Medieval and Renaissance Marriage: Theory and Customs


Kirsti S. Thomas 







This paper arose from a collaboration which I entered into with B.J. Kuehl in 1995. At the time, both of us were active on the wedding newsgroups (alt.weddings and and the SCA newsgroup ( We noticed that we were frequently seeing questions posted to the wedding newsgroups, asking about medieval-style weddings. The querents were always directed to the SCA newsgroup where no one knew anything either. In response to this need, B.J. began gathering information on medieval-themed weddings, while I developed a bibliography of books and articles dealing with period wedding practices. The result was the Medieval/Renaissance Wedding FAQ, created and maintained by B.J. Kuehl and posted on the Medieval/Renaissance Wedding Page (, maintained by myself. This paper is the end result of the bibliography which I developed for the Medieval/Renaissance Wedding FAQ.



The purpose of this paper is to provide a very general overview of Christian wedding customs in Western Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Most of the sources I found were in agreement that little is known of wedding customs and practices prior to the tenth or eleventh century. Moreover, most of the information given in this paper is drawn from the Renaissance period of Western European history, simply because information on this time period is more readily available than that from earlier centuries. My research was also primarily limited to works in English and German. I was, unfortunately, unable to make use of several fine works in French and Italian, as I do not read those languages. I have, however, included those works in the bibliography which accompanies this paper.

The paper is divided into two sections. The first section deals with the evolution of popular and ecclesiastical thought on what made a marriage valid and legally binding. The second section covers the actual rituals and customs associated with wedding ceremonies.

For more detailed information on medieval and Renaissance wedding ceremonies, I highly recommend the following titles, which are listed in the bibliography:

Documents of the Marriage Liturgy

Nuptial Blessing

Rituel du Mariage en France du XIIe au XVIe Siecle


Part 1: What makes a marriage?

In order to understand wedding customs of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it is necessary to first understand two things -- what made a marriage (that is, what actions a couple needed to perform for society to recognize them as husband and wife); and what sexual relationships outside that of marriage were socially valid and binding. Before we delve further into these two questions, let us first define what marriage is. For this, the words of the New Shorter Oxford Dictionary will serve well. "Legally recognized personal union entered into by a man and a woman usu., with the intention of living together and having sexual relations, and entailing property and inheritance rights" (p. 1209).

It is also worth noting that marriage contains both secular and sacred aspects. To quote French historian Georges Duby, "Marriage, which is necessarily overt, public, ceremonious ... is at the center of any system of values, at the junction between the material and the spiritual. It regulates the transmission of wealth from one generation to another ... because marriage also regulates sexual activity concerned with procreation it belongs to ... the realm of what is numinous and sacred" (The Knight 19). On the one hand, marriage is secular because it involves the transfer of property. On the other hand, it is sacred because it can result in procreation, and because the bond between husband and wife mirrors the bond between mankind and the Divine. In Christian terms, the husband-wife relationship is analogous to that of Christ and the Church. This dual sacred/secular nature had a definite impact on the development of both the philosophy and the customs of marriage, as we will see later.

As was alluded to earlier, during the Middle Ages, Western European cultures recognized more than one form of socially acceptable and binding union between men and women. In contrast to twentieth-century society, where the only legally recognized union is marriage, early medieval society held concubinage, as well as marriage to be socially acceptable and legally valid.

The main difference between concubinage and marriage seems to have been the social status of the woman in relation to the man. As was mentioned earlier, marriage serves to transfer wealth or property and to continue the family line. It therefore follows that to achieve these ends it is preferable to marry one of the same social status or higher. So while marriage fulfilled the desire of a family to maintain or improve its social standing, concubinage, in contrast, fulfilled the desire of the individual for companionship and/or sexual satisfaction. This is not to say that concubinage was not a formally recognized relationship. Indeed, the formal agreement for entering into such a union had its own rites, much like marriage (Duby, The Knight 44).

Moreover, ninth-century Frankish law recognized two distinct forms of marriage -- Muntehe and Friedelehe. Muntehe was formal, permanent and involved the transfer of property from one family to another. Friedelehe was an official marriage, but it was often temporary and did not require the transfer of property. Offspring of a Friedelehe were legitimate and were recognized as heirs if there were no heirs from a Muntehe. Duby explains the difference by saying that in a Friedelehe, "the girl had been lent rather than given, but her relations had made the loan ceremonially, by contract, freely and in peace" (The Knight 41).

It is worth noting that Charlemagne allowed his daughters to enter Friedelehe unions, but never permitted the more binding Muntehe. To have allowed the latter would have meant transferring control over them and, more importantly, whatever property was part of their dowry, permanently to another man (Duby, The Knight 42).

As the power and influence of the Roman Catholic Church spread throughout Europe, the Church became more vocal and active in its opposition to any form of marriage and/or union which was not binding for life or permitted more than one recognized partner. For a more detailed study of this conflict, I highly recommend Georges Duby’s book The Knight, the Lady and the Priest, which examines the attempts of the Church to regulate marriage in twelfth-century France .

Much of the conflict regarding marriage in Western Europe during the early Middle Ages stems not just from the gradual replacement of pagan* customs with Christian ones, but also from the spread of Roman culture as well. Under Roman law, the couple’s consent was essential in sealing a marriage. Indeed, no written contract or formal ceremony was necessary (Van Grubbs 365) although they were the usual trappings.

(* In using the term "pagan" I wish the reader to understand that I do not refer to modern neo-paganism or neo-pagan practices. Instead, I use the word to refer to the polytheistic religious and cultural practices of pre-Christian Northern and Western Europe.)

