Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Handfast Ceremony - Then and Now

by Octavia Randolph

Bound in love.

OVER the years I have received several requests from readers seeking advice in planning their upcoming handfasting - that is, wedding. Seeing as though Love and mutual attraction continues - thankfully- to exert its pull upon humans, I thought perhaps it was appropriate to build upon my responses to these initial requests and present some information in a more formal way, in the hope that it may serve as an inspiration for those so inclined to celebrate their union in this manner.

It must be stated at the onset that very little is reliably known of the heathen handfast. Few historians whose reports have come down to us saw fit to record these occasions, and if others did their records do not survive. The Christian clerics Bede, Asser (biographer of King Ælfred), and Nennius did not deign to cover this topic and what we can glean comes from Anglo-Saxon law codes, wills, poetry, and incidental writings by Roman historians observing the continental Saxon tribes. Although in my novel The Circle of Ceridwen two handfastings take place, these ceremonies are what I term well-reasoned imaginings or reconstructions of what the old Anglo-Saxon and Norse handfastings might have been, based on the scant historical documentation left to us. So this essay will begin by touching upon the reliable, historical, attested information that has come down to us - a truly skeletal tree - and then branch out into ways in which the twenty-first century couple can through their imaginations clothe these barren boughs with vivid and fresh new greenery.

Prince William weds the lovely Kate Middleton.
The cope about their wrists is a reminder of the "making fast of hands".
BBC image

Let's look first at the word handfast, a word quite similar to the Old English original and related to the Old Norse handfesta, "to strike a bargain by joining hands". One of the early English meanings is "a contract, specifically a betrothal or marriage contract." At times this referred to a trial marriage, or to the betrothal period, but the term was also used to distinguish a marriage not blessed by the Church - a heathen marriage, legal just the same.

What were the elements of these early handfasting ceremonies? Certainly the clasping or binding together of hands, and exchange of some sort of vows. Such ceremonies were honoured whether witnessed or not; a liturgical blessing was not required. The important element was the free choice of the participants:
If anyone's marriage is in question, all that is needed is that they gave their consent, as the law demands...If this consent is lacking in a marriage then all the other celebrations count for nothing, even if intercourse has occurred.
- Pope Nicholas I, 866 CE
Secular laws agreed; the law code of Ælfred the Great (849-899) specifically states that no woman can be forced to wed against her will. The scholar Dorothy Whitelock addresses Anglo-Saxon weddings in her book The Beginnings of English Society:
There were two parts to a marriage: the 'wedding', that is, the pledging or betrothal, when the bride-price was paid and the terms were agreed on; and the 'gift', the bridal itself, when the bride was given to the bridegroom, with feasting and ceremony. Ecclesiastical blessing was not necessary to the legality of the marriage, though the Church advocated it.
Christian couples generally wed at the church door. If a priest was available he may have simply blessed the couple. Not until the 12th century was the wedding ceremony formalized by the saying of a Mass.

One oftentimes hears a couple saying, "Rev. Jones married us" or "Judge Brown married us." This is true only if you are now living in a menage-a-trois. In fact bride and groom marry each other - you create the legal and moral bond; the person who may stand before you may be designated by church or State as a qualified witness, and is "officiating" but the marriage is performed by you two. (Indeed, even when the Church held greatest sway it has upheld the idea that the man and woman were the actual "ministers of the sacrament", and Pope Alexander III (1159—81 CE) reasserted this.)

An exchange of meaningful gifts is another element. The Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus (circa 54-117 CE) in De Origine et Situ Germanorum wrote in some detail concerning the exchange of gifts amongst Germanic couples as part of their union, not chosen to please a woman's whim or gaily deck a young bride, but oxen, horse with reins, shield, spear and sword. For such gifts a man gets his wife, and she in turn brings some present of arms to her husband...
- H. Mattingly translation
These Germanic peoples were formidable warriors, and the most valued personal objects of any such people are likely to be their weaponry. Fine weapons were expensive and whenever possible passed down from generation to generation. The exchange of heirloom weapons to mark the union of two families linked not only man to woman but clan to clan.

The poem Ruodlieb, written in Latin circa 1050 by a German poet/monk (possibly of the Bavarian foundation of Tagernsee) contains a description of a wedding in which the bride is passed a ring on the hilt of a sword. This underscores the seriousness of the bond now between husband and wife - the honour of the young couple is now linked to the honour of the family sword.

