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Joining of Hands: Handfasting in Medieval and Modern Society

Updated on April 18, 2017
Chris Pinard profile image

My primary interests center around the folklore, customs, history, and mythology of the Celts, the Germanic speaking peoples, and the Slavs.

Modern Handfasting Ceremony
Modern Handfasting Ceremony

Revival of Handfasting

The popularity of handfasting among pagans owes a debt of gratitude to Gerald Gardner. Handfasting was an archaic word that had long fallen into disuse, only occasionally found in publications from folklore societies or in medieval studies classes. In 1951 when the Witchcraft Act of 1735 was repealed, occultists and Neo-pagans had the legal authority to conduct ceremonies in their own fashion. This led Gardner, as well as others, to seek out antiquarian terms to use instead of the word “wedding,” which happened to have Christian connotations. Eventually, Gardner and his entourage settled on the word handfasting. Since then, much romanticism has arisen surrounding the origin of the word. Many claim that handfasting was an ancient Celtic custom but is that truly the case?

Gardner originally stated that he had been initiated into a coven in the New Forest area, and while he wasn’t able to divulge the secrets imparted to him, he was quick to establish a religion based on the principles that he learned. Historians have found many holes in Gardner’s claims. However, whether Gardner truly encountered this coven or not, he undoubtedly founded one of the 20th centuries more vibrant religions. The early years of Wicca’s founding saw adherents claiming a Celtic ancestry for the religion, including the origins of the handfasting concept. However, was this claim based on fact, romanticism, or something else?

Gerald Gardner
Gerald Gardner

Impact of WWII

During and after WWII, England saw a resurgence in interest in all things Celtic. Minimizing their own Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) roots allowed the English to see Germany solely as an enemy, rather than being cultural cousins. Wicca was just one of the many movements that chose to overinflate their Celtic ties during this period. Having already been a stigmatized community, it made no sense to further exacerbate the issue by declaring Germanic origins for the religion. Hence, handfasting began to be associated with Celtic culture as opposed to Germanic.

Etymology of Handfasting

The etymology of the word handfasting is relatively easy to trace. Similar words exist within other Germanic languages. Within Danish one finds the word Håndfæstning , in Norwegian one finds Håndfestning or Handfesta meaning "to strike a bargain by joining hands" The associated customs were commonplace within these areas from the 12th to 17th Century. Looking to Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, the word håndfæsting was associated with legalities. Specifically, the word denoted circumstances and documents that involved oath taking. Denmark and Sweden both created documents similar to the Magna Carta, which were denoted as “håndfæstning.” Essentially this oath required that the king be a just ruler. Further, it helped to delineate who the king would appoint to certain positions, as well as ensure that time-honored customs and traditions would be upheld. Being that marriage is not only a religious custom, but also a civil one, it is easy to see how such matters would also fall under the title of “handfasting.” Further, the oath taking within a marriage ceremony parallel this legal custom.

Medieval Marriage
Medieval Marriage

Reassessing Handfasting's Origins

While it might be disappointing to many Neopagans, handfasting is recorded most notably as a Christian custom from the medieval period. This is understandable, due to the fact that this timeframe was denoted by the power that the Church wielded over society. Thus, those recordings that are preserved of the custom are Christian in nature because people of the period were, in fact, Christian. While many websites attribute the custom to “Pagan” Celts, there simply is no evidentiary support for that assertion. Rather, there is considerably more support for a Germanic origin.

So, if the word itself is tied to people of Teutonic culture, is it possible that this word was grafted onto a pre-existing custom at a later date? To determine this, it would be imperative to assess what characteristics handfasting exhibits, most notably the handbinding with a cord, and the year and a day trial period.

Joining of Hands in Marriage
Joining of Hands in Marriage

The Isle of Man

In the 1600’s Gaelic Scholar Martin Martin noted that "It was an ancient custom in the Isles that a man take a maid as his wife and keep her for the space of a year without marrying her; and if she pleased him all the while, he married her at the end of the year and legitimatized her children; but if he did not love her, he returned her to her parents." What is less clear is exactly how ancient this custom was. Simply, was the tradition created before or after the Viking settlement of the Isle of Man in the 800 and 900’s? This cannot be clearly determined. It is notable that within the book Women In Old Norse Society, Jenny Jochens writes that it wasn’t uncommon for Vikings to have a long engagement period, sometimes extending from one to three years due to their transitory nature (pinning down a date that allowed for all family to be present was troublesome). Therefore, a year-long betrothal might seem pragmatic in such conditions. Prior to this mentioning by Martin, no quotes can be located which specify that handfasting was of a year timeframe, quite the opposite. Medieval English records denote that a handfasting was a betrothal to be married (an engagement), and that a marriage in the Church was required for religious reasons. However, it should be noted that these handfastings were in fact legally durable. In effect, they were an early form of civil union. Such unions could only be terminated by death, seeing that divorce was not a possibility yet. So, the idea that handfasting could be terminated after a year would not fit in line with what is known of the period.

Isle of Man
Isle of Man

Brehon Law

In order to try to determine if there is any possible connection to the pagan Celts with respects to this marriage custom, it would be of benefit to look at the many types of marriage that could exist under Brehon Law. In the Cáin Lánamna one can locate ten types of union: “(1) union of common contribution; (2) union of a woman on a man's contribution; (3) union of a man on a woman's contribution with service; (4) union of a woman who accepts a man's solicitation; (5) union of a man who visits the woman, without work, without solicitation, without provision, without material contribution; (6) union by abduction; (7) union of wandering mercenaries; (8) union by criminal seduction; (9) union by rape; (10) union of mockery.” Nowhere within this document is a marriage of a single year or trial marriage mentioned.

