O Promise Me!
The fundamental premise of the romance novel is that it will conclude with, or in some cases revolve around, a marriage or a betrothal. Since, for much of the course of European history, the betrothal was a legal contract, for all practical purposes as binding as the marriage vows themselves, it won’t be considered separately in this essay.1 Rather, the question considered here is precisely what, for the purpose of historical romances, the bride and groom were promising, considered themselves to be promising, and were believed to be promising by their families, the civil authorities, and the ecclesiastical authorities.2
In the 1960s and 1970s, when brides and grooms started to “write their own marriage vows,” most of their contemporaries looked upon this as a radical departure from tradition. “Traditional” marriage vows, for most English-speakers, were either those of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer itself or some derivation thereof. So, to start with those vows, there is a convenient reprint of the version of the 1559 edition in Mark Searle and Kenneth W. Stevenson, Documents of the Marriage Liturgy (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992), pages 215-226. These were essentially the same as Cranmer’s 1552 version and the post-Restoration 1662 version. Like their predecessor, the medieval English Sarum Manual (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 163-178), these vows were very elaborate by the standards of almost all others.
The introductory statement by the clergyman brings to the notice of the bride and groom that marriage was instituted for the procreation of children, as a remedy against sin and to avoid fornication, and for the “mutual societie, helpe, and comfort, that the one ought to haue of the other, both in prosperity and aduersitye” (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 217).3
He then asked the groom if he would have the woman to be his wife and “love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health? And forsaking all others, keep only to her as long as you both shall live?” The question to the bride was formulated as, “Will you obey him and serve him, love, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health? And forsaking all other, keep only to him as long as you both shall live?” After this, the couple recited the vows of “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish [and, for the wife, to obey] until death do us part.” The groom then proceeded to say, “with all my worldly goods, I thee endow.” The exchange of rings was followed by the admonition to the witnesses, prayers, and Bible readings. The entire sequence covers several printed pages.
How did these vows develop? How widespread were they?
During the first three or four centuries of the development of Christianity, it does not appear that there was any kind of church marriage service at all. Matrimony remained a matter for the families to arrange in accordance with the provisions of secular law. A priest might be asked to bless the marriage, but it certainly was not a requirement (Stevenson 1983, 13-21; Searle and Stevenson 1992, 253). By the fourth and fifth centuries there was the option of having a marriage ecclesiastically blessed (Stevenson 1983, 27; Searle and Stevenson 1992, 253-254), but it was not a requirement for a legally valid marriage (Stevenson 1983, 31; Searle and Stevenson 1992, 5, 253-254). During the early medieval period, in Europe, the customs of the Germanic peoples also saw marriage primarily as a private, domestic, matter arranged by the families (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 257), although the Catholic church continued to encourage the practice of an ecclesiastical blessing in a church ceremony.
There’s a general overview in Chapter 4, “Weddings,” in Beatrice Gottlieb, The Family in the Western World from the Black Death to the Industrial Age (Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 68-88. It’s particularly relevant when pointing out that in southern Europe, especially Italy, well into the 1300s, the actual consent by the couple was often made either in the office of the notary (for UK terminology, think solicitor) who drew up the marriage contract or in the bride’s home. Only after that, sometimes as much as a year later, did the couple proceed to obtain a blessing of the ceremony in church. [LV - for the situation in medieval Castile see the chapter on marriage in Heath Dillard's Daughters of the Reconquest: Women in Castilian Town Society, 1100-1300.]
It was probably not until the fourteenth century that the ceremony, held at the door of the church, in which the couples recited vows to one another in the vernacular language, became a part of the liturgy, at least in French and English rituals (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 13). The ritual from the Abbey of Barbeau (Diocese of Sens, France) from the late fourteenth century reads for the betrothal that, if both parties consent,
the priest shall take the right hand of each of them and say:For the marriage itself, the husband to was recite after the priest, in a ceremony at the entrance to the church:
N., say after me:
N., I pledge to you that I will take you to be my wife and spouse within forty days, if holy Church agrees.
Then the priest shall say to the woman:
N., say after me:
N., I pledge to you that I will take you to be my husband and master, etc. (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 157).
I take you to be my wife and my spouse and I pledge to you the faith of my body, that I will be faithful to you and loyal with my body and my goods and that I will keep you in sickness and in health and in whatever condition it will please the Lord to place you, and that I shall not exchange you for better or worse until the endThis was followed by a portion of the ceremony in which the priest asked for the rings and thirteen pieces of silver. He gave some of the money to charity, put the remainder in the bride’s purse, supervised the exchange of rings, and had the groom say:
The woman shall say the same words after the priest (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 159).