In contrast, Northern Europeans considered consummation to be the element which truly sealed a legally binding marriage. This does not necessarily mean that sexual intercourse and only sexual intercourse formed the marriage bond. Rather, sexual intercourse followed by the couple living together is what created a marriage.* Moreover, the consent of the bride’s family (i.e. her father) was held to be more important than the couple’s consent. This is clearly illustrated by a decree issued by the Merovingian king, Childebert, in 596, which stipulated the death penalty for abduction by force. Even in cases where the woman agreed to marriage after the fact, if parental approval was not forthcoming the couple was sentenced to exile or death (Gies and Gies 55). Here we see that there is no question that the couple is married as a result of sexual consummation. There is, however, a price to be paid for violating the social norm requiring parental consent.

(* In most of the literature on the subject, the word "consummation" is used and seems to refer to "consummation followed by cohabitation." I will, therefore, also use the word in this manner.)

Meanwhile, in Anglo-Saxon England, marriage by purchase was common. That is, a man paid money for his bride, although there seems to be some debate as to whether the money bought the woman herself, or the guardianship over her. In other words, it is possible that by paying the bride price, the man purchased a wife; it is also possible that the bride price purchased the right to act as guardian over the woman’s property. It is also worth noting that when a bride price was paid, it was paid to the bride, rather than her family. Anglo-Saxon law, like Frankish law under the Merovingians, also considered marriage by abduction to be a punishable offense, although, if the abductor later paid the bride price, the marriage would be legally recognized (Fischer 20-21).

Hincmar, the Archbishop of Rheims (845-882), attempted to resolve these conflicting views in his treatise De Divortio. He held that legitimate marriage had to meet four conditions and that it consisted of three elements. The conditions Hincmar noted were:

the partners had to be of equal and free rank and must give their consent

the woman must be given by her father and dowered

the marriage must be honored publicly

the union was completed by sexual consummation (Duby, The Knight 34)

The three elements which marriage rites contained were sacrament, mutual consent, and sexual union (Gies and Gies 97). So here we see that Hincmar recognizes both the Roman tradition which requires consent, and the Germanic tradition which requires consummation. In addition, it is worth noting that Hincmar states that the marriage must be celebrated in public, rather than secretly. Had Hincmar’s views prevailed, the history of marriage in Western Europe would have been quite different.

In contrast to Hincmar, who gave equal weight to consent and consummation, the twelfth-century Camaldolese monk, Gratian, considered consent to be the "sole essential that could not be omitted" (Gies and Gies 137). Physical consummation merely "completed" the marriage, but was certainly not necessary to form a legally binding marriage. This was a return to the Roman philosophy of marriage and this was to cause quite a number of problems for centuries.

When Gratian wrote that the only thing necessary to create a binding marriage was the spoken willingness of each partner to take the other as spouse, he therefore implied that none of the other trappings like parental consent or, more importantly, the presence of witnesses were necessary. In fact, the twelfth-century work, Concerning the Sacraments of the Christian Religion, specifically speaks to the question of secret, clandestine marriage:


"When the man says, ‘I receive you as mine, so that you become my wife and I your husband,’ and when the woman makes the same declaration ... when they do and say this according to existing custom and are in agreement, it is then that I say they are married ... whether by chance they have made it, as they should not, alone, apart, in secret, and with no witnesses present, yet ... they are well and truly married" (qtd. in Duby, The Knight 181).

Peter Lombard added a new level of confusion by differentiating between vows exchanged in the future tense and vows exchanged in the present tense. A verba de futuro vow was used in betrothal; it was a promise to marry at some point in the future. A verba de praesenti vow meant that as of "this very moment" the couple agreed to be husband and wife (Gies and Gies 139). So if a man said to a woman, "I will take you as my wife" and she responded in the same way, the couple was not married, but if the man said to the woman "I do take you as my wife" and she responded in the same way, then the couple was married. In a society where marriage was formed by a betrothal agreement (where the parties promised to be joined in the future) followed later by the removal of the wife to her husband’s house (and the attendant bedding of the two), this kind of hair-splitting bordered on incomprehensible. In effect, what Lombard had done was to declare common custom to be invalid and inadequate in creating a marriage.

Pope Alexander III (1159-1181) attempted to provide a workable solution by affirming verba de praesenti consent as essential while declaring verba de futuro consent to be legally binding when followed by consummation (Gies and Gies 139-140). Unfortunately, this seems to have done little to clear up the confusion engendered by Gratian and Lombard.

Almost as soon as the Church had opened this can of worms of "marriage by nothing more than mutual consent," it began to establish guidelines for proper Christian marriage rites. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 declared it obligatory for a marriage to be blessed and witnessed by a priest. Moreover, the Council also stated that banns be published (i.e. that the couple’s intention to marry be announced in the parishes in which they resided) (Ennen 105). At the same time, and in a rather contradictory manner, the Church continued to recognize marriages entered into without a priest in attendance.

Prior to the declaration of the Lateran Council, the presence of clergy at weddings was not only unnecessary, it also seems to have been rare. The original role of the priest in a wedding celebration was to give a blessing to the couple. Georges Duby notes that ninth-century religious texts of Northern France make no mention of nuptial benedictions other than as part of joint wedding-coronation ceremonies where a queen simultaneously married the king and was crowned. During the same time period, the Bishop of Bourge forbade the priests in his diocese to even take part in wedding ceremonies mainly due to the bawdy nature of what was a celebration of the couple’s physical union (The Knight 33-34).

