But what about the origins of the nuptials? It’s fun imagining early Hunter-Gatherers standing at the altar in a big white frock, but in seriousness it more than likely didn’t happen that way. We have no clear understanding of how pre-historic matches took place. But we can theorise that they were much simpler in practice. Disregarding the classic myth of caveman dragging the object of his desire by the hair to the nearest cave, hunter gatherers mated for life more often than not, pairing was based on physical attributes, with males choosing a female who was strong, fit and well-shaped, all classic signs of healthy and fertile. Males would be selected on their ability to hunt, provide and defend. Settling into small nomadic family groups, average life expectancy was in the realms of around 30-40 years. As an act of nature, only one child was born every five years to a couple, although their procreation started in early teens with the probability of each bearing up to four children in their lifetime. This was a natural contraceptive, to ensure each child made it to a stage of semi-independence before the next came along. One could theorise that as in the animal kingdom, should the child die, females would be released into a state of fertility once again. But as for weddings and so forth… nah!
So let’s jump forward an ice age or two, into the Roman world. There were many phases of marriage law over a relatively short period of time, so I will address them briefly, as much as I can without going too in depth. We don’t want to get bogged down after all. Pre-1st C BCE, many marriages came under the category now known as Manus Marriage whereby a husband held his wife in subjugation. After this period, Manus Marriage died to be replaced by Free Marriage, where he had no rights over her or her social status.
In higher status marriages, men would firstly serve a period of perhaps military service until well into their twenties, then would become betrothed to a younger woman of similar social standing. These betrothals for a young Roman noblewoman could take place any time following puberty although the marriages were often delayed until it was felt she was physically capable of surviving childbirth, which was a hairy business back in the day. Marriage was then a game of political motivation. A young woman would learn the skills of running a household from her mother, with the necessary practical tasks taught by slaves and servants. Plebeians and freedwomen, the lower classes would wait until late teens or even twenties before marrying, as political and social requirements were not a priority.
Roman marriage and the role of the woman was seen somewhat in terms of the maiden, mother and crone of Pagan lore, the three stages of her married life she strived to achieve. A father – always a Roman citizen – retained power of Patria Potestas, through his role as Pater familias, which basically meant he had charge of his extended family, which he retained. It was his obligation (and to some extent a legal one) to ensure his family followed moral codes and so on. He had the power to deny a marriage for any of his legitimate children by refusing a potential son- or daughter-in-law, although he could not force his children to marry.
The general custom of a marriage ceremony involved an engagement feast during which the groom would give his betrothed an iron ring, followed by the wedding ceremony where a groom would go to his house and await his bride, and welcome her in her procession. She would carry a torch lit from her hearth, and upon reaching her new home with her attendants, they would carry her over the threshold. She would then be given another torch from her new home and some water, to signify the “aquae et ignis communicatio” the combination of elements of water and fire. The couple would clasp right hands, and vow to their consent and union, including the prospect of children – a very important part of Roman marriage. The bride would wear a knotted belt, which would be to signify that the groom was belted and bound to the bride. Later the groom would unknot this as part of their consummation. The couple would often sacrifice an animal together for the Gods to bless their union. Not only would the wife’s family be expected to pay for the festivities, but in most cases would also offer a dowry, although this could take several forms, each subject to a different ruling in law.
So now we have the basis for a marriage ceremony going back a couple of thousand years. Let some forward a little and check out some European marriage customs. Im first going to talk about Scandinavia and those delightful Norsemen. Okay, have yourselves a quick flashback to my article on Ingjald the Ill-ruler and his Hall at Uppsala, where he sent his forces to keep them safe with a diversionary feast whilst he and he step-brothers got toasty with the four Kings.
