Some romantic and intriguing myths have grown up around the practice of handfasting, making it a rich topic for fiction. Author Sir Walter Scott long ago referenced the custom in his work, The Monastery, calling it a practice by which a couple live as man and wife for a year and a day, and after that time has passed, the couple might choose other mates or they might choose to wed for life.
This notion of handfasting had grown in popularity throughout the eighteenth century and seemed to cement itself with Scott’s work in the nineteenth, giving the custom a reputation as a sort of trial marriage. Not so, say scholars of medieval times, who point to church and civil laws defining marriage as a matter of 1) consent between partners in the present tense and 2) consummation of the marriage. Thus, there could be no “trial” marriage in the Middle Ages because once the partners consented to wed within the present tense, even if no priest officiated, a legally binding union was in place. Furthermore, even if parties involved in a handfast did not declare their intent to wed, but began living together and engaging in marital practices, the church would have recognized this as a marriage.
So if not a trial marriage, what exactly was handfasting in medieval times? From the Middle Ages through the early seventeenth century, handfasting was a formal betrothal to be married, a promise to wed in the future tense. A handfasting ceremony involved the joining of hands, and an exchange of vows to one day marry. Sometimes a handfast resulted in marriage and sometimes it didn’t, but according to church law, if the handfasted couple lived as man and wife or consummated their relationship, they automatically became legally wed.
To further complicate matters, any Internet search on the custom of handfasting shows that it has taken on other shades of meaning since modern day pagans have embraced the custom for their own marriage rites. In some neopagan and Wiccan traditions, handfasting is considered a temporary union, and in others, handfasting refers to an actual legal marriage.
But while it may be impossible to pin down a single meaning to handfasting, its wealth of nuances make it exactly the sort of custom writers love. With so many meanings attached to the word already, surely a little creative license here or there can’t hurt? Ahh, the possibilities!