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Handfasting is an ancient European ceremony of (temporary or permanent) betrothal or wedding that dates back to pre-Medieval times and usually involves the tying or binding of the hands of the bride and groom with a cord or ribbon. Such ceremonies are widely practised in the Wiccan religion.
The term is derived from the verb to handfast, used in Middle to Early Modern English for the making of a contract of marriage. The term is originally from Old Norse hand-festa "to strike a bargain by joining hands".
The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) forbade clandestine marriage, and required marriages to be publicly announced in churches by priests. In the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent legislated more specific requirements, such as the presence of a priest and two witnesses, as well as promulgation of the marriage announcement thirty days prior to the ceremony. These laws did not extend to the regions affected by the Protestant Reformation. In England, clergy performed many clandestine marriages, such as so-called Fleet Marriage, which were held legally valid; and in Scotland, unsolemnized common-law marriage was still valid.
The Scottish Hebrides, particularly in the Isle of Skye, show some records of a 'Handfast" or "left-handed" marriage taking place as recently as the late 1600s  where the Gaelic scholar, Martin Martin, notes "It was an ancient custom in the Isles that a man take a maid as his wife and keep her for the space of a year without marrying her; and if she pleased him all the while, he married her at the end of the year and legitimatised her children; but if he did not love her, he returned her to her parents."
Oral tradition and Gaelic scholars who have preserved these traditions from the Hebrides also reference the most disastrous war fought between the MacLeods and MacDonalds of Skye, culminating in the Battle of Coire Na Creiche, "when Donald Gorm Mor who handfasted [for a year and a day] with Margaret MacLeod, a sister of Rory Mor of Dunvegan, expelled his mistress so ignominiously from Duntulm. It is, indeed, not improbable that it was as a result of this war that Lord Ochiltree's Committee [that formed the Statutes of Iona in 1609 and the Regulations for the Chiefs in 1616] was induced to insert a clause in the Statutes of Iona by which 'marriages contracted for several years' were prohibited; and any who might disregard this regulation were to be 'punished as fornicators'".
By the 18th century, the Kirk of Scotland no longer recognized marriages formed by mutual consent and subsequent sexual intercourse, even though the Scottish civil authorities did. To minimize any resulting legal actions, the ceremony was to be performed in public. This situation persisted until 1939, when Scottish marriage laws were reformed by the Marriage (Scotland) Act 1939 and handfasting was no longer recognized.
In the 18th century, well after the term handfasting had passed out of usage, there arose a popular myth that it referred to a sort of "trial marriage." A. E. Anton, in Handfasting in Scotland (1958), finds that the first reference to such a "trial marriage" is by Thomas Pennant in his 1790 Tour in Scotland. This report had been taken at face value throughout the 19th century, and was perpetuated in Walter Scott's 1820 novel The Monastery.
Other scholars of the Hebrides and inhabitants of the region do not consider this a myth, as there are sufficient records in both the oral tradition and the written compilation of those records that predate both Pennant and Anton by a century or more that preserve the history of this tradition. Contrary to Anton's assertions, the Pennant claim in 1790 was not the first time this had been discussed or put to print, as the Martin Martin texts predate Pennant by almost 100 years. Additionally, the Statutes of Iona were promulgated in 1609 to force an end to the Clan warfare between the MacLeods of Dunvegan and the MacDonalds of Eigg and Sleat as well as to create a more receptive path for Reformation and Protestantism by forcing the Chiefs of the Clans to encourage its spread and to finance the provisioning of Protestant minsters in their lands.
Customs may vary widely between various non-Christian native Europeans but many handfastings were traditionally for a period of up to seven years. At the end of the designated period of time the participants choose to recommit to the relationship or are free to make other choices in their lives. The handfasting tradition is not based upon ownership or property, men and women both have the right to own property. There is no shame implied or applied to either party should a handfasting not be renewed.
From the 12th to the 17th century “handfasting” in England referred to a ceremony, usually about a month prior to a church wedding, at which the marrying couple formally declared that each accepted the other as spouse. Accounts of English handfasting ceremonies suggest that though invariably each person held the other’s right hand while making their vow, cords or ribbons were not used.
Originally the word “handfast” came into English from Norse languages, and meant the act of sealing any bargain by taking hands. The earliest cited English usage in connection with marital status is from a manuscript of c. 1200, when Mary (mother of Jesus) is described as “handfast (to) a good man called Joseph”.
