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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

To Have and To Hold

"For better, for woorse, for richer, for poorer, in sickenes. and in health, to love, cherishe, and to obey, till death us departe."

Book of Common Prayer, 1549

“Dearly beloved, we gather here today to join together this couple in holy matrimony.” For the West, this is the familiar opening phrase of a traditional wedding ceremony. We owe much to the Book of Common Prayer in the English-speaking world. The book was a product of the English Reformation. It was compiled first in 1549 by leading English reformer Thomas Cranmer as a collection of prayers and ritual liturgy for the newly founded Church of England. "What makes the 1549 service significant is that it is the introduction of a Protestant service in English, and it's basically the words that we all know with a couple of small tweaks," says Reverend Duncan Dormor of St John's College at the University of Cambridge The Book of Common Prayer is derived from earlier Roman Catholic Latin liturgy such as the Use of Sarum Throughout Catholic Europe, the liturgy of the mass often varied slightly based on local customs But at the heart of the ceremony was the exchanging of vows:

“WILTE thou have this woman to thy wedded wife, to live together after Goddes ordeinaunce in the holy estate of matrimonie?”

“Wilt thou have this man to thy wedded houseband, to live together after Goddes ordeinaunce, in the holy estate of matrimonie?”

The first recorded marriage ceremony occurred in Mesopotamia in 2350 BCE, but the concept of marriage goes back further. When our ancestors were hunter-gathers, they lived in small, loose groups of individuals. Partnerships were not always permanent and were based upon the ability to provide for the community and the ability to bear children. Often women were shared among the male leadership of the group. As a more agrarian society developed, our ancestors settled in permanent locations. With the growth of towns and cities came the notion of owning property. This, in turn, meant the need to transfer property and the idea of inheritance. All these required stable relationships and the establishment of biological heirs. In the beginning, religion had very little to do with marriage. It was a means to bind a man and woman so that the children could be recognized as legitimate.

Marriage evolved over the centuries to be essentially a contract. It was widespread through many different cultures and took on many forms. Polygamy and concubinage were common in the Ancient world, but the Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans would make monogamy a standard in the western world. A man takes a wife to bear children, and therefore the purpose of marriage is to produce legitimate children in the eyes of the law. The word matrimony comes from the Latin matrimonium whose root is the word mater - mother. Similarly, the word marriage, an Old English word, derives from the Latin maritare or maritari - to get married. To be a legal union, consent was essential between the two parties. This generally meant an agreement between the fathers.

In Rome, the father was viewed as the pater familias, the head of the extended household. As such, he had authority, pater potestas, over his wife, children, servants, and anyone else living within his household. They were said to be under his hand or manus. He had a social and moral obligation to see that his children made acceptable marriage choices, and the father arranged the betrothal between the couple. In the early Roman Republic, a daughter was sine manus under her father's authority, and when she married, she became cum manus under her husband's authority. By the time of the Roman Empire, so-called “free marriage” was more prevalent, where the wife remained under her father’s authority while living with her husband. The husband had no legal power over her.

The Romans recognized three types of marriages: confarreatio, coemptio, and usus. Confarreatio was confined to the patrician class and was distinguished by the ceremonial sharing of bread or cake (hence the wedding cake tradition). Coemptio - meaning “purchase” - was more common among the plebeian class. The bridal dowry was an essential part of the marriage arrangements. The last one was usus, marriage by habitual cohabitation. The groom’s family provided an engagement feast where the prospective groom gave an iron ring to his future bride. This betrothal signified mutual consent and a vow to get married. The groom remained at his house and waited for the bride on the wedding day. During the bridal procession, the bride carried a torch lit from her hearth. The bride's attendants carried her across the threshold when the bridal group arrived at the groom’s house. Once inside, she was given a torch lit from the hearth of her new home. The couple clasped their right hands and vowed their consent to be husband and wife. The bride wore a white gown with a knotted belt at the waist. The belt symbolized that the groom was bound to the bride, and only he was allowed to untie the knot.

Not much is known of the marriage customs of the Celtic and Germanic tribes outside the Roman sphere of influence. It is inferred that the Ancient Celts practiced some form of common law marriage. When Rome conquered and then occupied Gaul, Iberia, and Britain, they brought with them their marriage traditions and would heavily influence the existing native customs. In Britain, for example, when the Romans left, the Bretonic and Welsh people adopted the Roman ritual of clasping hands. The couples’ hands were fastened together with strips of cloth or leather ("tying the knot"). The couple vowed verbally to remain faithful. But the couple could choose to remain bonded for a year and a day or permanently. The bond could be broken at any time by just saying so.