The sword has obvious phallic symbolism and is thus a potent fertility symbol. It also embodied the idea of fidelity (vows taken on a sword to a war-lord were common around the world), the honour of one's acts, and indeed even life and livelihood itself, for warriors lived and died by their steel.

Using these three elements - the exchange of vows, the exchange of symbols of livelihood and honour, and the actual "act of the handfast", we will now turn to the construction of your own handfast ceremony.

A ribbon-bound handclasp.

First Things First

Ascertain that your handfasting will be legally recognized as a wedding. In many places all it truly takes is for the exchange of vows to be witnessed by at least two persons of legal age who then sign the certificate which is registered at the local town hall or whatever local government you have. So research this first, and avoid having to have an additional "civil" or other ceremony (unless of course you plan an additional ceremony for family reasons.)

For the exchange of vows, we have no precise historical record of what may have been said, save that the man and woman spoke openly their intentions. This could be as simple as "I take you for my wife" and "I take you for my husband" or as complex as you both see fit. (In my novel two handfastings are depicted, one of actions only, and one with spoken vows. Of the vows the man makes, he begins by stating who he is, and saying he will defend her body with his life. The young woman he is pledging to responds by saying she will never harm him or bring dishonour.) You might have an elder or friend ask you both at the beginning if you enter into this bond with open and loving hearts and free wills, and also to inquire of the gathered if anyone protests this union, but the point is that the pledging is performed by you two.

Then there is the exchange of the tools of livelihood, such as we read of Tacitus' account. Perhaps this was always a mutual exchange, and not only the man offering some symbol of his ability to provide for the woman. (In the first of the two handfastings I write of the bride is marrying a warrior chief, and he gives her his sword to hold for a moment. She as new mistress of his hall must preside over all the provisioning of his men and supervision of the stores, and she hands him a weaving shuttle as her willingness to take this responsibility.)

So think about this: you two will want to exchange temporarily or permanently some token of your livelihoods. Think of what best carries this message. Are you in the medical field? You could come to your partner carrying your stethoscope and hand him that. A teacher or lawyer? You might carry a school-book or law book. An artist - a brush. Does your man work in construction? - a hammer. Is he a writer? A pen, charmingly archaic as that may be. Software developer - a flashdrive with one of his best programs upon it (I'm serious). You get the idea - each of you appear before the other with this important symbol of what you bring to the union for its economic viability. If the woman intends to be at home and begin a family - then a weaving shuttle or drop spindle, simple and ancient as it is, would be beautiful and appropriate.

Now the actual handfasting. You could simply face each other and clasp one or both hands and say, "May we be made one". Or perhaps your eyes will lock as your hands have in a moment of profound and silent communion. Or the left hands could be placed together and wrapped for a brief moment with a special cord, ribbon or sash. Perhaps it is something one or both or you have made, or embellished with embroidery or other ornamentation. The bride could come to the ceremony wearing it as a sash if she likes, or it might be a braided leather cord borne by the groom. If a friend or elder is officiating she or he could wrap your hands, or you two could do it yourselves. If rings or other jewellery are to be given, exchange them first, before the actual handfast. Then the wrists are unbound, and the cord or sash or ribbon goes into the new wife's keeping.

The simplest of gestures can be full of meaning and import to you. Perhaps there are elements from your ancestor's lives or even weddings that you could incorporate into your ceremony. Or you and your beloved may be committed members of a historical reenactment group. In this case you will have well developed personas in your era of interest to further guide your choices. One couple who wrote to me were part of a Viking reenactment society, and I suggested that the man come to the ceremony wearing a hammer of Thor to place around his bride's neck to ensure her protection. Likewise such a couple devoted to Norse and Anglo-Saxon deities might choose a Friday as their handfast day, the day sacred to the Goddess Frigg, protector of marriage and childbirth.

Now you have spoken your vows, faced each other and exchanged your tokens of livelihood, and then wrapped your wrists briefly with this special ribbon. What else would be appropriate? Perhaps share a small goblet of mead - apple-cider will work just as well, for abstainers. The new husband should take up this cup, lift it to his lips, and sip. He then passes it to his bride for her to sip. She returns the cup to him and he drains the rest in a single draught.