The great Temple or Sal (hall) at Uppsala is perhaps the most famous of the “Heathen” temples of the period. Uppsala was in what is now Sweden and the hall was recorded in detail by the German chronicler Adam of Bremen sometime in the 11th Century. Now as we all know, the Norse were serious about their faith, and yet it was singularly the one “unorganised” worship in history. They had their public rituals, led by the King or Jarl which were all about sacrifice and feasting and pleasing the Gods which were often performed in or near the Sal perhaps in a dedicated Horgr or Hof, with icons of Odin, Thor and Fricco (Freyr) as at the Sal in Uppsala. And then they had their private worship, for families and ceremonies of everyday life such as birth and marriage, which were invariably performed by the head of the family.
Betrothals were performed by way of a party of delegates and the prospective groom attending the bride’s family for purposes of negotiating a proposal including details of a dowry, inheritance rights of both parties and property deals. More often than not, particularly amongst the higher standing members of the social class, the prospective bride’s family were slightly less powerful or wealthy than the groom’s, and this would be where the dowry made all the difference. There could also be a bride price offered, which would be made to the father of the bride, but the dowry and later, the wedding gift from the groom’s family, would remain the bride’s property. Once a deal was reached, a feast would follow to celebrate and this would signify confirmation of the betrothal. It is worth noting that commoners, servants, thralls and freedmen had no rights of freedom to act in matters of their own marriage, they were dependent on the wishes and discretion of the Boendr.
The marriage ceremony from what we know was a simple affair but at the same time, the most important. Rituals were few, with the couple speaking their vows in front of the Goddess Var as witness, and the bride would carry an icon of some description dedicated to Thor – often an engraving of Mjolnir asking him to bless her. The couple would make a request to Freyr (as God of physical satisfaction) and Freyja (Goddess of fertility) to make their union a happy and fruitful one. The couple would be led to a bridal couch to sit and a lavish feast lasting at least three days – anything less was considered miserly – would follow for the village. The guests would lead the couple by torchlight to their marriage bed on the first night for the consummation, and would return to the feast. This would confirm the marriage as a legally valid one, rather than a secret affair of some description.
Since the Norsemen were the ancestors of the Houses of Europe, and travelled extensively marrying into them throughout the eighth to tenth centuries, particularly old France, when it was a series of duchies, it is to France I am going next. Okay, let’s cut this to the bone… the Viking Rollo or in Norse Gongu Hrolfr , (Robert) married the daughter of Frankish Charles III (the simple), Poppa of Bayeux, and in return for keeping Francia defended from further invasion from the Norse, was given lands in what is now Normandy, from the Seine to the city of Rouen. Rollo became (at least to some in modern interpretation) Robert I, Duke of Normandy. His son Guillaume Longue-Epee, being William I (Longsword) who in turn had Richard I, who had Richard II, who had Richard III, who was followed by his younger brother Robert II, who was the father of William the Bastard. Still with me? Good.
Rollo converted to Catholicism following his marriage to Poppa. After this point, the traditional marriage customs of the Norsemen started to die out, at least in this region. They would continue in Scandinavia for a few more centuries before Christianity took a firm hold around the 13th Century. It is Robert II’s “marriage” to the mother of William the Bastard, and yes, contemporary accounts actually grant that as his surname, thus conflicting with the old legend that he hated the name and would kill anyone he heard calling him such. In truth it is claimed that the word did not have the derogatory term that it developed later on, and as such was not important to him. His mother however WAS very important to him, and he was highly defensive of anyone who made disparaging comments about her.
Reason being that William’s mother, Hervla was not married to Robert when William was born, rather she was his official mistress. We all know of the story where he looked out of his castle window and saw the beautiful daughter of a tanner stamping on hides with her skirts held up. He sent a guard to bring her to the back door of the castle, which she refused, stating she would only come through the front entrance riding a horse. This was agreed to, and as such denoted her as his mistress, elevating her social status. Nice story but is it true? Well other accounts suggest Hervla was in fact the daughter of a town burgher, and therefore was higher in status than generally held. It is also suggested she was already the mistress of Gilbert of Brionne, with whom she had a son, Richard. Following an affair lasting around three or four years, she left Robert and married somebody else with whom she had four further children, with whom it has been shown William had a close relationship.
