Handfasting {More Thoughts}

We came across this dialogue that intrigued us immensely. We did not correct the spelling so it is in its original form.

More thoughts about handfasting:

These articles were posted on the Celtic Christian Mailing List

From: Father Sean, written in March 1988 and re-posted May 1999:

Hand-fasting is a symbol used in Celtic and other cultures to express
marriage. It is non-religion-specific, meaning it is not pagan or
Christian. It is just human. The symbol can be used by anybody,
since it expresses part of the reality of matrimony.

As we use it in the Celtic Catholic Church, during the ceremony, the
couple join hands and their hands are loosely tied by a rope. I have
seen this done several times in the Episcopal Church using the end of
the priest’s stole. The handfasting lasts only for a few seconds,
really, while the couple exchange their vows.

We also use some other symbolic actions which may appear pagan but
which are not.

The couple exchange some symbolic objects:
*the husband gives the wife wheat “to provide for our home”
*the wife gives the husband some woven cloth “to provide for our home”
*the husband gives a dagger, “for the defense of our home”
*the wife gives a Bible, “for the defense of our home.”

At the end of it all, they turn to leave and are confronted with a
broom which has been put in their path. They have to get over it
somehow (we leave the details up to them — they can walk over it
together or he can carry her over it.) This is a symbol that what
marriage is about is who sweeps the floor, etc. It is not just pretty
dresses and romance. You will see this particular symbolic action in
Celtic and African cultures. It has no pagan connotations, really,
just practical ones. (More about “Broomstick Weddings”)

In Christ,
Fr. Sean
Saint Colman of Lindisfarne Celtic Catholic Church
Riverside, California

Justin Griffin wrote:14 May 1999

Handfasting is basically an old pagan custom. On Bealtainne, the
couples that wished to be married were gathered together before the
fire. The local Druid(s) would then perform the ritual of
handfasting. It’s actually a pretty simple ritual. The left (I
think, its been a while) hands of the couple are clasped and bound
together with a cord(usually green). They exchange something similar
to wedding vows. At the end of this, they are considered married
according to law. The handfasting is a trial marriage. It gives the
couple the chance to see if they can survive marriage to each other.
The handfasting usually lasted either a year and a day or until the
next Bealtainne(it varied). At this time, the couple could either
split as if they had never been married or could enter permanently
into marriage. Handfasting was considered less serious than
marriage, and thus easier to break off, because no actual vows were
exchanged until the actual marriage. As we all know, vows are very
important to the Celts.

“BJM” wrote 14 May 1999:

As far as I can recall, and I would have to check my sources, but
handfasting was actually invented after Christianity made it to the
Scottish highlands, but before priests were always readily available.
When a couple was to plight their troth, as it were, this was publically
announced by means of a public ritual in which their hands were fastened
together (by tying). When the priest came ’round (in circuit-rider
fashion), the proposed union was finalized by marriage.

The fact that it’s not an “official marriage” meant that it was ripe to
be picked up by any subculture that was infatuated with Gaelicky stuff
and less than infatuated with “official marriage”.

The following is from Sharon Krossa
who did her PhD Dissertation on Scottish
marriage customs, history, and law:

As long ago as 1958 Anton wrote a very thorough article [Anton, AE
(1958) Handfasting in Scotland. _The Scottish Historical
Review_ XXXVII.124: 89-102] that carefully examined the origins of
the myth of “Celtic trial marriage” and clearly demonstrated that
it derived from modern misunderstanding of historical Scottish
betrothal and marriage.

The term “handfasting” comes from the medieval Scottish (and English)
tradition of joining the hands of the couple as part of the public
betrothal proceedings. It is a *late medieval* term (and so what I
explain below is true for late medieval Scotland.) In Scotland it was
*not* a kind of marriage, either permanent or temporary. (I emphasise
this because many people, including myself until I started researching
the subject, are under the misconception that it was some kind of
trial/temporary marriage.) The real medieval practice was that
handfasting was a synonym for *betrothal*, that is, for getting engaged
to be married. IT WAS NOT MARRIAGE! Not _historically_. If modernly the
term is also used to mean a form of marriage, it is completely unrelated
to the historical practice. Anton [in Anton, AE (1958) Handfasting in
Scotland. _The Scottish Historical Review_ XXXVII.124: 89-102] gives
some nice primary-source details on the form of marriage ceremonies, and
references to procedures used. It seems that the major difference
between a handfasting/betrothal and a marriage ceremony is that, at the
betrothal, the couple promises to get married in the future while, in
the marriage ceremony, they consent to marriage in words of the present
(and thus, well, actually get married). The forms as quoted in Anton are
remarkably similar, with really only a change in the tense of the
couple’s promises. Who says words aren’t powerful? Make a slip of the
tongue, and a couple could end up married instead of just betrothed!
Here is the lowdown on the *historical* practice of handfasting:

