for its story:


A young lady went out to walk her pet dragon. She called it “Pinky” because of its tender pink breast , which she loved to tickle to light a candle. This always awed her girlfriends, who felt both fascinated and frightened. She’d tell them, “Pinky never fires at people!” but they wouldn’t believe.

After a series of fires caused by irresponsible dragon owners (two castles, and five villages were destroyed) the king issued a draconian decree on dragon-management. It required dragon owners to never let their dragons off the leash, to have them properly muzzled on public roads (even if transported caged), and at all times to carry a bucket of water to prevent an accidental fire.

News travelled slow then. The young lady was not aware she was breaking two out of three laws until the moment she met a knight who was a dragon-care inspector. The knight stabbed Pinky on sight, introducing himself as, “I am George. Saint George”.

Now, what does this story tell a young bride?

What lesson does it teach her? 

Share this story with your friends, perhaps, they might have a version!


  1. I would say it’s an allegory of a sex act. The pinkness of Pinky and the penetration of the Sting, as well as the pleased face of the bride are all about that. I shall leave to you the interpretation of the “dragon symbol”. But in this case it seems to me a very nice piece of sarcasm, taking into consideration the strict work conditions for a free artist at those times.

      1. You got it just right, I suppose! Actually I’m serious. I think it’s an allegory. Thank you for this brilliant piece of the history of marriage. Maybe you can make a piece on the Vatican pope-candidate checking chair?

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