Marriage was a tool for the Germanic tribes, such as the Anglo-Saxons. Stephanie Coontz, the author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, says, "You established peaceful relationships, trading relationships, mutual obligations with others by marrying them." A prospective groom, the werman, would approach a woman’s family in the company of his friends to negotiate the terms of marriage. The terms included the amount of the morgengifu (morning gift), the brydgifu (bride’s gift or dowry), and the handgeld. The groom paid the handgeld as a sign of his ability to support his new wife. The morgengifu was also paid for by the groom the morning after the official wedding ceremony. Once the terms were reached, the two parties exchanged handshakes which the groom’s friends witnessed. The actual ceremony most likely consisted of a ritual fastening of hands, exchanging swords and rings, and the saying of vows. The word wedding comes from the Anglo-Saxon weddian, which meant “to pledge oneself.” In the older Germanic languages, this originally referred to making a wager or a bet, as in promising to pay up. How the word came to mean the marriage ceremony is particular to the English language. After the ceremony, there would be the brydeala - the bride’s ale - or wedding feast.

With the advent of Christianity in the Roman world, the early Church regarded marriage as a private matter. The church founders saw no need for a uniform ceremony and allowed local customs to continue. For the most part, the Church adopted the Roman ceremony, but instead of sacrificing to the Lares, the household spirits, a Christian Mass was performed. Even though they didn't proscribe the requirements of marriage, early Church fathers still wished to give it an air of sanctity. In the 2nd century CE, Bishop Ignatius of Antioch, for example, would remark, "[I]t becomes both men and women who marry, to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust." The Church’s role until the 12th century would remain more of a judicial one. If there were legal questions as to the legitimacy of a marriage, these were brought to the ecclesiastical courts. Issues around marriage developed as the differentiation of wealth grew. One married into similar wealth and power or as a means of social mobility. The wishes of the couple were no longer important. It was assumed they would submit to the fathers’ wishes and arrangements, especially in the case of the bride.

In 1140, the Benedictine monk Gratian, wrote the Decretum Gratiani. This was a compilation of canon law. In this work, Gratian asserted that the couple’s consent was paramount to the families. It was a requirement that the couple gives their verbal consent. Simply being at a ceremony was not sufficient. The book became the basis of the Church’s policies toward marriage. Marriage became more institutionalized. It became seen as symbolic of the marriage of the Church and Christ and the contract between God and his people. Marriage was seen more and more as something holy and sacred. Theologians began to refer to marriage as a sacrament. And since it was a sacrament, it required a priest's blessing to recognize the marriage's legitimacy. The Council of Trent in 1563 would officially make the rite of marriage a sacrament.

Protestant reformers, like Martin Luther, denied the sacramental nature of marriage. For Luther, marriage was a “worldly thing” subject to the state. The result was increased state interest in regulating aspects of marriage, especially in legal terms. Governments began to proscribe the requirements of marriage. In England, the Clandestine Marriage Act of 1753, also known as Lord Hardwicke’s Act, is one of the first efforts to impose regulations on marriage. The act was meant to curb the number of clandestine or irregular marriages. According to the act, couples were required to get married in a church by a minister, issue a formal announcement, known as the banns, or obtain a marriage license. Most laws would follow canon law, but governments recognized the need to validate marriages within the civil statutes. Therefore, in the 19th century, you see the introduction of civil registration of marriages and laws like the Marriage Act of 1836 in England that allowed non-religious or civil marriages.

Marriage was practicality, one born from economic and political needs. For the most part, love had nothing to do with it. That’s not to say that marriage for love was unheard of. Medieval French romances provide a tradition of courtly love or romantic love. They are primers of how to woo the one you love but not necessarily the one you marry. It would not be until the Victorian era that our more modern notion of marrying for love would emerge. The growth of the middle class, the rise of new money from industrialization, and more social mobility allowed people to break the traditional boundaries of marriage. Both men and women were freer to choose their partners and base that choice on mutual affection or love.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, marriage has developed significantly into what we know today in the West. Still steeped in centuries-old traditions, it has morphed from a family affair to one focused upon the needs and wants of the individual couple. It is no longer viewed in the same sense as a contract between two parties but in a more spiritual manner. It has become a private matter whose purpose goes beyond procreation and recognizing legitimate heirs. Like many cultural institutions, marriage has changed to reflect the changes in the social environment. According to historian Stephanie Coontz, "The idea that marriage is a private relationship for the fulfillment of two individuals is really very new. Within the past 40 years, marriage has changed more than in the last 5,000."

Today, marriage at its core remains an exchanging of vows, the weddian, the pledge, the symbolism unchanged from Ancient Rome to now:

“I, (Name), take you, (Name), for my lawful wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part."

"I, (Name), take you, (Name), for my lawful husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”


Further Reading

A History of Marriage: Elizabeth Abbott


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