The Marriage Ceremony

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The Marriage Ceremony


Religious Rites. The impetus for developing a religious marriage ceremony came from two sources. Christian families, as well as the Church, desired to have a couple’s union blessed by a priest or bishop. This practice developed early among people who had recently been converted to Christianity. After the secular marriage rites were complete and the bride had been handed by her parents to her husband, a priest was invited to bless not only the couple but also their bridal chamber and marriage bed. Gradually, this practice was superseded by the Roman liturgy, which was spread across Europe by missionaries, especially in the eighth and ninth centuries, as part of Carolingian church reform. In this liturgy the nuptial blessing was conferred on the couple in the church during mass and prior to communion. The secular rites of marriage took place at home after the church ceremony, and the blessing of the chamber and the bed continued. At the same time, there was growing pressure to have all first marriages blessed by a priest.

Ascertaining Eligibility. The second impetus came from ecclesiastical authorities, who sought to develop means by which to investigate would-be spouses’ freedom to marry. As the various impediments to marriage were developed, it became important that the Church develop a way to ascertain that the couple were able to marry and were entering their union by their own free will. Thus, the priest came to function as a kind of judge who decided the appropriateness of the union. During the Carolingian reforms at the beginning of the ninth century, priests were encouraged to conduct a prenuptial enquiry to ascertain that the couple were not related within the prohibited degrees.

the wedding ceremony

Pope Nicholas I described the marriage ceremony in an 866 letter to Boris I, King of the Bulgarians.

Our people, both men and women, when they make the marriage contracts do not wear on their heads bands of gold, of silver, or of any metal. After the betrothals, which are a promise of future marriage, with the consent of those who have made them and of those under whose authority they stand, certain agreements are struck. After the groom has betrothed the bride through a ring of fidelity which he puts as a pledge on her finger, and after the groom has given to her the dowry upon which both have agreed together with the written instrument containing the agreement, in the presence of persons invited from both sides, then, immediately or after a suitable interval, lest it be presumed that such an act was done before the legal age, both are brought to the marriage vows. And first the vows are taken in the church of the Lord with offerings, which they ought to offer to God through the hands of the priest. Thus finally they are given the blessing and the celestial veil.

Source: David Herlihy, Medieval Households (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 74.

Establishing the Marriage Ritual. One of the earliest descriptions of the rituals surrounding marriage is found in Pope Nicholas I’s 866 letter to Boris I, King of the Bulgarians. The Bulgarians had only recently converted to Christianity, and they were at pains to understand how to accommodate their customs and traditions to their new religion. Nicholas’s letter provides a summary of how marriage occurred in western Europe in the ninth century. The union was initiated by a betrothal or engagement, which Nicholas described as a promise of future marriage. The second step involved the man giving a pledge by placing a ring on the woman’s finger. Then, after completing the negotiations, the groom endowed his future bride with property, in writing and in the presence of witnesses for both man and woman. What is significant about these three steps is that they are essentially secular and familial acts. The events occurred within the family, and the presence of a priest is not mentioned.

Exchanging Vows. There was some indication in Nicholas’s letter that the couple might be young, because he called for not only their consent but also that of their parents or guardians. Moreover, he cautioned that the couple not rush from betrothal to marriage in unseemly haste—although, if they were of legal age they could proceed to exchange the marriage vows. Only at the point

when the couple exchanged their vows did Nicholas stress the presence of a priest. The marriage occurred in a church after offerings had been made and has been understood to be in the context of the Eucharistic celebration. The priest blessed the couple and covered their heads with the nuptial veil. The blessings included references to Adam and Eve and their fertility, and to Tobias and his wife, who prayed for three nights before consummating their union. The veil was an indication of the purity of the union, and Nicholas noted that it was not used in second marriages. Finally, the bride and groom donned crowns as they left the church and began their life together as a married couple. Nicholas’s letter demonstrates that the foundations of marriage as they would be passed down were already in use during the ninth century. His letter was incorporated into Gratian’s Decretum (circa 1140) and thus entered into the core of Church teaching on marriage.

Ecclesiastical Ritual. In the early twelfth century the secular rite of marriage and the priest’s inquiry and blessings were transformed into an ecclesiastical ritual. While marriage had been a family ritual to which the priest was invited, by this time it had become a public religious ceremony at which the parish priest officiated and in which the wider community participated as witnesses. This type of ceremony came to be known as marriage before the church or in the face of the church {in facie ecclesie).

Marriage Rules. The rules governing the proper form of a marriage ceremony were consolidated by the Fourth Lat-eran Council in 1215, at which Pope Innocent III caused several aspects of marriage to be regularized and developed rules that were to be observed all across Europe. Subsequently, European bishops enforced the new regulations governing marriage and informed the clergy exactly how couples ought to be married.

The Marriage Setting. Because of its sacramental character, marriage was to be performed with dignity and in a religious setting. There is some hint that Church authorities thought that such a setting would preserve the principle of free consent, which was more likely to be lost in the unruliness that could accompany some marriages. Moreover, those entering into informal unions might overlook impediments that could lead to tragic results, including the couple’s separation. To help prevent such problems, the new rules separated the betrothal from marriage, required witnesses to the betrothal, and specified that it must occur prior to the reading of the banns.