As late as 1194 we find a record of a wedding celebration in Ardres, France where the priest was called in solely to bless the couple, sprinkle them with holy water, and cense the bridal bed (Duby, The Knight 18). Yet we also find instances of ceremonies fully overseen by a priest in the 1120’s and 30’s in Laon, France (Duby, The Knight 152). The presence of clergy at weddings was still somewhat uncommon throughout the twelfth century, but became more standard in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In fact, in 1403, the Bishop of Magdeburg went as far as threatening to excommunicate those who married without clergy in attendance (Cohen and Horowitz 235). From this we can see that, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the presence of clergy had become standard.

During the Reformation, Martin Luther questioned whether the Church should involve itself in the business of celebrating marriage, arguing rather strenuously that marriage was a "worldly business [where] we clergy ought not to meddle or direct things" (qtd. in Roper 106). Luther did agree that the Church should bless those who married and even presented a basic marriage rite in 1529, but maintained that "the regulation of marriage was a proper matter for the civil authority rather than the Church" (qtd. in Searle and Stevenson 210).

Quite possibly in response to Luther and the Reform movement, but also to deal with the increasing problem of clandestine marriage, the Council of Trent agreed to review the Church’s stance on marriage, issuing its decision in 1563. First, let me explain that "clandestine marriage" does not necessarily refer to marriage contracted in secret without the presence of witnesses. The term was used in reference to "any contract of marriage made other than in the approved manner at the church door" (Goldberg 241). Analyses of court books from Ely, Canterbury, and York conducted by Michael Sheehan and Richard Helmholz in the 1970’s show that by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a large number of suits asking the ecclesiastical courts to judge the validity of marriage contracts sprang from marriages not contracted in church. Indeed, in one ten year period (1411-1420) 38 of 41 cases heard in Canterbury involved marriages which had taken place away from the church (Brooke 251).

In any case, the Council of Trent finally put an end to the chaos generated since the twelfth century by the insistence that only the mutual consent of the couple was necessary to create a binding marriage. The Tametsi decree, issued in 1563, stated that for a marriage to be recognized by the Church: a) the partners must give their consent, and b) the priest must say a formula (such as "I join you together in matrimony") ratifying the marriage (Searle and Stevenson 14).

The Church of England, however, continued to recognize clandestine marriages as late as the eighteenth century (Brooke 250) and in Scotland it was possible to marry by the exchange of consent in the presence of witnesses until 1940 (Anton 99). Still, by the beginning of the seventeenth century, the general opinion was much like that expressed by John Donne in 1621, "As marriage is a civil contract, it must be done so in public, as that it may have the testimony of men. As marriage is a religious contract, it must be so done as it may have the benediction of the priest" (qtd. in Cressy 295).

So we can see that ideas about what was required to form a legally binding marriage changed through the ages. The Germanic form of marriage involved consent of the parents, purchase of the bride, and consummation. In contrast, the Roman form required only that the man and woman give their consent. The Roman form won out in the late twelfth century. The presence of a priest, while strongly urged, was not necessary in Catholic weddings until 1563. This said, let us now examine marriage rites and customs of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.


Part 2: How was marriage celebrated?

Western European cultures throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance recognized two distinct phases in the process of marrying a couple-- the betrothal and the wedding. The betrothal (also called the despontatio, espousals, sponsalia, handfasting or beweddung) was conducted with differing levels of formality in different places and times. In Anglo-Saxon England, for example, there is no known evidence that the betrothal was celebrated formally (Fischer 21). Yet Gregory of Tours in the sixth century noted a Germanic betrothal ceremony completed by the young man’s bestowal of a ring, a kiss and a pair of slippers (Gies and Gies 55). The betrothal ceremony which proceeded the Frankish Muntehe is described as being grave, solemn and formal. During this ceremony, the parents of the groom came to the house of the bride’s family. They exchanged words promising the union of the two families and objects were passed from hand to hand to symbolize the transfer of possessions (Duby, The Knight 45).

At this point, it is worth noting that betrothal ceremonies frequently involved symbolic actions which were later to become part of the wedding ceremony. Pope Nicholas in 860 wrote that the giving of a ring to the woman by the man, as well as a kiss, was part of the betrothal ceremony. This is believed to date back to the ancient Romans (Urlin 48). In fourteenth and fifteenth century Florence, the betrothal was sealed by a handshake between the father of the bride and the prospective groom. In Rome of the same period, a kiss performed the same function (Klapisch-Zuber 28). The joining of hands to seal the betrothal was common in Anglo-Saxon England as well, as is evidenced by the use of the term "handfasting" in Scotland and Northern England to refer to a betrothal (Anton 91). Indeed, in Anglo-Saxon, the term "handfasting" refers to any pledge by the giving of the hand (qtd. in Anton 91).

Aside from 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 show people drinking wine or eating a piece of fruit "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, from a string of wool, to a flute, to some coins, to (in one extreme case) putting one’s tongue in another’s mouth* (Burguiere 15-16).

(* "Marguerite, widow Jacomat, claimed in 1532 that Pierre Pellart, who had carnally know her, had promised to marry her. She told the court that the defendant, holding her in his arms in bed, had said to her: ‘Marguerite, so that you will not be afraid that I will abuse you, I put my tongue in your mouth in the name of marriage.’")

There is no doubt that one of the functions of betrothal was to finalize arrangements concerning property, dowry and inheritance (Roper 65; Klapisch-Zuber 28), but it has also been suggested that the betrothal was the ritual where the woman was ceremonially bestowed on the man (Duby, The Knight 44). If we accept this premise, then we can see the wedding ceremony as a celebration of the man taking possession of the woman. Or, in less incendiary terms, we can see the wedding as the celebration of a finalized union between two people. The betrothal began the process; the celebration of physical union ended the process, at least in early medieval society.

