Marriages of the Past

Ideas about the requirements to form a legally binding marriage underwent many changes through the ages. Ancient Romans, for example, recognised three kinds of marriages: confarreatio, which was of a religious nature and included a formal ceremony in front of witnesses; coemptio, in which the two parties, in the presence of five witnesses, solemnly bound themselves in marriage, sealing the agreement by the mutual giving of a coin; and usus, a form of marriage that constituted continuous cohabiting of a couple for one year, without the woman being absent for more than two nights during that period. If the couple were still together after this time span, they were considered legally married. In other words, only the couple’s consent was necessary and no written contract or formal ceremony was required in sealing the marriage.

The Germanic form of marriage involved consummation and consent from the bride’s parents, or the purchase of a bride. In northern European countries, consummation was regarded as legally sealing the marriage contract, for which, however, consent of the bride’s family was of utmost importance. This point is clearly underlined by the Merovingian King Childebert II’s (570–596 CE) issuing a decree in 596, stipulating the death penalty for abducting a woman by force. Even if she willingly agreed to a marriage, the couple was sentenced to exile or death unless her parents gave their explicit consent.

Amongst the ancient Danes and Normans, there was a marriage contract called hand-festing, which literally means ‘hand in fist’, that is, joining hands. The joining of hands to seal a betrothal was equally common in Anglo-Saxon England, as is evidenced by the term hand-fasting in Scotland and northern England to refer to a betrothal.131 In Anglo-Saxon, the term refers to any pledge by the giving of the hand.

According to the rules of hand-fasting, it was customary at annual country fairs, the only time neighbouring rural communities got together, for persons of both sexes to choose a partner according to their liking. Done in front of witnesses, this made them officially betrothed for a year and a day, or thirteen moon cycles, following which, they could simply renew the arrangement for the same time, split up, and have the same arrangement with someone else, or renew it permanently or for ‘as long as love shall last’ in front of witnesses. With the introduction of Christianity, this form of marriage was considered imperfect without a priest’s sanction. However, the custom of first living with a partner and then sanctioning the union through the Church still continued for hundreds of years thereafter. 

Ninth-century Frankish law recognised two distinct forms of marriage: the Muntehe and the Friedelehe. Whereas the Muntehe was a formal, permanent union between partners and involved the transfer of property from one family to another, the Friedelehe was also recognised as an official marriage but was often temporary and did not include the transfer of property. Any children conceived in the Friedelehe, however, were recognised as heirs if there were no heirs from a Muntehe. Whereas King Charlemagne (742–814 CE) allowed his daughters to enter Friedelehe unions, he never permitted the more binding Muntehe, because this would have meant not only transferring property, which was part of their dowry, but also the control he wielded over his daughters to another man.

In Anglo-Saxon England, women were often purchased, although it is unclear whether payment, paid to the bride rather than her family, was for the woman or the husband’s guardianship over her and her property. In Customs of Sex and Marriage, George Scott explains: ‘In England under the Anglo-Saxon laws, a stipulated sum of money was paid to the father of every young woman by the man who elected to marry her’.132 The price was fixed according to her rank and station in life. 

The dowry system on the other hand was, and still is in some countries, a form of purchasing a husband. As all goods belonging to the bride originally became the property of the husband, a father’s wedding gift to his daughter, was actually a gift to her husband. This custom long predates the spread of Christianity, as brides in ancient Greece already brought dowries to their husbands. Similarly, in ancient Ireland, Wales, and Scandinavian countries, wives brought dowries of household goods and land into a marriage.

Early medieval society considered concubinage, as well as marriage, socially acceptable and legally valid, but generally, a formal agreement existed for entering into such a union. Whereas marriage fulfilled the desire to maintain or improve one’s social standing, concubinage provided companionship and sexual satisfaction. The Old Testament contains many references to concubines. Solomon, for instance, was said to have had three hundred, and King David, ten concubines.133 Amongst the ancient Hebrews, living for more than three years continuously in a man’s house changed the status of a concubine to that of a wife. Until the Middle Ages, the position of a concubine was one verging on respectability. However, this drastically changed with the onset of the Reformation, when she became looked upon as a woman of debased morals, not to be tolerated in respectable society. 

