17 June 2015

Weddings in History: Ritual and Financial Exchange in Tenth-Century Christian Spain

By Jessica Knauss 

Image by Gerard Belfast (Flickr)
Chaucer's Wife of Bath speaks of having husbands "at church door." She couldn't have even considered the interior of a church as a venue for her five weddings, not because the husbands' families weren't religious, but because marriage was not yet a formal sacrament of the Catholic Church.

Because I'd read the Canterbury Tales long before, when it came time for me to write about the tenth-century wedding where things start to go wrong in Seven Noble Knights, I knew what the ceremony wouldn't look like... but, like Judith Starkston, I knew I couldn't just skim over what could be some dramatic, tension-filled, character-building moments. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 required a priest to bless the union and the publication of banns, but my novel takes place more than 200 years before that.

In Seven Noble Knights, the wedding (and especially the bride) is observed by the bride's new nephew-in-law, a fifteen-year-old who may not understand everything he sees, but is a keen observer. So I delved into what little we know about early marriage ceremonies.

Statue of Isidore of Seville outside the Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid
No wedding could take place without a betrothal. Isidore of Seville (560–636), the most influential and prolific Latin writer after Augustine (and more or less a "local boy" for Seven Noble Knights) described many features of a betrothal: The woman is escorted by married women to the wedding site; the couple joins hands, which are bound with a cord; an officiant spreads a veil over the couple, untying the woman's hair; the couple receives crowns or garlands; the bride and groom exchange rings in an Iberian display of equality; and the bride is escorted to her new home. Isidore also recommended that the engagement ring be worn on the fourth finger because a vein led directly from it to the heart. Isidore doesn't mention it, but most other sources report a kiss or some other physical sign of commitment.

The betrothal in Seven Noble Knights is off-the-cuff because the bride and groom are just meeting for the first time. Although the groom's sister is prepared with a cord for the handfasting, the groom is too astounded with the bride's beauty to seal the promise with a kiss. I reserved the other rituals for the wedding itself because there is so little written about these ceremonies, which seem to have held less legal importance than the first promises of the betrothal.

A magic circle preserved in stone outside the cathedral door in Arcos de la Frontera.
The presence of the clergy at a wedding in 974 might have seemed unusual. A priest might bless the couple and spread incense smoke over the bridal bed, because the emphasis is still on the consummation of the union. I included these elements in my tenth-century wedding, but the lack of Church presence also left space for rituals of pre-Christian origin.

Because the Visigoths, who took over the peninsula at the fall of Rome, were so Romanized, Spain lacks a lot of the pagan/Catholic syncretism that defines other European versions of Christianity. That must be why I was so impressed with a magic circle I saw outside the cathedral door in Arcos de la Frontera. It was said to be used for the ritual cleansing of infants before baptism. In Seven Noble Knights, the married women escort the bride into a magic circle the groom's sister has just drawn and decorated with pungent herbs.

I knew my readers wouldn't believe a wedding without some kind of set vow, but it shouldn't include any mention of God or eternity for this secular ceremony. The earliest vow I found came from the twelfth-century jurist, Gratian. His preoccupation with weddings is restricted to the explicit willingness of both bride and groom, and his words work well: "I receive you as mine, so that you become my wife and I your husband." It emphasizes the equality of the participants, but also that this is an economic exchange above all.

Continuing with the economic theme, in my version of a tenth-century wedding, the bride and groom discuss dowry and bride price and the Count of Castile orally confirms which lands the couple will govern together after they've said the vows. They also pass coins back and forth to each other in a reflection of a ritual still seen in Spanish weddings today.

The lack of knowledge about weddings in the early Middle Ages, at first frustrating, ended up giving me an exceptional opportunity to link the present and past creatively with new meanings appropriate to the story.

Jessica Knauss earned her PhD in Medieval Spanish with a dissertation on the portrayal of Alfonso X’s laws in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, which has been published as the five-star-rated Law and Order in Medieval Spain. A driven fiction writer, Jessica Knauss has edited many fine historical novels and is a bilingual freelance editor. Her historical novel, Seven Noble Knights, will be published in 2016 by Bagwyn Books. Find out more about it here, and her other writing and bookish activities here. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, too!