It also seems to have been fairly common for some time to pass between the betrothal and the nuptial ceremonies. Frequently this was to allow time to prepare the wedding feast and festivities (Roper 65), other times it was because the bride or groom was underage. An example of this can be found in the case of Jeanne, the daughter of Count Waleran of Saint-Pol and Antoine, the son of Duke Philip the Bold of Burgundy. The marriage contract was signed in February 1393, after which the bride lived with Antoine’s family. Wedding preparations began in 1401; the betrothal was solemnized in November of the same year with the wedding taking place on April 25, 1402. An interesting side note is that Philip referred to Jeanne as his daughter from the time the marriage contract was signed, as opposed to once the nuptials had been celebrated (Famiglietti 64).

In mid 16th century Augsburg, Germany, journeyman guild members were not allowed to marry until they reached the rank of master. In a declining economy, this resulted in many couples having to wait several years between the betrothal and the wedding. One father-in-law wrote to the guild, pleading that "they will allow ... my son-in-law to hold his wedding now ... for because of weighty reasons the marriage can no longer be delayed" (Roper 85) Again, we see not only a period of time between betrothal and nuptials, but also the idea that the betrothal has created the family bond and the wedding will finish the process. Roper notes that it was common in Germany for the couple to be referred to as husband and wife once the betrothal was contracted (65).

It seems quite telling that in early medieval Western European history, more rituals are associated with the betrothal than with the wedding. The closer we get to the present day though, the more rituals become associated with the wedding celebration, rather than the betrothal. I would argue that this stems directly from the Church’s adoption of Roman law on marriage. The Church considered betrothal to be dissoluble while marriage was indissoluble (Sehling 198). It therefore makes sense that the Church would place more emphasis on the indissoluble contract expressed verba de praesenti than the dissoluble one of verba de futuro. So where once the betrothal was the binding ceremony, with a celebration of the physical union following later, the focus shifted to a ceremony where the couple expressed their mutual consent in order to establish a life-long bond.

Early Western European wedding ceremonies themselves do not seem to have involved much ritual. Duby notes that "descriptions of princely marriages in the Carolingian chronicles speak only of the rejoicings and of the procession that conducted the bride to the marriage bed" (The Knight 34). This continues to be the case in France into the twelfth century (Duby, The Knight 150).

H. Meyer, in Ehe und Ehefassung der Germanen, reports similar customs among Germanic tribes in the Early Middle Ages. A banquet was held at the house of the bride’s family, the wedding party proceeded to the husband’s house and the couple was put to bed in the presence of witnesses. One difference in the Germanic celebration was that "by a number of formal actions of knee, foot and hand, the bridegroom made manifest his acquisition of tutelage over the bride" (qtd. in Ennen 28). Also, given the importance of the feast as part of the marriage celebration, it should come as no surprise that the Anglian word for "wedding" derived from the Anglo-Saxon term for "meal" (Fischer 47). Meanwhile, in twelfth century Spain, it was the parents of the groom who paid for the wedding festivities and feast (Gies and Gies 153).

In contrast to Germanic and Frankish wedding rituals, more is known of Early Christian (i.e. Mediterranean) and Spanish (i.e. Visigothic) ceremonies. The Early Church observed the following rites: joining of the right hands of the couple, spreading a veil over the couple, untying the woman’s hair, crowning the couple with crowns or garlands after a benediction was spoken, and carrying the bride to her new home (Urlin 49).

Isadore of Seville, writing in the seventh century, reported that the bride was veiled and escorted by married women and that the couple was bound together by a cord. Isadore’s account also mentions the man giving his fiancee (as opposed to wife) a ring, so it is quite possible that these rituals may have been ones of betrothal, rather than parts of a wedding celebration per se (Searle and Stevenson 10).

As was mentioned earlier, the presence of a priest was not originally required at wedding celebrations. How and when, then, did it become traditional to celebrate the wedding at church in the presence of a priest? In the fourth century, Basil of Caesarea writes of Christian marriages taking place in the church (Stevenson 22). Yet Kenneth Stevenson notes that the sixth-century Verona Sacramentary contains no betrothal or wedding rites but it does provide a number of blessings for the bride under the title "The Nuptial Veiling Begins." Stevenson also goes on to suggest that during this time period, the couple probably attended a special nuptial Mass at some point between the betrothal ceremony and the beginning of cohabitation (Searle and Stevenson 40).

Evidence that some sort of Christian ceremony was closely linked to the betrothal or wedding celebrations can be seen in late eleventh century in France. A pontifical from Cambriai-Arras reads "After the woman has been wedded (desponsata* ) by the man and legally dowered, let her enter the church with her husband" (qtd. Duby, The Knight 151).

(* "Desponsata" normally refers to the betrothal ceremony. I am unsure why Duby has translated it as "marriage" in this case.)

The most profound change takes place during the twelfth century. This is where we first see mention of a ceremony held at the door of the church. A pontifical from Lire, France reads: "Before all else let those who are to be joined in the marriage bed come before the doors of the church..." (qtd. in Brooke 248-249). Also, the marriage rite set out in the Bury St. Edmunds missal begins: "Benedictio annuli ante hostium templi" Translation: "Blessing the ring at the door of the church" (qtd. in Searle and Stevenson 149).

Given the fact that the giving of the ring was originally part of the betrothal ceremony, it seems reasonable to conclude that the betrothal has moved to the church. From here the rituals associated with the betrothal gradually became associated with the wedding ceremony.