Handfasting was legally binding: as soon as the couple made their vows to each other they were validly married. It was not a temporary arrangement. Just as with church weddings of the period, the union which handfasting created could only be dissolved by death. English legal authorities held that, even if not followed by intercourse, handfasting was as binding as any vow taken in church before a priest.
During handfasting the man and woman in turn would take the other by the right hand and declare aloud that they there and then accepted each other as man and wife. The words might vary but traditionally consisted of a simple formula such as “I (Name) take thee (Name) to my wedded husband/wife, till death us depart, and thereto I plight thee my troth”. Because of this, handfasting was also known in England as “troth-plight”. Gifts were often exchanged, especially rings: a gold coin broken in half between the couple was also common. Other tokens recorded include gloves, a crimson ribbon tied in a knot, and even a silver toothpick. Handfasting might take place anywhere, indoors or out. It was frequently in the home of the bride, but according to records handfastings also took place in taverns, in an orchard and even on horseback. The presence of a credible witness or witnesses was usual.
For much of the relevant period church courts dealt with marital matters. Ecclesiastical law recognised two forms of handfasting, sponsalia per verba de praesenti and sponsalia per verba de futuro. In sponsalia de praesenti, the most usual form, the couple declared they there and then accepted each other as man and wife. The sponsalia de futuro form was less binding, as the couple took hands only to declare their intention to marry each other at some future date. The latter was closer to a modern engagement and could in theory be ended with the consent of both parties – but only providing intercourse had not occurred. If intercourse did take place, then the sponsalia de futuro “was automatically converted into de iure marriage”.
Despite the validity of handfasting it was expected to be solemnized by a church wedding fairly soon afterwards. Penalties might follow for those who did not comply. Ideally the couple were also supposed to refrain from intercourse until then. Complaints by preachers suggest that they often did not wait, but at least until the early 1600s the common attitude to this kind of anticipatory behaviour seems to have been lenient.
Handfasting remained an acceptable way of marrying in England throughout the Middle Ages but declined in the early modern period. In some circumstances handfasting was open to abuse, with persons who had undergone "troth-plight" occasionally refusing to proceed to a church wedding, creating ambiguity about their former betrothed’s marital status. After the beginning of the 17th century gradual changes in English law meant the presence of an officiating priest or magistrate became necessary for a marriage to be legal. Finally the 1753 Marriage Act, aimed at suppressing clandestine marriages by introducing more stringent conditions for validity, effectively ended the handfasting custom in England.
Modern usage 
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In the present day, some Neopagans practice this ritual. The marriage vows taken may be for "a year and a day," "a lifetime", "for all of eternity" or "for as long as love shall last." Whether the ceremony is legal, or a private spiritual commitment, is up to the couple. Depending on the region or country where the handfasting is performed, and whether or not the officiant is a legally recognized minister, the ceremony itself may be legally binding, or couples may choose to make it legal by also having a civil ceremony. Modern handfastings are performed for same-sex or opposite-sex couples, as well as for multiple partners in the case of polyamorous relationships. As with many Neopagan rituals, some groups may use historically attested forms of the ceremony, striving to be as traditional as possible, while others may use only the basic idea of handfasting and largely create a new ceremony.
As many different traditions of Neopaganism use some variation on the handfasting ceremony, there is no universal ritual form that is followed, and the elements included are generally up to the couple being handfasted. In cases where the couple belong to a specific religious or cultural tradition, there may be a specific form of the ritual used by all or most members of that particular tradition. The couple may conduct the ceremony themselves or may have an officiant perform the ceremony. In some traditions, the couple may jump over a broom at the end of the ceremony. Some may instead leap over a small fire together. Today, some couples opt for a handfasting ceremony in place of, or incorporated into, their public wedding. As summer is the traditional time for handfastings, they are often held outdoors.
As with more conventional marriage ceremonies, couples often exchange rings during a handfasting, symbolizing their commitment to each other. Many couples choose rings that reflect their spiritual and cultural traditions, while others choose plainer, more conventional wedding rings.
Couples may wear Medieval clothing or more modern wedding garb.
Outside Neopaganism 
Traditional pre-Christian elements are often adopted into modern Christian and secular wedding ceremonies in many parts of Europe (syncretism), and a handfasting-style ceremony is also practised outside of the Neopagan subculture.
