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Ye Olde Witchy Curiosities

Did you know...?

The tradition of Handfasting;

The commitment ceremony predating Christianity...

Pre Christianity;  Handfasting is thought to have roots stretching as far back as 7000 BCE.  & was considered a formal promise or contract enacted by  "tying  the knot" in the cord wrapped around the couples clasped wrists,  hence the modern term of getting married as "tying the knot".  As with modern marriages it was conducted in the presence of witnesses & viewed as a contract.  English legal authorities held that even if not followed by intercourse, handfasting was as binding as any vow taken in church before a priest.

A regular marriage took place when banns were read, followed by a clergyman performing the duties of the ceremony. An irregular marriage could take place in one of three ways: a public declaration by the couple that they were husband and wife, followed by the consummation of the relationship; by mutual agreement; or simply by living together and being recognized as husband and wife. As long as everyone was above the age of consent (12 for brides, 14 for grooms) and not too closely related, irregular marriages were generally considered as valid as a regular marriage.

Typically, the gentry and landowners were married in the "regular" way, so there could be no question later on if the marriage was legally recognized or not. In cases involving inheritance, this could be a big issue. Handfastings or irregular marriages were considered the domain of the lower class and peasants. Around the middle of the 1700s, irregular marriages were made illegal in England. Since Scotland kept up the tradition, it wasn't uncommon for an amorous British couple to elope over the border. Gretna Green became famous because it was the first town in Scotland that eloping lovers would encounter once they left England. The Old Blacksmith's shop there became the site of many "anvil weddings" performed by the village smith.

Typically, the gentry and landowners were married in the "regular" way, so there could be no question later on if the marriage  was legally recognized or not. In cases involving inheritance, this could be a big issue. Handfastings or irregular marriages were considered the domain of the lower Although it's origins have disapppeared into the mists of history, it is believed that handfastings formed a part of pagan worship via  migrants from Europe & the Scaninavian countries.  

In these traditions, handfasting was considered to be a type of  "probationary or temporary" form of marriage although one taking place without an officiant.  In rural areas, it could be weeks or even months before a clergyman happened to stop by the village, so couples learned to make allowances. A handfasting was the equivalent of today's common-law marriage; a man and woman simply clasped hands and declared themselves married. Generally, this was done in the presence of a witness or witnesses.

In 1215 a Lateran Council  forbade what it saw as "informal marriage" & required that marriages be conducted only by priests; although in Scotland unsolemnised marriage - such as handfasating  were held to be valid.  Handfasting was legally binding: as soon as the couple made their vows to each other they were validly married & this was usually not a temporary arrangement unless stated: "a year & a day" after which the couple could renew their vows or seperate.  In Wales the handfasting could be dissolved if the male was a drunk, a gambler, a wife beater, or didn't provide for his family.  

In Scotland, the traditions of handfasting  are believed to be rooted in the country’s Norse culture, with Danes having the option of  “hand-vesten” to illustrate their commitment.

Then, a woman who lived publicly with man and prepared his meals for three winters became his lawful spouse.  

Handfasting was used to unite the sons and daughters of clan chiefs & at that time, the birth of a son and heir to the clanship was pivotal to the success of the arrangement.  

According to an article in The Edinburgh Evening News, published in 1896: “A son of one chief would marry the daughter of another chief, the bargain being that they lived together for a year and a day.  If the son was born within the year a the day, the son succeeded all of the rights, but if no son was born within the year and a day, then the contract was dissolved and the parties were at liberty to remarry.

When a pair married, the elder folks wished them a strange wish. It was ‘happy feet’. It was thought that happy feet would be a prevention to misfortune of every kind at any kind.”

The article added: “The laws however came from the south and gradually became a thing of the past."

Marriages were considered the office of the Scottish church until 1560, when marriage became a civil matter rather than a chruch sacrament.  After that time, marriages were divided into "regular" and "irregular" marriages.  

Handfasting marriages were also known as “contracted” marriages with the term appearing in official records & this arrangement was viewed by some as merely a ‘betrothal’, an article in The Scots Magazine in May 1833 suggests: “There can be little doubt, however, that in too many cases, the mere betrothal was looked upon by parties as an actual marriage.

'Marriage by consent' stopped being legally recognised in most of Europe during the Reformation in the early 16th Century. However, in Scotland, 'irregular' marriages continued to be legally recognised right up until the Marriage (Scotland) Act of 1939. Before 1939 handfastings which took place in lieu of a church wedding were legally recognised as weddings resulting in marriage. Even after 1939 marriage 'by cohabitation with habit and repute' was legally recognised until the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006 was passed.

In England, Lord Harwicke’s Act of 1753 declared that marriages in England were legal only if performed by a clergyman. Subsequently, the Scottish border town Gretna Green became a Mecca for eloping couples from England who fled there to perform their own handfastings or marriages by consent. In those times, the couple themselves performed the handfasting.

In Europe, the Council of Trent in the 16th Century changed Roman Catholic marriage laws to require the presence of a priest, and so handfastings were commonly practised until that point.