Of course, with a ceremony now at the church, the wedding party must travel. So the wedding procession became an integral part of European marriage customs and remained so well into the nineteenth century (Belmont 5-6). In twelfth-century Spain, the bride rode to church on horseback (Sunday was the traditional wedding day) (Gies and Gies 154). In thirteenth-century France there are records of musicians leading the wedding procession to church (Greilsammer 94) and pipes and drums accompanied the celebration in sixteenth-century Germany (Roper 98). The following procession was described in England in 1597:

[The bride] was led to church between two sweet boys with bride laces and rosemary tied about their silken sleeves. There was a fair bride-cup of silver gilt carried before her, wherin was a goodly branch of rosemary, gilded very fair, hung about with silken ribands of all colours.

Musicians came next, then a groupe of maidens, some bearing great bride-cakes, others garlands of wheat finely gilded; and thus they passed into the church; and the bridegroom finely appareled, with the young men following close behind (qtd. in Cunnington and Lucas 79).

These processions were considered to be part and parcel of celebrating the marriage in the proper, public manner. Indeed, if questions of a marriage’s legitimacy arose, testimony from those who had seen the couple’s wedding procession was considered on of the proofs of marriage (Roper 66).

The noise and rowdiness of the procession to the church displeased some. One sixteenth-century English reformer wrote: "They come with a great noise of basins and drums, wherewith they trouble the whole church and hinder them in particulars pertaining to God" (qtd. in Cressy 351). The Puritan Admonition to Parliament contained the following complaint in 1572:


Women, contrary to the rule of the Apostle, come, and are suffered to come, bare-headed, with bagpipes and fiddlers before them, to disturb the congregation, and that they must come in at the great door of the church else all is marred (with divers other heathenish toys in sundry countries, as carrying of wheat-sheaves on their heads and casting of corn, with a number of suchlike, whereby they make rather a May-game of marriage than a holy institution of God)" (qtd. in Urlin 54).

Once before the church, the priest would oversee the wedding ritual. As mentioned several times previously, the priest was not in attendance to join the couple. He was there to ensure that certain issues were addressed-- namely that there was no legal impediment (via prior commitment or consanguinity), that the couple verbally consented to the match, and that the couple received the blessing of the Church (and therefore God). Again, the earlier in history, the more the role of the priest was limited to simply blessing the couple.

In general, the priest would ask whether there were any known impediments to the marriage. The next step was the spoken consent of the couple. Molin and Motumbe point out that this consent could be either passive or active (109). Under the former, the priest would ask "Do you [groom], take [bride] to be your wife?" The first appearance of the Latin text of consent appears in the twelfth-century English Magdalen Pontifical and consists of the question "N, do you want this woman?" (Stevenson 70). The groom and bride would respond with a simple "yes" or "I do."

Active consent involved the bride and groom saying "I take you as my husband/wife" or "I give myself to you" with the other saying "I receive you." There is a lovely example found in Apt, in southern France in 1532:

"Je N. donne mon corps a toy, N. en loyal mari."

"Et je la recoy."

"Je N. donne mon corps a toy, N."

"Et je le recoy." (Molin and Motumbe 111).



"I, N., give my body to you, N. in loyal matrimony."

"And I receive it(f)."

"I, N., give my body to you, N."

"And I receive it(m)"

The modern ceremony that most of us are familiar with actually incorporates both passive and active consent. Passive consent being given when the officiant asks "Do you take N. as your lawfully wedded husband/wife ..." and the response is affirmative. Active consent occurs with the longer vows where the couple recite: "I, N., take you, N.; to have and to hold..."

Molin and Motumbe note that vows of active consent usually touch upon the following:

indissolubility of the marriage bond


conformity to the laws of the Church

love (116-117).

We can see this by comparing different vows. In the late fourteenth-century ritual from the Abbey of Barbeau we find:

N., I take you to be my wife and I espouse you; and I commit to you the fidelity and loyalty of my body and my possessions; and I will keep you in health and sickness and in any condition it please our Lord that you should have, nor for worse or for better will I change towards you until the end (qtd. in Stevenson 75).


The fifteenth-century York Manual gives different vows for man and woman. The man says:

I take the N. to my wedded wyf, to have and to holde, fro this day forwarde, for bettere for wors, for richere for pourer [one manuscript adds ‘for fayrere for fowlere’], in sycknesse and in hele, tyl dethe us depart, if holy chyrche it woll ordeyne, and therto y plight the my trouthe.


And the woman promises:

I take the N to my wedded housbonde, to have and to holde, fro this day forwarde, for better for wors, for richer for pourer, in syckness and in hele, to be bonere and boxsom* , in bedde and atte bord, tyll dethe us departe, if holy chyrche it wol ordeyne, and therto I plight the my trouthe (qtd. in Stevenson 79).

(* meek and obedient -- Cf. Stevenson 70.)

After the bride and groom stated their consent, most ceremonies then included the blessing and the giving of the ring. It is also worth noting that earlier ceremonies also included a blessing of some coins which represented the bride’s dowry (Searle and Stevenson 156). Visigothic (i.e. Spanish) ceremonies mention the priest blessing two rings, although there is no mention of the actual ritual used for the partners to exchange the rings (Searle and Stevenson 124). A fourteenth-century ritual from Cologne, Germany states, "So sall der Brudgam dan der Rynck memen ind stechen dan der Rynck der Bruyt in yren Vynger neyst den kleynen Vynger." (qtd. in Schott 28) Translation: "So the bridegroom shall take the ring and place it on the bride’s finger next to the little finger."