Literature and media 
- Gardner, Kevin M. (2008), The Wiccan Minister's Manual, A Guide for Priests and Priestesses, p. 307
- "handfast, v." OED Online. November 2010. Oxford University Press
- In 1601 the poet John Donne married clandestinely in a private room where only he, his bride, his friend Christopher Brooke and Brooke’s brother Samuel, a clergyman, were present. No banns were called and the bride's parents did not give consent; nevertheless, the bride's father did not later legally dispute the validity of the marriage. David Colclough, ‘Donne, John (1572–1631)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2011 accessed 23 April 2012
- A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, by Martin Martin, 1693 (1st Edition) p. 114, 1716 (2nd Edition).
- History of Skye, by Alexander Nicolson (1930) p. 87
- History of the Western Highlands and Isles of Scotland, D Gregory (1881) p. 331
- Andrews, William (1899). Bygone Church Life in Scotland. Hull Press. pp. 210–212.
- Macfarlane, Leslie J. (1994). "William Elphinstone's Library Revisited". In MacDonald, Alasdair A.; Lynch, Michael et al. The Renaissance in Scotland: Studies in Literature, Religion, History, and Culture. Leiden: E. J. Brill. p. 75. ISBN [[Special:BookSources/90-04-10097-4|90-04-10097-4 [[Category:Articles with invalid ISBNs]]]] Check
- Rackwitz, Martin (2007). Travels to Terra Incognita: The Scottish Highlands and Hebrides in Early Modern Travellers' Accounts c. 1600 to 1900. Waxmann Verlag GmbH. pp. 497 note 199. ISBN 978-3-8309-1699-4.
- Charles Nicholl, The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street, London, Allen Lane, 2007 ISBN 978-0-713-99890-0 Chapter 27, pp. 251–258
- "handfast, v." OED Online. March 2012. Oxford University Press. “Old Norse hand-festa to strike a bargain by joining hands, to pledge, betroth”
- OED Online. March 2012. Oxford University Press. “?c1200 Ormulum (Burchfield transcript) l. 2389 “Ȝho wass hanndfesst an god mann Þatt iosæp wass ȝehatenn.”
- The rings might be plain – one was made on the spot out of a rush lying on the floor – or elaborate. They often had a posy engraved. One surviving example is a "gimmal" ring, a double ring which twists apart to become two rings interlinked. It is in the shape of two clasped hands and has the posy "As handes doe shut/so hart be knit". See 
- Some rings incorporated “memento mori” devices, to remind the wearer the marriage was till death. See Diana Scarisbrick, Tudor and Jacobean Jewellery, Tate Publishing, 1995. “(Thomas Gresham’s) wedding-ring has a twin ‘gimmal’ hoop inscribed in Latin ‘Let not man put asunder those whom God has joined together’, and beneath the ruby and diamond bezel there are cavities enclosing an infant and a skeleton alluding to the vanity of riches.”
- Anne Laurence, Women in England, 1500–1760: A Social History, London, Phoenix Press, 1994. “A public church marriage was necessary to ensure the inheritance of property”.
- In Shakespeare’s 1604 comedy Measure for Measure a young man sleeps with his betrothed wife before his church wedding. Judged technically guilty of fornication, under puritanical laws he is condemned to die. The plot is driven by the need to rescue him, and audience sympathy is clearly expected to be on his side.
- Anne Laurence, Women in England, 1500–1760: A Social History, London, Phoenix Press, 1994. “Between the mid-sixteenth century and the mid-seventeenth century the number of spousal actions in the church courts declined markedly, partly because of the increasing belief that the only proper form of marriage was one solemnized in church.”
- Anne Laurence, Women in England, 1500–1760: A Social History.
- Anne Laurence, Women in England, 1500–1760: A Social History, London, Phoenix Press, 1994. "From 1754...Pre-contracts (promises to marry someone in the future) and oral spousals ceased to have any force...”
- "Breaking with tradition". Irish Independent.
- "Wedding Rushnyk".
- Anton, A. E. "'Handfasting' in Scotland." The Scottish Historical Review 37, no. 124 (October 1958): 89–102.
- Gregory, D. History of the Western Highlands and Isles of Scotland (1881).
- Martin, Martin, A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (1693) 1st Edition, (1716) 2nd Edition.
- Nicholl, Charles, The Lodger:Shakespeare on Silver Street (2007) 1st edition; Chapter 27, "A handfasting".
- Nicolson, Alexander History of Skye MacLean Press, 60 Aird Bhearnasdail, by Portree, Isle of Skye (1930) pp. 73, 86, and 120.
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