Bridesmaids seem to date from Anglo Saxon times, among whom, as Strutt informs us, "the bride was led by a matron, who was called the bride's-woman, followed by a company of young maidens who were called the bride's maids."
In later times it was among the offices of the Bride Maids to lead the bridegroom to church, as it was the duty of the bridegroom's men to conduct the bride thither.
This has not been overlooked in the provincial Poem of "The Collier's Wedding":--
"Two lusty lads, well dressed and strong,
Step'd out to lead the Bride along,
And two young maids of equal size,
As soon the Bridegroom's hand surprize."
In these days the bridesmaid's duties are confined solely to the bride, but the whole function, past and present masculine as well as feminine, has its origin in the sympathetic instinct; although, in the case of groomsmen, there are writers who can trace an origin in the notion of defending the bridegroom against a rival who might carry off the bride. "In Sweden weddings formerly took place under cover of night. Behind the high altar of the ancient church at Husaby in Gothland, a collection of long lances with sockets for torches may yet be seen. These were served out to the groomsmen on such occasions both for defence and illumination." A groomsman was thus a "bestman." He was originally a bride-man--see Beaumont and Fletcher's play A Wife for a Moneth.
"My vertuous maid, this day ile be your bride-man.'
Sometimes he was a bride-knight, and it was his duty to lead the bride to church. The changes which occurred in the course of centuries, whereby the duties of bridesmaids and best man became what they are to-day, are due to the general advance in manners. Marriage customs had many elements of extreme vulgarity in them, particularly on the masculine side; and the developments of later years on the lines of simplicity and reticence are responsible for the better position in which the modern bridesmaid and best man find themselves.