Up to and during the Middle Ages, the only condition needed to create a marriage was for both parties and the bride’s family to state their consent. The presence of the clergy was not considered necessary, nor were witnesses required. For the middle and wealthy classes, marriages could be divided into three parts: The first part consisted of the families of the bride and groom getting together and drawing up a contract. The bride was not required to be present during this part of the proceedings. The second part was the betrothal, which was legally binding, whether the marriage was consummated or not. At this ceremony, it was customary for the couple to exchange gifts (usually a ring), share food and drink, clasp hands, and exchange a kiss. The vows could simply consist of the question: ‘Will you marry me?’ with the expected answer given in the affirmative. The third part was the removal of the bride to the groom’s home, which could take place several years after the betrothal, depending on the circumstances. The role of the clergy in this case was merely to bless the couple. 

Besides rites, which were later incorporated into the wedding ceremony, certain symbolic actions seem to have been limited solely to betrothal agreements. Records from fifteenth and sixteenth century France report people drinking wine or eating a piece of fruit together in the name of marriage to seal a betrothal. Indeed, the ritual exchange of almost any object could be used to form a betrothal agreement. In England and on the Continent, it was once customary among the common people to break a piece of gold or silver as a token of a verbal contract of marriage and the promise of love. The woman kept one part of the broken piece, while the man kept the other. 

Another token amongst betrothed lovers was the joint-ring. The joint-ring, made with two or more hoops, was common between lovers. The hoops turned on a hinge, and on betrothal, the groom’s fingers were placed in two of the hoops while the third hoop was on the bride’s finger, to indicate to everyone that the bond of union was a mutual one.  On these special occasions, a ‘dry bargain’, where the parties did not drink a toast to one another, was not considered binding.

Weddings started to become official church policy after the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 declared it obligatory for a marriage to be blessed and witnessed by a priest and for the banns to be published. Banns announced a couple’s intention to marry in the parishes in which they resided. Despite this decree, however, the Church continued to recognise marriages entered into without a priest in attendance. Throughout the twelfth century, clergy at weddings was still uncommon but became slowly more traditional in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. 

In 1563, during the meetings of the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent, the Church’s stance on marriage was reviewed. Forthwith, besides the consent of all parties concerned, a priest was required to at least say a formula such as, ‘I join you in matrimony’, to ratify the union.134 However, this decree did not apply to England where the Council of Trent lacked power. Marriages in England were regulated by Common Law, and the position was that any two persons were at liberty to have their union solemnised by a priest or enter an equally binding contract without the aid of the Church. In Scotland, it was possible to marry by the exchange of consent in the presence of witnesses until 1940.135 

Throughout Europe, the Church continued to recognise clandestine marriages, in other words, those conducted without a priest, until the late eighteenth century.136 With decrees on marriage in place after the Council of Trent, weddings performed with a priest moved from the house of the bride to the church. But curiously, vows were exchanged in the open, in front of the church doors or in the church porch, but not in the body of the church. Chaucer (1343–1400), who lived under the reign of Edward III, alludes to this custom in his work Wife of Bath, wherein he states: ‘She was a worthy woman all her live, husbands at the church door had she five’.137 

In all probability, church-porch marriages occurred to give the nuptial ceremony the greatest possible publicity. The fact that the exact amount of the bride’s dowry was customarily loudly disclosed in front of all assembled guests and onlookers greatly supports this contention, and of course, such fiscal announcements had no place inside a House of God. Once the marriage was official, the dowry became the immediate property of the husband. 

Another reason given for church-porch marriages was the opinion of the priesthood that holding a marriage within a church was a sacrilegious procedure. It would have been indecent to give permission within the confines of a Christian church for a man and a woman to ‘sleep’ together. However, this interpretation does not merit serious consideration.

Hence, in view of the tradition of church-porch marriages, a wet day for the wedding was a very serious matter, especially because people of those days did not have our modern conveniences, such as umbrellas and awnings, to protect them from pelting rain. This is probably why rain on the wedding day was perceived as unlucky. Because raindrops were thought to symbolise tears, a wet wedding was believed to foreshadow much sorrow, as the following rhymes indicate: ‘If it rains on the wedding, the bride will cry all her married life’, or: ‘You will shed a tear for each raindrop that falls on your wedding day’, or: ‘Happy the bride the sun shines on, woe to the bride the rain falls on’. 

Whereas weddings in European countries were generally conducted outside the church doors, England is possibly the first country in Europe where the ceremony started to occur inside the church. An early Tudor etiquette book mentions that nobles and gentry could be married inside the church, with those of higher social station allowed closer to the altar. 

Because wedding ceremonies were now performed at the church instead of at the home of the bride, this meant that the entire wedding party was obliged to travel, making the wedding procession a part of European marriage custom. Interestingly, the trend is re-emerging, especially among the more affluent, to hold the ceremony at the house of the bride, with the priest conducting the marriage ceremony away from the church. 


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