In contrast to these minimal instructions, English and French rituals developed a more formulaic manner of bestowing the ring. We first see this in the twelfth-century Bury St. Edmunds missal. The ring is given to the bride by the bridegroom with the invocation of the Trinity (Stevenson 68). The ring is placed on the right thumb of the bride with the words "In the name of the Father"; on the index finger with the words "And of the Son"; and then on the middle finger where it remains "And of the Holy Spirit. Amen." After this, the bridegroom recites the following formula:

With this ring I thee wed,

This gold and silver I thee give,

With my body I thee worship

And with this dowry I thee endow (qtd. in Searle and Stevenson 151).

Which finger and which hand the ring was worn on varied with the time and place. Isidore of Seville wrote in the early seventh century that the ring was to be worn on the fourth finger because there was a vein in that finger which carried blood to the heart (Searle and Stevenson 119). Cunnington and Lucas note that rings were worn on the right hand in Catholic Europe; wearing the wedding ring on the left hand was a custom introduced during the Reformation. Moreover, there was also a period during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries when some women wore their wedding rings on their thumbs (120-121). Thirteenth century illustrations from the Cunnington and Lucas book show rings worn on either the index or third finger.

The manner in which the bride was "given" to the groom also varied. Spanish and French rites involved the family of the bride handing her over to the priest, who then joined the couple’s hands. Spanish rites differed from the rest of Europe in that the man was also given by his family to the priest (Searle and Stevenson 143). In contrast, in Anglo-Norman rites, the bride was given directly to the man (Stevenson 83). The Sarum Manual specifies that a maiden be given with bare hands, but that a widow should be gloved (Searle and Stevenson 166).

After the vows were spoken, the wedding party would be led into the church where they would celebrate Mass. Up through the sixteenth century, it was common for a veil to be spread over the couple after communion had been taken and while the priest said a blessing over them. The eleventh-century Liber Ordinum specifies that "the priest veils the couple with a pall or sheet, placing on top of it a cord of white and purple" (qtd. in Searle and Stevenson 125). The cord of white and purple is also mentioned by Isidore of Seville (Searle and Stevenson 118-119). Accounts of Edward II show a gift of a nuptial veil delivered to his niece, Isabella, for her wedding to the Earl of Arundel in 1321: "Delivered for a veil to be spread over the heads of Richard ... and Isabella ... at their nuptial mass ... one piece of Lucca cloth" (qtd. in Cunnington and Lucas 63). In the Sarum Manual, the veil is spread over the couple as they prostrate themselves before the altar (Searle and Stevenson 174).

The nuptial veiling was done away with by the Reformation, as can be seen in the ceremonies developed by Martin Luther (Searle and Stevenson 211-214), John Knox (Searle and Stevenson 228-233), and that found in the 1559 edition of the Book of Common Prayer (Searle and Stevenson 216-226). The practice did survive into eighteenth-century France, as we see in the Ritual of Coutances. This rite mentions that the couple "kneeling before the altar, are covered with a white veil" (qtd. in Searle and Stevenson 200).

Again, the wedding ceremony consisting of vows, mutual consent, and the exchange of the ring, was performed outside the church, after which people moved inside to celebrate Mass. Even Martin Luther specifies that the ceremony occur at the door of the church (Searle and Stevenson 211), although his ceremony does not include a celebration of communion. Instead a simple (but rather long) blessing is said over the couple inside the church before the altar (Searle and Stevenson 212-214).

England, however, is quite possibly the first place we see the ceremony taking place inside the church. An early Tudor etiquette book mentions that nobles and gentry could be married inside the church, with those of higher station allowed closer to the altar. For example, an earl’s son or daughter could be married by the choir door; a knight could be wed "within the

church or chapel door," but those of lower station must be content "to be married without the church door" (Cressy 337). The Book of Common Prayer (1559) is perhaps the first time though that we see "the persons to be married shal come into the body of the Churche, wyth theyr friends and neighbours" (qtd. in Searle and Stevenson 216).

After the ceremony at the church was done, the wedding party returned home for the feast. The report of a double wedding of two English sisters in 1560 mentions "fine flowers and rosemary strewed for their homecoming, and so to their father’s house, where a great dinner was prepared" (qtd. in Cunnington and Lucas 93). Elsewhere, poor folks in Germany would hold the wedding feast in a tavern where the guests paid for their own meals (Roper 78). In contrast, the marriage of Eleanor of Aragon to Ercole I of Rome in 1473 saw a feast which lasted seven hours and cost over 20,000 ducats. Each course consisted of ten to twelve dishes and in between each course the tables were cleared and rosewater was brought for the guests to wash their hands (von Gerstfeldt 2-5).

Last remains the question of what was worn at a wedding. The answer seems to be that people wore their best clothing and that brightly colored or embroidered fabrics were preferred.

Accounts of the 1402 wedding of Antoine of Burgundy show that the groom’s father ordered one hundred gowns of green velvet lined with white satin for the guests to wear. The bride dressed in white silk with gold brocade (Famiglietti 65). In the same year Pierre de Pontbriant, a Breton nobleman, married Isabeau d’Alemagne. The bride’s gown was of figured silk and her two attendants wore identical gowns (Famiglietti 67). A Yorkshire wedding in 1451 saw the groom in "a garment of green checkery" and the bride "in one of a red color" (Cunnington and Lucas 60). The daughter of the Earl of Bedford in 1565 wore the following: "A kirtle of cloath of silver mixed with blew, a Gowne of purple Velvetl embroydered about with Silver, a coll of gold on her head ..." (qtd. in Cunnington and Lucas 60), and Princess Margaret, Henry VIII’s daughter, and James IV of Scotland were finely attired for their wedding in 1503.