Multi Ribbon Handfast.

The sharing of cake is an ancient ritual, and before you you might have a small cake, no larger than a scone. This is a seeded cake much like a soul cake. It should be baked not by either bride nor groom, but by a female friend or relation of either. She should add any kind of seeds to the batter, be they poppy, sesame, caraway or rye, but only one variety. A bit of honey should be used to sweeten this little cake. She should bake only one, discarding the rest of the batter. The wife should break off a bit of this cake and gently feed it to her husband, and he do the same. Needless to say the seeds represent fertility and abundance, the honey concord between the new couple. No one else should taste this little cake; it is only for the newly wedded pair. If you do not eat it all then, wrap it in a linen napkin and do so in bed that night.

What else might you do? The stories of the Norse gods (who with very little alteration were the Saxon ones; Thor = Thunor, Oden = Woden, Tyr = Tiw) will supply much inspiration. I suggested to one young woman that she might come to the ceremony with a friend holding an apple, one with a yellow skin, which she take from her and place upon the altar and ask Idunn, keeper of the Golden Apples (the daily eating of which kept the Gods youthful and beautiful) to always make her fair in her husband's eyes.

Planting a tree together could provide another important focal point to the ceremony. The tree would represent your hopes for your married life together. A tree could also be planted to commemorate the birth of each child, a custom once widespread but now too infrequently practiced. Such a tree would grow to become a sacred symbol in one's life, similar to what Anglo-Saxon scholar Stephen Pollington refers to as
...the Scandinavian notion of the barnstokkr (barn 'baby, child' stokkr 'tree trunk') which was a potent symbol of the regeneration for the family - a reminder of one's place in eternity, a link with both past and future generations who revered it. It was customary at a wedding for the groom to thrust his sword into the barnstokkr to judge from the resultant gash what the luck of his marriage would be (according to the evidence of Volsungasaga), and in a difficult childbirth, the wife would invoke or even clasp the tree for assistance. Such trees were, then, 'guardians' of the well-being of the people who venerated them." - Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing
One aspect of Anglo-Saxon weddings of which we have reliable information (as they are mentioned in wills and other legal documents) is the morgen-gifu or morning gift. This should be as costly a present as the new husband can afford (as it is a point of social pride to him, and status to his new wife) and the nature of it should be a complete surprise to the bride.

It might be an exceptionally beautiful piece of jewellery, a wooden chest or jewel casket, anything sumptuous that would please her. If she has been given a ring at the ceremony he might give her quite a simple one then and a magnificent one in the morning after they are truly man and wife. My point is not to bankrupt the poor fellow, but to stress that this gift should equal several Yule and birthday gifts combined, and that if it means the bride goes with very little in the way of presents for a while it will be well worth it to have a meaningful morgen-gifu. (Think about it: she has given him her body - it is supposed to be splendid gift in return.)


Of course one can't hold a wedding without a feast to follow.  Enter The Circle of Ceridwen Cookery Book(let), ten easy, delicious, and authentic 9th century recipes, charmingly illustrated with medieval woodcuts and filled with fascinating facts about medieval cookery.

And it's FREE. Receive your two PDF versions when you sign up on my mailing list at  Be my guest, and enjoy!


  1. Interesting and very informative. In one of my upcoming regency books, set in Scotland, I was thinking of having a handfasting and now I've information which will make it more accurate

  2. Well of course I loved reading this having written a novel called The Handfasted Wife. I think you provide lovely suggestions for today's handfastings too. Excellent post.

    1. Many thanks Lindsay and Carol; it is always a pleasure to feel I have aided my brother and sister authors in their own work. We do so much research it is a blessing to share it!

  3. Interesting article. I have also heard ideas of the giving and receiving of swords as part of Norse and by implictaion Saxon weddings.

  4. I am writing a partial historical fiction novel, a period piece on 17th century Scotland. I did read Diana Gabaldon's 1st Outlander book. I have never read before about the cutting with the dirk and the binding of blood with the handfasting are you familiar with this?

  5. Dear Adairs -I have not come across in any historical sources an account of the ritual as you describe it; it is likely Ms Gabaldon's own "informed imagining", which as a novelist she conjured as being true to her characters' natures and times... Best of luck on your own book.


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