A Brehon (Legan Arbitration)
A Brehon (Legan Arbitration)

Handbinding and Oath-Taking

The other most notable characteristic of modern handfastings is the hand binding with rope or ribbon. When researching medieval handfastings not a single reference was made to tying of the hands together. This appears to be a strictly modern invention. Likely this was an addition made by Gardner or other individuals in the post Victorian era, simply based on the notion that handfasting involves bringing two hands together. But rather than binding them with rope, the custom of handshaking of a sorts was inferred.

So then, if handfasting can’t be tied to ancient Celtic customs, then is it strictly a medieval invention? Not exactly, it indeed has older origins. As indicated with the Germanic origin of the word, the tradition originates with the Teutonic people. Historians are very familiar with the fact that among the greater Germanic people (English, German, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Dutch, etc.), oath taking was a custom of vital importance. Before these modern nation states existed, Germanic peoples were part of a language and cultural family that spanned through most of Northwest Europe. Therefore it stands to reason that the later nation states would share cultural norms. This is evidenced with the prominence of oath taking throughout northwest Europe. In the Viking age Oath taking rings are a noted part of Norse culture. However they undoubtedly have older origins. In the late Classical period Tacitus noted that the Chatti carried rings of Iron. It is highly probable that these rings were also oath-taking rings.

A Norse Torc which may have been used to swear oaths on.
A Norse Torc which may have been used to swear oaths on.

Troth and Anglo-Saxons

Among the Viking age peoples, marriage involved a similar oath taking ritual. It is likely that due to the oath taking nature of the marriage ceremony, it became associated with the word handfasting. The English custom involved taking one another by the hand and pledging troth to each other. Such a pledge might take the form of the following "I (Groom) take thee (Bride) to my wedded husband/wife, till death us depart, and thereto I plight thee my troth.” Due to this exchange, the custom also went by the name of Troth Plight. Troth is also a word of Germanic origin, hinting once again to a Teutonic origin for the custom. Troth essentially translates to faithfulness, truth, or honesty. This is similar to arguments made by A. Anton in his work Handfasting in Scotland “Among the people who came to inhabit Northumbria and the Lothians, as well as among other Germanic peoples, the nuptials were completed in two distinct phases. There was first the betrothal ceremony and later the giving-away of the wife to the husband. The betrothal ceremony was called the beweddung in Anglo-Saxon because in it the future husband gave weds or sureties to the woman's relatives, initially for payment to them of a suitable price for his bride but later for payment to her of suitable dower and morning-gift. The parties plighted their troth and the contract was sealed, like any other contract, by a hand-shake. This joining of hands was called a handfæstung in Anglo-Saxon”

Illustration of a Viking Betrothal
Illustration of a Viking Betrothal

Scotland and Handfastings

Looking once again to Scotland, it appears that in the 18th and 19th centuries there were two notable references made on handfasting. Thomas Pennant in his Tour of Scotland, and Sir Walter Scott in his novel The Monastery both mention handfasting as being a trial form of marriage. A. Anton in Handfasting in Scotland wrote that Pennant and Scott had taken up a popular myth that handfasting was a form of trial marriage. It is not unreasonable to believe that Scott based his reference to handfasting on Pennant’s mentioning on the topic. One must also consider that Sir Walter Scott’s novel was a work of fiction, therefore it isn’t reliably historically accurate. However, it is in this work (The Monastery) that one can find the only reference to handfasting being a “year and a day” “'We Bordermen ... take our wives, like our horses, upon trial. When we are handfasted, as we term it, we are man and wife for a year and a day: that space gone by, each may choose another mate, or at their pleasure, may call the priest to marry them for life—and this we call handfasting.” A. Anton criticized Pennant for not being scholarly rigorous and being prone to romantic notions. It is also worth mentioning that The Dictionary of Older Scottish Tongue references a 16th century quote where no year trial is mentioned. “the said dispensacione cum nocht hayme within the said tyme..the said John the Grant is bundin..to caus thame be handfast and put togiddir..for mariage to be completit; 1520 Grant Chart 64. Ib. 65. Becaus..many within this toun ar handfast, as thai call it, and maid promeis of mariage a lang space bygane,.., and as yit vill nocht mary and coimpleit that honorable band,.., but lyis and continewis in manifest fornicatioun” It is also noteworthy that within Scotland, Germanic contributions to the culture have often been downplayed in favor of their Celtic counterparts. Namely, the Vikings were quite active in Scotland for a period, as well as the Anglo-Saxons came to influence the language and culture of the borderlands and lowland Scots.

Depiction of a Medieval Marriage
Depiction of a Medieval Marriage

Concluding Thoughts

As one can see, the modern Wiccan or Neopagan concept of handfasting bears little resemblance to its medieval counterpart. This does not render the ceremony invalid but simply modern in its construction. It would be intellectually dishonest if we were to continue abiding by the notion that this is an ancient Celtic custom. Instead it should be noted that it is a Germanic custom that in recent years was appropriated by the pagan community and formulated into something new.

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    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 6 weeks ago

      Excellent research! You've made many excellent points and I agree with your conclusions 100% :-)

    • profile image

      Allie 3 weeks ago

      Very interesting read. Thank you.

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