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Handfasting in Elizabethan Culture

Author: Zan Fraser
Posted: March 1st. 2009
Times Viewed: 4,511

Those who believe that Wicca was more or less “made up” in the 1950s should reflect upon the deeply rooted role had by handfasting in Elizabethan culture.

Handfasting to the people of Elizabeth I was comparable to our engagement, a small ceremony witnessed and officiated and celebrated, that signaled a couple’s intention to wed. In essence, it was a mini-wedding performed before the official (church) wedding. Handfastings were frequently performed within somebody’s home, but it was not out of the question to rent a room in a tavern (possibly with a catered meal included or at least the Elizabethan version of finger-snacks) or to hold one’s handfasting out doors in a meadow or an orchard. It was customary to exchange handfasting gifts- rings were common, but items such as gloves, jewels, exotic foreign coins, ribbons knotted in a lover’s knot, or (on one occasion) a silver toothpick, are also recorded.

Examples of the handfasting tradition (or troth-plighting, as it was otherwise called, “plighting” being the verb and “troth” meaning the couple’s commitment to each other) are found throughout the folk-culture. The ceremony of intent orchestrated by the King in All’s Well that Ends Well (II.iii) is sometimes misunderstood as an actual wedding. It is actually a handfasting (meaning that Helena and Bertram are pledged to marry) hence the number of references to “hands, ” from Helena’s “Be not afraid that I your hand should take” to the King’s lines “Here, take her hand” and “Take her by the hand and tell her she is thine.”

Claudio’s line in Measure for Measure (I.iii.151) , that “She is fast my wife, ” means that he considers himself as good as married, as he has handfasted his girlfriend. Handfasting was held as a binding promise to wed; the popular preacher Heinrich Bullinger calls it a contract: “After the handfasting and making of the contract, the churchgoing and wedding should not be deferred too long, lest the wicked sew his ungracious seed in the mean season.”

There is some thought that handfasting signaled the time in a relationship when sex would become permissible- the line about a country-wench who “puts to before her troth-plight” in The Winter’s Tale (I.ii.276) would seem to imply that “putting to” after the troth-plight or handfasting is alright.

The church clearly fought this interpretation, as Bullinger makes clear, but what people will actually do is another matter and Bullinger bemoans that couples “put to” after plighting troth (but before the church wedding) . “At the handfasting there is made a great feast and superfluous bancket [banquet], even the same night are the two handfasted persons brought and layed together, yea, certain weeks afore they go to the church.”

As handfasting was held to be a binding promise (as Claudio indicates, handfasted couples were held to be essentially married, just not yet in the Christian sense) - the records of London’s Consistory Court (studied exhaustively by Loreen Giese and others) are filled with the details of “plighted troths, ” or handfastings unfulfilled by matrimony. Among the many fascinating documents to emerge from centuries of English archives- few are as intriguing as those that record a court case over the disputed payment of a wedding dowry. For listed among the deponents in the case is one William Shakespeare.

It seems that in 1604, the greatest playwright of the age was lodging in the upper floor of a house owned by a family of French expatriates. The daughter of this family fell in love with a young beau and they were handfasted (and then subsequently married) . The ensuing suit charges the girl’s father with failing to make good on the terms of his daughter’s marriage properties. The matter fascinates scholars because Shakespeare’s deposition in the case is the only instance in which the Bard of Avon’s words come to us from out his own mouth, unfiltered as Hamlet or Lear or Juliet or Portia.

The matter is brilliantly well covered by Charles Nicholl, in The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street (Viking, 2007) . Nicholl provides a fascinating account of Elizabethan handfasting in general (p. 251-261) , including several examples cited above. He also includes a remarkable chapter on the Elizabethan astrologer and fortune-teller Simon Forman, consulted by the social elite of the period.

Shakespeare’s actual testimony is not terribly interesting. An intriguing note is struck by another deponent, however, who describes the couple’s handfasting: “They were made sure by Mr. Shakespeare.” In the parlance of the times, this would seem to indicate that it was Shakespeare himself who officiated the handfasting.

This does not mean that the greatest writer of the English language was a closet Pagan or the secret High Priest of an underground Witches’ coven. He was (at a time when he was at the height of his stage career) simply someone like thousands of other Elizabethans, someone for whom a young couple in love felt fondly enough that they asked him to oversee their handfasting- a family friend, with perhaps a bit more celebrity than most.

For all that- one must ask, how did the custom of handfasting come about? My theory- it was in fact (as Wiccans have always claimed) the original Pagan wedding tradition. Its tenacity in the culture must indicate that it was considered an essential custom; it looks as if the best the church could do was to get people to commit at least to getting married again later, in a church service that the church insisted upon considering the “real” wedding.

An actual display of handfasting is the very Pagan wedding ceremony that closes Shakespeare’s finest comedy, the forest-oriented As You Like It. The marriage-god Hymen brings forth Rosalind, “that thou mightst join her hand with his whose heart within his bosom is.” Rosalind to Orlando: “To you I give myself, for I am yours.”

Hymen: “You and you no cross shall part; you and you are heart in heart.” Song: “Wedding is great Juno’s crown- O blessed bond of board and bed! ‘Tis Hymen peoples every town; high wedlock then be honored. Honor, high honor and renown, to Hymen, god of every town!”






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