The reason I discuss all this is because some historians have suggested that Robert and Hervla had a form of common-law marriage that was brought about through Bretonic custom. The Bretons were from Brittany and were descendants of Britons (hence the name) from the West coast of England and Wales who fled across the North Sea to escape the Anglo Saxon invasions. Many of them were enrolled in the departing columns of Roman forces leaving Britain in the 4th Century, who settled in Brittany. One of the customs they brought with them was quite possibly the ancient marriage ritual of hand-fasting, which gave the parties a bond that could last either a year and a day, or permanently, according to their choice. If after a year and a day, they chose to make another vow, they could do so at this point.
The ritual involved the fastening of the hands, remember the Roman clasp of hands, and the knotted belt? Yeah, see where I’m going with this…. And a vow to remain faithful to each other. As with Roman custom, to sever the union – which was perfectly acceptable should one decide they no longer wished to remain fastened to the other – they just had to say so. Instant divorce! The origins of hand-fasting are disputed by some, claiming it was a custom going back possibly to around 7000 BCE, and the old Celts. Hmmm remember what we discussed with regard to Hunter- Gatherers up top? Well, anyway, you choose.
Hand-fasting or hand-fastening as some call it nowadays, probably received its origins somewhere between Roman invasion and that of the Anglo-Saxons. Some would argue that the tradition of hand-fasting started as a kind of betrothal following the birth of children, in much the same way as we see in later Medieval – Tudor nobles, where children of the elite were betrothed as unions of power. Others would claim weddings were performed on a steal your intended bride by force sort of scenario, where backed by your contemporaries, one would sneak into a village and throw the object of your fancy over your left shoulder, holding her fast with your left hand, thus leaving your sword hand free, just in case. You would then hole up somewhere remote for a full lunar cycle, thus ensuring that by the time you were found, she would already be pregnant and a formal wedding would follow.
So, whatever the beginnings, and you take you pick based on your level of lusty, romantic imagination….. in Anglo-Saxon Britain, things were somewhat calmer. A betrothal would be arranged, or not, depending on whether the marriage was to be clandestine or not. The wedding ceremony would take place, during which they would have their hands bound, say their vows, and quite possibly exchange ancestral swords rather than rings. One the morning after the wedding, the groom would give his bride a Morgen-gifu, a gift of money, land or jewels, this was the groom’s version of a dowry. These vows were considered legally binding. Weddings generally took place when the bride was in her teens. As with most common era nobles, the bride had a varying degree of input into the betrothal. As often they took place while she was still a small child, her agreement was not always considered important. However, betrothals could be broken by mutual consent, generally that of the parents, and of course there is the “oops he died” factor too. Women, having significantly more rights in the pre-Norman era, if in a position where a betrothal was not in place for whatever reason, were able to negotiate their own deals at least in part.
Peasants were in a much firmer position to wait longer before tying the knot (see there it is again!). Women often waited until their twenties, many choosing to tie themselves to a contemporary from the same village or one nearby that they may have met through social or religious gatherings. Contrary to popular belief, many peasants were actually fairly wealthy, some holding significant portions of land and so on. Women as well as men were expected to provide for their families and therefore were brought up to work as hard as their male counterparts either within the home, perhaps taking in weaving and so on or outside in a manual role, farming etc. They were not subject to later inheritance laws that favoured males, and so were often landowners in their own right. Without a father figure or older male to guide them, they were expected to make their own unions based on combination of assets, land, wealth and so on. If a male was there to assist, she could turn to him for guidance.
So there we have the basics of early marriage customs. I will write a second part to show how the traditions of the Anglo-Saxon period were slowly replaced by the later Christian ceremonies and why. So as always…. Watch this space!