Sunday, September 2, 2012


by Gerri Bowen

When it comes to history, people have their own idea about how things were done. Marriage is one of those things we assume we know about.

I believe most people assume that couples were always married in a church, and always with a priest or other religious authority officiating. But no, the rules of marriage and the traditions we follow today are quite different from what our ancestors practiced.

Today we, female and male, seek out people we like, admire and come to love when we consider marriage. They are gradually introduced to friends and family. We hope that the marriage will last, and enter into a future together with our eyes wide open. Shared bank accounts, shared names on property, the number of children we want to have, if any, is agreed upon before vows are exchanged. If it doesn’t work out, well, divorce is available, and the laws are fair for both parties. We go our separate ways, property divided, custody and visitation rights agreed to.

Marriage in the past was also an agreement, but more of an alliance between families. Marriage was about gaining more money, land, and/or political power. Cattle might be given or vast estates. The parties involved might be neighbors or neighboring countries. It was an alliance to make each family stronger. Love did not enter into any discussion of marriage.

Each country, city and village had their own ways to celebrate the betrothal, but the betrothal was significant. Gifts were exchanged, and some had the tradition of a gold coin which was broken in half, the male keeping one and the female receiving the other half. When wed, the two halves were joined together. Then the tradition of a ring, which was broken in half, joined when the couple wed. The next progression was the man giving a ring to his betrothed, signifying to other men that this woman was no longer available. There was no wedding ring as we know it today.

Early on, when couples wed, they did so in front of witnesses. Their hands were joined, sometimes tied whilst they agreed to marry the other. A priest may have blessed them, or not. It is also significant that both parties agreed to wed the other, that the wedding was not forced. However, I think we can all envision circumstances where one party did not want to wed, but had little choice in the matter.

What I found surprising was until the 10th century, weddings were held outside of a church. Not until the 12th century did a priest even become part of the wedding. It wasn’t until the 13th century that the priest took charge of the wedding, when it was by that time considered a sacrament of the church. Even then, different areas in different countries had their own take, traditions. In some areas the priest attended the celebrations after the wedding. In other areas he was forbidden to go near such earthy celebrations.

My latest release, FOR LOVE OF GWYNNETH, a Medieval, has several marriage related passages. One such passage concerns consanguinity, of the three reasons a marriage could not take place. Or if it did, could be declared invalid.

Consanguinity is a blood relationship up to 6th or 7th degree, so no closer than 3rd cousin. No marriage between couples if they were in this category, but that could be gotten around, and was, often by royals.

Affinity is the closeness between the two families of the newly joined husband and wife. Once they married, they became one flesh, so all the relations in the two newly joined families became related as well. No marriages allowed between members of the two newly joined families, but this could be gotten around.

Spiritual Affinity existed between godparents and godchildren, and therefore, their families. So, no marriage there either. It could be gotten around.

Depending on the century, and the country, and even the area of a country, marriage laws evolved and changed. What was standard in 900 was different in 1400, and that was changed in 1700’s and so very different from the 1900’s. One cannot assume anything.

So many interesting facts, so little time to research and report them all.


Once wed, Gwynneth and Richard make the best of what has been forced upon them. When Gwynnth is taken from him, Richard realizes the depth of his feelings for his Gwynneth, and does what he must to get her back. All For Love of Gwynneth.


  1. Really interesting, especially since it is now not legal to get married outdoors in the UK.

  2. Also interesting because here in the UK, marriage between first cousins is allowed, and is still commonplace in many communities.

  3. Dang it, I knew I should have married for the cattle. Interesting post! It is funny how people make such a fuss over changes to the way marriage is done, when we've been changing marriage forever!

  4. Hello. That was a fascinting post and I love the 'but it could be gotten around'. So true. Anna-I was at a wedding on the shores of Loch Insch, Scotland, 2 years ago and the couple were definitley married in the outdoors. 5 years ago my nephew was married at Castle Campbell, a ruin with no roof- so I guess it was outdoors. We do, in Scotland, have the possbility of getting married in the outdoors by either a registrar in attendance-along with a pastor of some denomination, or a Humanist celebrant can do it themselves. The possibility of first cousins marrying is an interesting one!

  5. Here in Australia, aunts/nephews and uncles/nieces can marry each other, as well as 1st cousins. This shocked some English cousins of mine as apparently it's still forbidden there.

  6. In US, whether cousins can marry legally is determined state by state. When my Mennonite father in law wanted to marry a girl who WASN'T is his second cousin, his family objected on the grounds, "We don't know who her people are." (She was from the next valley over, you see). I'm pretty sure uncle/niece is uniformly considered incest here.

    You make a wonderful point though. The theologists were slow to get their hands on marriage, but it's interesting to note that as marriage moved into the church, the ban on priests being married also arose. Coincidence?

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