If, in medieval Scotland, a couple consented to marriage in the present
tense, then they were *married* — they were not handfasted, they were
*married*. It did not matter if there were any witnesses or not.
Witnesses only made it easier to prove. It did not matter if a priest
was present, or not. It did not matter if the marriage was blessed, or a
mass followed, or not. It did not even matter if the marriage was
consumated, or not. (This was true in Scotland until 1940.)

If, in medieval Scotland, a couple formally became betrothed, that is,
promised to marry each other sometime in the *future*, with witnesses,
marriage contract, and ceremony, then they were handfasted, that is,
they were *engaged* to be married. They were *not* married.

—–begin quote—–
A Scottish protocol narrates that on 24 July 1556, the Vicar of Aberdour
‘ministrat and execut the office anent the handfasting betwix Robert
Lawder younger of the Bass and Jane Hepburn docter to Patrick Errl
Botwell in thir vordis following: “I Robert Lawder take thow Jane
Hepburne to my spousit wyf as the law of the Haly Kirk schawis
andthereto I plycht thow my trewht and syklyk I the said Jane Hepburne
takis you Robert Lawder to my spousit husband as the law of the Haly
Kirk schaws and therto I plycht to thow my trewth,” and execut the
residew of the said maner of handfasting conforme to the consuetud usit
and wont in syk casis.’ What this ‘consuetude’ was may be gathered from
a protocol on the sponsalia of David Boswell of Auchinleck and Janet
Hamilton, daughter of the Earl of Arran. After the consents had been
exchanged ‘the curate with the consent of both parties with their hands
joined betrothed the said David and Janet who took oath as is the custom
of the Church’
—–end quote—–

Note that a “protocol” here refers to a protocol book of a notary public
— that is, the book that a notary public used to keep a record of all
the documents he wrote up. Also, in the quotes above “spousit” means
“bretrothed” (see the Concise Scots Dictionary s.v. “spouse”).

If, in medieval Scotland, a couple had sex after a promise of future
marriage, whether this promise was made publically at a formal
handfasting/betrothal ceremony or was made privately with no witnesses
at all, then the couple was *married*, not handfasted, but *married* —
_permanently_ married. This is because the act of sex after such a
promise of future marriage was considered to amount to present consent
to marriage. And all it took to get married was for the couple to
consent to it in the present tense. (This was also true in Scotland
until 1940.)

If, in medieval Scotland, a couple were married, they were married for
*life*. There was no such thing as trial marriage. There was no such
thing as marriage for a year and a day. There was either being married,
or not being married. Once they did the being married bit, they stayed
married till the day one of them died. The only way out was to prove
that they were never legally married in the first place. That means, one
or both of them were either too young, too closely related to each
other, impotent at the time of their marriage, or already married to
someone else at the time of their marriage. Even if they were too young,
if they didn’t stop living together as man and wife the day they became
of age (12 for women, 14 for men), then they were considered legally
married from then on (amounts to present consent, again). It is not
until the Reformation (which occured in Scotland in 1560) that divorce
and remarriage became a possibility.

I’ll also note that there isn’t any evidence for a “year and a day”
aspect of betrothal/handfasting in the period evidence. (Note also that
in period, “a year and a day” from 11 July 1528 would be 11 July 1529 —
they didn’t count by 24 hour periods, but by, umm, days — can’t think
what else to call it — whole or partial between one date and the other,
including the start date and end date.) The “year and a day” aspect of
the _modern_ handfasting myth appears to come from a misunderstanding of
Scottish property and inheritance law. In late period Scottish
inheritance law, a widow or widower had the right to a part of their
late spouse’s real property (until they too died — after which it would
revert to their spouse’s heirs). However, if the couple had not been
married for a year and a day (that is, in modern terms, a year) when one
of them died, the surviving spouse did *not* get a share of their late
spouse’s real property. The exception to this was if a child had been
born to the couple before one of them died, in which case the widow or
widower *did* get a share.

You will note that this has nothing to do with betrothal/handfasting,
and the only parting of the married couple involves one of them dying.
But this appears to be the source of the “year and a day” aspect of the
modern misunderstanding of historical handfasting.