The Banns. The rules also specified that all marriages should be preceded by the publication of the banns, announcements that a couple intended to marry. This practice appeared in England and northern France in the early thirteenth century before it was adopted by the Fourth Lateran Council and was subsequently applied throughout Christendom. The banns were read aloud in church on three successive Sundays or feast days so that members of the local community could have the opportunity to raise objections to the marriage or inform the local priest about impediments that might prohibit the couple from exchanging consent. If the man and woman were from different parishes, the banns were read in both places.

Establishing Controls. The Church recognized the possibility that people could make false allegations of impediments to the union, and those who did so were punished. The Church took the reading of the banns seriously. A priest who blessed an unpublicized marriage was suspended from his office for three years. If the betrothed were strangers to the parish, they could not be married until letters affirming their eligibility to marry had been received from their previous parish priest. Nevertheless, marriages for which the banns had not been read, while illegal, were valid and indissoluble.

Exchange of Consent. The final stage in the process of getting married was the exchange of consent, which was done solemnly and publicly, and was supervised by the priest in the presence of witnesses. Marriages most likely occurred on Sundays, before noon, as part of the normal Sunday worship and mass. In this way, the whole community participated in the marriage. While the liturgy might vary in details from one diocese to another, the basic outline was similar throughout Europe.

The Marriage Ceremony. The exchange of consent occurred at the door of the church. The priest inquired about the couple’s intention and ensured they had not been brought there under compulsion. He also attempted to identify impediments of consanguinity or affinity. The dowry and dower were announced, and then the priest joined the couple’s hands and led them through the formal exchange of present consent. The groom said, “I take you [name] as my wedded wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death parts us, if holy church will allow it, and to this I give you my faith.” The woman replied, “I take you [name] as my wedded husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to be bonny and buxom, in bed and at table, until death parts us, if holy church will allow it, and to this I give you my faith.” After he blessed the ring, which symbolized the dowry, the priest handed it to the groom, while he helped him to recite the proper words: “With this ring I you wed and with my body I you honor.” The groom then took the ring, slipped it on and off the thumb and second finger of the bride’s left hand, and finally placed it on the third finger. This digit was known as the finger of faith because it was popularly believed to hold a vein that ran up to the heart, so it was connected with ideas of love and fidelity. While most of the liturgies were spoken in Latin, the exchange of consent was in the vernacular language of the couple, to ensure that there was no misunderstanding or ambiguity.

The Wedding Liturgy. After the exchange of consent, the priest led the couple into the church to participate in the mass. Immediately before communion, the couple was called forward for the nuptial blessing. Kneeling before the priest, the wedding veil was held over their heads by four men. If the couple had engaged in sexual relations prior to the solemnization of their marriage, their children would join them under the veil and be legitimized by their parents’ marriage. This use of the wedding veil was ancient. A final blessing completed the solemn liturgy of marriage.

Marriage Celebrations. Following the ecclesiastical services, family, friends, and the community engaged in secular celebrations with the newly married couple. These occasions were frequently boisterous because the usual times of year to marry were periods associated with celebrating. Marriages tended to occur in January, a month pre-Christian society had associated with ribaldry and fertility rituals, and these connotations had endured in rural Christian Europe. The other popular time of year for weddings was October and November, the months immediately following the harvest. The Church prohibited marriages during Lent, Advent, and other holy seasons.

The Marriage Feast. The community expected that a banquet, as elaborate as the couple’s circumstances permitted, would accompany the celebration of marriage. In the records of one manor court, there is a note that a groom was fined because he had not provided the appropriate wedding feast to his fellow villagers. At some point after the couple had left the church, coins might be thrown over their heads in the belief that they might bring the blessing of prosperity to the relationship and new family. Mentions of this custom have appeared in the account books of the English kings, so it seems to have occurred across the social spectrum. The couple might also set aside a few coins to distribute to the poor.

Blessing the Marriage Bed. After the music, drinking, and revelry was enjoyed, the day ended with the newlyweds being led by jesting friends and relatives to their marriage bed. Sometimes, if he were still present, the parish priest might bless the bed and the couple, and then pray for their fertility. Frequently, grain was scattered on the bed as a folk ritual to enhance fertility. After all, no matter what the economic situation or social status of the couple, children were the desired result of their union.


Christopher N. L. Brooke, The Medieval Idea of Marriage (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

David Herlihy, Medieval Households (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985).

Michael M. Sheehan, “The Bishop of Rome to a Barbarian King on the Rituals of Marriage,” in In iure veritas: Studies in Canon Law in Memory of Schafer Williams, edited by Steven B. Bowman and Blanche E. Cody (Cincinnati: University of Cincinnati, College of Law, 1991), pp. 187–199.

Sheehan, “Choice of Marriage Partner in the Middle Ages: Development and Mode of Application of a Theory of Marriage,” Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History, 1 (1989): 1–33.

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The Marriage Ceremony

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