The Wedding Ceremony: Part 1

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the March 1982, A.S. XVI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

Marriage is one of the three or four major rites of passage in a person’s life. No culture is without it. This essay will explore the evolution of the ceremony that makes a man and a woman in to husband and wife. I will not set forth the precise ceremony within this essay, but if anyone so desires, I can make available a copy of the ceremony used around 1450.

The European wedding ceremony is a blend of Roman and Germanic practices, with a religious overlay. For the first several centuries of the Church, weddings were a purely secular proceeding, the Church merely ratifying and blessing the marriage afterward. This had to do with the attitude of the early Church. The Church was highly ascetic, suspicious of women and anticipating the world’s imminent end. As a result, marriage was viewed with ambiguity. Thus, entering the Medieval period, marriage was not much more than a legal contract between ad man and a woman.

I shall not go into how the marriage was arranged other than to say that it wasn’t until the end of the period that most couples were able to freely choose their partners. The basic underlying legal thought behind the wedding was at first the actual, and later the symbolic selling of the woman by her male kinsman to the man. While much of the symbolism involved was Germanic, the structure and legal thought was Roman.

The marriage rite was legally broken into two parts: the betrothal and the nuptials, followed by a bridal Mass as a religious adjunct. The betrothal was tantamount to marriage; however, either party could back out after paying certain penalties. Nuptials was the actual wedding and, in conjunction with or without the Mass, was a sacrament and, therefore, theoretically indissoluble.

The betrothal, or bewedding, functioned as the sale of the bride to the groom. While the groom did not take possession of the bride, she couldn’t be given to anyone else. Possession took place at the nuptials, or gifta, when the brideprice, or weotuma, was paid. If either party backed out, the weotuma was forfeited to the other party as well as a fine, which was dependent on the woman’s status, usually defined by her wergeld.

The weotuma was at first paid to the woman’s guardian. But sometime between the sixth and ninth centuries, the weotuma started to be paid to the bride. The guardian was left with the arrha, a form of earnest money paid at the time of betrothal. But by the eleventh century, as the power of the guardian weakened, the arrha was also paid to the bride in the form of a ring. This is the origin of the engagement ring.

In a parallel development, the betrothal merged in function with the nuptials and with the nuptials and with this merger the weotuma decreased in importance. In its place arose the morning-gift, so called as it was given to the bride the morning after the nuptials. Eventually the weotuma and the morning-gift merged to form the dowry.

In the beginning, the woman’s guardian had total control over her. Later she acquired veto power over the choice of a husband. Beginning in the eleventh century, the roles were reversed and the woman could betroth herself, with the guardian only able to veto it. This change let loose a flood of secret and irregular marriages that plagued the Church for the rest of the period.

This change also precipitated a change in the nature of the nuptials. Earlier, only the natural guardian had the right to officiate the ceremony. Later a guardian could be anyone and could be chosen by the bride or the couple. He usually was assisted by an orator, who acted as a prompter and director of the ceremony. The result was that, through the chosen guardian, the woman gave herself to the man. By the thirteenth century, this was the only form of ritual used.

Several other changes took place in the ritual at the same time. The most important was the disappearance of the symbols of guardianship. In the older form of the ritual, the guardian would give the groom a sword, hat or mantle to symbolize the transfer of power over the woman, in keeping with the idea of wife-purchase. With the rise of self-giving, this ceremony o f the transfer of power was transformed into a simple oral declaration of union. This transformation led to another modification. As the chosen guardian was in the same position vis a vis the groom as to the bride, not only would he give the bridge to the groom, but also the groom to the bride, thus rendering the ritual into an expression of mutual gift.

Another, but unrelated change that took place, starting about the eleventh century, was the repeating of the betrothal just before the nuptials. While this had no legal significance, it acted as a sort of guarantee that there existed a contract before the actual union. The betrothal and the nuptials were differentiated by the use of tense. The betrothal was spoken in the future tense, while the nuptial was spoken in the present tense. This repetition resulted in some confusion in symbols and, as a result, the arrha was given again, appearing in the guise of a wedding ring.

The role of the priest also was changing. Up until the tenth century, the priest had no role in the actual wedding, though it was customary to give a benediction and Mass afterwards. From the tenth to the twelfth centuries, the priest gradually assumed the role of the orator. As it became acceptable for any third party to become the chosen guardian, the Church began exercising the guardianship as its prerogative and exclusive right. The substitution was not complete. Instead, the woman was given through the priest by her guardian, thus the reason for the line: “Who gives me this wife?” in the liturgy.

An important method of securing this right was the use of the banns. The custom of publishing the banns first appeared in France around the fifth century. They were made a requirement by Charlemagne in a capitulary of 802 and were institutionalized by the Fourth Latern Council of 1215. Announced on three successive Sundays before the nuptials, the banns were the medieval version of registration and wedding license and were used to maximize publicity for the marriage and to discover any hindrances to it.

The wedding ended with the bridal Mass. The early Church had no liturgy for marriage, though a priestly benediction was recommended. By the fourth century, it became a regular custom to attend a religious service and partake of the Eucharist. At first, this was a regular Mass, but by the tenth century, a special bride-Mass had been established. In the following centuries, the nuptials moved from a secular place, usually the bride’s home, to before the church door, to be followed immediately by the bridal Mass.

Two things marked the bridal Mass. The first was that the oblation and the nuptial blessing were both directed solely to the bride. The blessing, however, was left out if the bride had been previously married. The second distinctive feature of the bridal Mass involved the Pax, or Kiss of Peace. Adding to the sacramental value of the ceremony and acting as a seal to the union, the Pax was passed by the celebrant, i.e. the person conducting the Mass, to the groom, who passed it to the bride. In later Protestant marriages, the Mass was left out, leaving only the kiss.

The time the Church began to assert complete control of the wedding also was the time of scholasticism and its move into theology. It also was the time that canonical law was being codified. The result was that while the ritual itself changed very little for the rest of the period, the circumstances surrounding it became very elaborate and complex. I will not go into the forbidden degrees of consanguinity and the debate of who could or could not get married or into the debated of what constituted a valid marriage. These topics generated many long, obtuse treatises.

Thus, I end my essay on the ceremony itself. I shall pick up next time on the various wedding customs that occurred before, during and after the ceremony.



Howard, George Elliott. A History of Matrimonial Institutions, vol. 1. New York: Humanities Press, 1964.

James, E.O. Christian Myth and Ritual. New York: World Publishing Co., 1965.


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