The Kyng was in a Gowne of Whit Damask figured with Gold and Lynned with Sarcenet. He had on a Jakette with Slyffs of cramsyn natin, the lists [borders] of Blak Velvett, under that sam a Doublet of Cloth of Gold, and a payre of Scarlett Hosys [stockings]. His Shurt broded with Thred of Gold, hys Bonnet Blak, with a ryche Balay [ruby] and hys Swerd about hym.

The Qwene was arayed in a rich Robbe lyke Hymselfe, borded of Cramsyn Velvet and syned of the self. Sche had a very riche Coller of Gold, of Pyrrery [jewels] and Perles, round her neck, and the Croune upon hyr Hed. Her hayr hanging. Betwixt the said Croune and the Hayres was a varey riche coyfe hangyng downe behynde thu whole length of the body. (qtd. in Cunnington and Lucas 92)

"Married in her hair" was the expression given to the custom of brides wearing their hair loose (Cunnington and Lucas 92). At the same time, other paintings and illustrations of wedding ceremonies, such as D rer’s "The Espousal of Mary and Joseph" (Roper 69), clearly show the brides wearing full headdresses. It might, therefore, be incorrect to claim that all brides wore their hair loose.

Gloves were frequently given as wedding presents to the guests, at least in late period England (Cunnington and Lucas 66). Another English custom involved two knives being worn in one sheath as a symbol of married status (Cunnington and Lucas 71-72).

In Germany, the bride presented the groom with a wreath and her unmarried peers distributed wreaths to all the guests. The wreath worn by the bride was ceremonially removed when the couple entered the bridal chamber (Roper 88). Another obvious fertility-related custom was noted by Polydore Vergil in 1499 who wrote, "As the bride enters the house, wheat is thrown upon her head" (qtd. in Cunnington and Lucas 74).

Weddings of the Italian Renaissance were different than those found in the rest of Western Europe. Christiane Klapisch-Zuber describes three distinct phases of wedding ceremonies in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Florence (28-30). The first phase was the meeting of the men of both families to draw up the marriage contract. At this meeting, a notary would draw up the document stipulating the dowry and other financial arrangements. Guarantors and arbiters were appointed to see to the execution of the contract.

The second phase took place in the bride’s home. The bride’s relatives were present, along with a notary. Once the groom and his relatives arrived, the notary asked questions prescribed by the Church and received the couple’s statement of mutual consent. Then he took the woman’s right hand and led her to the groom who placed the ring on her finger. The "ring day" ended with a banquet provided by the bride’s family. After this, the couple was considered husband and wife. It is also worth noting that in Italy at this time the act of marrying was referred to as ‘giving someone the ring’. For example, Andrea di Tommaso Minenbetti complained that his brother "without our knowledge and against our intentions, on 17 November 1504, took for a wife the daughter of messer Cristoforo da Pratavecchio and gave her the ring" (Molho 188).

The final phase of the wedding was the ceremonial removal of the bride to her husband’s house. This usually occurred at the end of the ring day. Escorted by her husband’s friends and family, the bride rode a white palfrey through town to her new home, the way lit by torchlight. Altieri in his book, Li Nuptiali (ca. 1509) writes that in Rome, the spouses met Sunday at church, where they attended Mass and received a blessing from the priest (qtd. Klapisch-Zuber 30). In Florence, however, the entire ceremony remained secular.


To recap, what little we know of early wedding ceremonies seems to show that they were celebrations of the union which had been promised during the betrothal ceremony. Most surviving records of this time mention the feast and the bedding of the couple and little else. By the twelfth century, we see nuptial ceremonies taking place at the church door, with a Mass celebrated immediately afterwards. This coincides with the Church’s decision to follow the Roman custom of marriage being formed by mutual consent of the couple. The nuptial ceremony generally consisted of the exchange of consent, the giving of a ring (or rings) and the blessing of the couple by the priest. Sometime in the sixteenth century, possibly in England, the wedding ceremony moved inside the church and the Protestant reformers dropped the celebration of Communion as part of the wedding celebration. The Council of Trent in 1563 officially required that Catholic marriages be presided over by a priest. Protestant denominations did not follow this stricture until much later, although most couples did marry with clergy in attendance.

The most noticeable changes in the practice and philosophy of marriage stem from the Roman customs practiced by the Catholic Church slowly replacing those of pre-Christian Europe. First, the philosophy of marriage being formed by spoken mutual consent of the couple replaced the idea that marriage was formed by consummation (with the consent of the families). As this happened, rituals shifted from the betrothal ceremony to the nuptial, or wedding, ceremony, eventually evolving into the modern day ceremony which requires the presence of a third party who is recognized by the State to declare the marriage valid and legally binding.

Works Cited

Anton, A.E. "‘Handfasting’ in Scotland." Scottish Historical Review 37.124 (1958): 89-102.

Belmont, Nicole. "The Symbolic Function of the Wedding Procession in the Popular Rituals of Marriage." Ritual, Religion and the Sacred. Trans. Elborg Forster and Patricia M. Ranum. Eds. Robert Forster and Orest Ranum. Anuales Economies, Societes, Civilisations. 7. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982. 1-7.

Bingham, J. Foote. The Christian Marriage Ceremony: Its History, Significance And Curiosities. New York: A.D.F. Randolph and Co., 1871.