I’ll also point out for your amusement that *in period* if a
betrothed/handfasted couple had sex, they automatically became *married*
— permanently married. Something to entertain yourselves with between
your handfasting and wedding. 😉 [Mind you, the church didn’t like
marriages made in this way, although they recoginized them as legal. The
church liked to have such couples go through the religious service as
well, even though they were already legally man and wife. This didn’t
make them any more married, but it did bring them into obediance to the

All of the above is, of course, in a Christian context, because Scotland
was a Christian kingdom in the Middle Ages. The above forms of marriage
were recognized by the medieval Christian church. As far as I am aware,
there is no information whatsoever about marriage practices in Scotland
prior to its Christianization. If someone has some primary source
information about pre-Christian Scottish marriage practices, I’d love to
know. But note that I’m looking for primary source information — not
some secondary source, be it a web page or book, that makes
unsubstantiated claims based on some other web page or book making
unsubstantiated claims. (A secondary source that refers to the primary
sources would, of course, be welcome.)

PS Scotland was not the only place to practice handfasting. England
(note that’s England, not any “Celtic” culture) also had handfasting. It
may be that in England that the term handfasting was also used to refer
to permanent Christian marriage as well as betrothal, but so far I
haven’t found anything that clearly indicates this. Note that the
marriage law in late medieval England was essentially the same as that
in Scotland — all of Roman Catholic Europe had more or less the same
marriage law because marriage came under the jurisdiction of canon
rather than civil law.

Date: Fri, 17 Aug 2001 07:59:01 -0700 (PDT)
From: sindach <sindach@yahoo.com>
Subject: Re: Jumping the Broom

I have always suspected this custom came from Wales! I
have read about what was called the ‘besom wedding’,
an unofficial custom that was considered quite lawful
in parts of Wales until recent times. A birch besom
was placed aslant in the open doorway of the house,
with its head on the doorstep and the top of its
handle on the door-post. First a young man jumped over
it, then his bride, in the presence of witnesses. If
either touched or knocked it in any way, the marriage
was not recognised. In this kind of marriage, a woman
kept her own home and did not become the property of
her husband. It was a partnership, “cyd-fydio,” rather
than an ownership. A child of the marriage was
considered to be legitimate. If the couple decided to
divorce, they simply jumped back over the broomstick
again, but this could only be done in the first year
of marriage. If a child had come, it was the father’s
Mischievous boys played with this symbolism by placing
a birch broom over a doorstep before an unmarried lady
went out of the house. This was supposed to make her
pregnant before marriage!
As late as the 1920s in Surrey, a conversation was
recorded wherein a man whose wife was away said
jokingly to a young woman: “I shall be putting the
broom out of my chimney if she stays away much longer.
Will you come in and do for me?”


Trí bhua an tsionnaigh:
Súil bhiorach
Cluas aireach
Eireaball scotach


Date: Mon, 20 Aug 2001 16:08:28 -0700 (PDT)
From: sindach <sindach@yahoo.com>
Subject: more on broomsticks

While looking in vain for references to my last post
on broomstick weddings, I came across the following in
“Welsh Folklore” by T. Gwynn Jones, Methuen and Co.,
London: 1930, and I quote it because it raises a
number of points of interest – at least it does for
me! – especially the allusion with the story of Math
and a possible druid connection:

Another term for unlegalized unions, found in all
parts of Wales, is priodas coes ysgub, priodas coes
ysgubell, broom-stick wedding. It is not without
significance, perhaps in this connection, that besoms
in Wales are made of broom as well as birch, and that
the go-between in Breton is called “bas-valan”, “he of
the broom-staff.” The association of birch with love
in Welsh poetry and lore is also of significance, and
one wonders whether the element llath, “wand, staff”
in the term llathlud in the Welsh Law, may refer to
the practice of stepping over a rod, especially as a
bent rod is a chastity test in the tale of Math. A
Caernarvonshire custom, for which no source is given,
is thus described: “When the parents consented to a
marriage, the oldest man in the district was called,
and the young couple was asked to leap over the besom,
made of oak branches, which the old people called
ysgub dderwydd. It would be interesting to know
whether any “old people” still remember the practice,
and whether “ysgub dderwydd”, “druid’s besom” is
anything but a late improvement upon ysgub dderw, “oak
besom,” which, in any case, would be useless for the
ordinary purpose of a besom.”


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