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Burguiere, Andre. "The Marriage Ritual in France: Ecclesiastical Practices and Popular Practices Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries." Ritual, Religion and the Sacred. Trans. Elborg Forster and Patricia M. Ranum. Eds. Robert Forster and Orest Ranum. Anuales Economies, Societes, Civilisations. 7. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982. 8-23.

Cohen, Esther and Elliot Horowitz. "In Search of the Sacred: Jews, Christians and Rituals of Marriage in the Later Middle Ages." Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 20 (1990): 225-249.

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Cunnington, Phillis and Catherine Lucas. Costume for Births, Marriages, and Deaths. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, c1972.

Duby, Georges. The Knight, the Lady and the Priest: the Making of Modern Marriage in Medieval France. 1st American ed. New York: Pantheon Books, c1983.

- - -. Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages. Trans. Jane Dunnett. Illinois: University of Chicago P, 1994

Ennen, Edith. The Medieval Woman. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

Famiglietti, R.C. Tales of the Marriage Bed from Medieval France (1300-1500). Providence: Picardy P, 1992.

Fischer, Andreas. Engagement, Wedding and Marriage in Old English. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitatsverlag, 1986.

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Goldberg, P.J.P. Women, Work, and Life Cycle in a Medieval Economy: Women in York and Yorkshire c. 1300-1520. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1992.

Greilsammer, Myriam. L’envers du Tableau: Mariage et Maternite en Flandre Medievale. Paris: Armand Colin, 1990.

Klapisch-Zuber, Christianne. "Zacharias; or the Ousting of the Father: the Rites of Marriage in Tuscany from Giotto to the Council of Trent." Ritual, Religion and the Sacred. Trans. Elborg Forster and Patricia M. Ranum. Eds. Robert Forster and Orest Ranum. Anuales Economies, Societes, Civilisations. 7. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982. 24-56.

Molho, Anthony. Marriage Alliance in Late Medieval Florence. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1994.

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Schott, Clausdieter. Trauung und Jawort: Wandel einer Form. Frankfort a. M. : Alfred Metzner Verlag, 1969.

Searle, Mark, and Kenneth W. Stevenson. Documents of the Marriage Liturgy. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical P, 1992.

Stevenson, Kenneth W. Nuptial Blessing: a Study of Christian Marriage Rites. New York: Oxford UP, 1983

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Altieri, Marco Antonio. Li nuptiali. Ed. Enrico Narducci. Rome, C. Bartoli, 1873. Rome: Roma nel Rinascimento, 1995.

(If you can read Italian, this seems to be one of the best primary sources on Italian Renaissance wedding rituals. Originally written around 1509, it compares classical Roman and Renaissance Roman wedding customs.)

Brucher, Gene. Giovanni and Lusanna: Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence. Berkeley: University of California P, 1986.

Brundage, James A. Sex, Law and Marriage in the Middle Ages. Aldershot, England: Variorum, 1993.

Centro italiano di studi sull'alto Medioevo. Il Matrimonio Nella Societa Altomedievale: 22-28 aprile 1976. Settimane di studio del Centro italiano di studi sull'alto Medioevo 24. Spoleto : Po la sede del Centro, 1977.

Charsley, Simon R. Wedding Cakes and Cultural History. London: Routledge, 1992.

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Gaudemet, Jean, Le Mariage en Occident: les Moeurs et le Droit . Paris:   Editions du Cerf, 1987.

Haines, Frank, and Elizabeth Haines. Foreign Brides From Antiquity. Cumberland, Md.: Hobby House P, 1989.

(The Haines present general examples of brides from various points in history (1600, B.C. - A.D. 1720) Costumed dolls model the fashions in color photos. Also includes detailed descriptions of costume, with line drawings of each item of clothing and brief descriptions of wedding customs.)

James, Edwin Oliver. Marriage Customs Through the Ages. New York: Collier, 1965.

Klapisch-Zuber, Christiane. Women, Family and Ritual in Renaissance Italy. Chicago: U of Chicago P 1985.

Lafon, Jacques. Les Epoux Bordelais: 1450-1550, Regimes Matrimoniaux et Mutations Sociales. Demographie et Societes 16. Paris, S.E.V.P.E.N., 1972.

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(children's book with nice color illustrations)

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Powell, Chilton Latham. English Domestic Relations, 1487-1653: a Study of Matrimony and Family Life in Theory and Practice as Revealed by the Literature, Law, and History of the Period. New York: Columbia UP, 1917.

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(reprinted in 1993?)

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Salisbury, Joyce E. Medieval Sexuality: a Research Guide. Garland Reference Library of Social Science 565. Garland Medieval Bibliographies 5. New York: Garland, 1990.

Saslow, James M. The Medici Wedding of 1589: Florentine Festival as Theatrum Mundi. New Haven: Yale UP, 1996.

Schmidt, Herman. "Rituals and Sacramentality of Christian Marriage." Studia Missionalia 23 (1974): 251-284

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Tegg, William. The Knot Tied: Marriage Ceremonies of All Nations. Detroit: Singing Tree P, 1970.

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Vocelka, Karl. Habsburgische Hochzeiten 1550-1600: kulturgeschichtlichen Studien zum manieristischen Reprasentationsfest. Veroffentlichungen der Kommission fur Neuere Geschichte Osterreichs 65. Wien: Bohlau, 1976.

Waugh, Scott L. The Lordship of England: Royal Wardships and Marriages in English Society and Politics, 1217-1327. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1988.

Westermarck, Edward. The History of Human Marriage. 5th ed. New York: Allerton Book Company, 1922.

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