N., with this ring I wed you, with my body I honor you, and I endow you with the dowry agreed upon by my friends and yours (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 160).The full rite in the Sarum (Salisbury) Manual in England is printed in the original fourteenth-century English, with some explanatory material, in Searle and Stevenson (163-178). In the betrothal ritual, the fiancée agrees to be “buxum [obedient or compliant] to hym,” while in the marriage ceremony she promises to be “bonoure and buxum [agreeable and compliant], in bed and at borde” (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 165-166).
For the Catholic church, the formalization of matrimonial procedures came in the decree Tametsi issued in 1563 during the Council of Trent, which required the parish priest to be one of the witnesses to a marriage. The Missal that followed in 1570 (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 179-183) contained an order for a nuptial mass, since by this time Catholicism clearly defined marriage as one of the seven sacraments–a matter that had been in some dispute until the Council of Florence in 1439. The mass was not, however, yet a requirement – the mutual consent before the priest and other witnesses brought a valid marriage into existence.4 Tametsi allowed for continued use of local customs beyond the essential kernel of the the ceremony (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 14). One essential purpose of the new Tridentine requirements was to ensure that marriages were public, not clandestine or private exchanges of vows between the couple, which brought a renewed emphasis on the prior publication of banns and the formal keeping of parish marriage registers. Searle and Stevenson describe the ceremony in the 1614 Rituale Romanum as “the irreducible minimum that had been defined in 1563, . . . in liturgical form” (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 14). By contrast to the elaborate Sarum ritual, the priest was simply to obtain consent:
N., will you take N., here present, to be your lawful wife, according to the rite of holy mother Church?with an exact mirror vow for the bride (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 185). The rubric emphasized that the priest was to make sure of the free consent of both, pointing out that the consent of only one did not make a valid marriage.
The bridegroom answers:
The allowance for local variants in the vows and ceremonies associated with matrimony continued to be used in the Catholic church throughout the early modern period, especially in France. In France, also, wide differences developed between Catholic requirements for valid marriage and those under secular law, particularly in regard to the age of consent. This resulted in situations in which two teenagers, or indeed any couple who married when one of them was under twenty-five, might have a marriage which was valid from the perspective of the church, but invalid from the perspective of the state, because the guardian(s) had not given permission.
Searle and Stevenson, 189-209, reprint the 18th century Ritual of Coutances for both the betrothal and marriage rites. With the same pragmatism that had marked the French four centuries earlier, the priest prays, “O Lord, sanctify these coins, offered as a symbol of the settlement which has been agreed” (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 195). The French rituals did not use the hyperbole of the the English “with all my worldly goods I thee endow” (which manifestly, under English common law, was not a truthful statement) or even the earlier English “with all my chatthel [personal property]”. The vows, in the Coutances ritual, were mirror images: of the man, the priest asked, “Do you promise to be faithful to her in all things as a man should be faithful to his wife, according to the command of God?” while of the woman he asked the same question, substituting only the word “husband” for “wife” (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 198-199).
Let’s take a look at Martin Luther’s 1529 Order of Marriage for Common Pastors (in: Ulrich S. Leupold, ed., Luther’s Works: American Edition, Volume 53, Liturgy and Hymns. Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1965, 110-115).5 This pamphlet, addressed to ministers, contained a lot more explanation of the assumptions on which the rite was based than it did vows. Luther did not mention the preceding betrothal and the marriage contract by which the families regulated the financial aspects marriages, but appears to have taken their existence for granted as a matter of secular law rather than church practice. He starts out:
Many lands, many customs, says the proverb. Since marriage and the married estate are worldly matters, it behooves us pastors or ministers of the church not to attempt to order or govern anything connected with it, but to permit every city and land to continue its own use and custom in this connection. Some lead the bride to the church twice, both evening and morning, some only once. Some announce it formally and publish the banns from the pulpit two or three weeks in advance. All such things and the like I leave to the lords and the council to order and arrange as they see fit. It does not concern me (Leupold 1965, 111-112).Nonetheless, pastors had civic obligations. If asked to publish the banns, they should do so. If asked to witness the vows and bless the couple, they should do so. Luther’s version of the entire marriage vows, which the bride and groom were to exchange at the entrance to the church, consisted of:
Hans, do you desire Greta as your wedded wife?This was followed by the exchange of rings and a reading of Matthew 19:6 (What God has joined together, let man not put asunder). If the wedding party desired it, everyone could then proceed into the church for a sequence of scripture readings and prayers (selections from Genesis, Ephesians, Proverbs, etc.). Luther’s selections were not the same as those of the Church of England liturgy. Those from Genesis included the man’s need to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow; those from Proverbs included, “He who finds a wife, finds a good thing.”
He shall say: Yes.
Greta, do you desire Hans as your wedded husband?
She shall say: Yes.
For those accustomed to the English rite and its derivations, the ceremony appears starkly simple. Many regional and national German and Scandinavian ecclesiastical ordinances elaborated it somewhat as the 16th century progressed, in accordance with the proverb that Luther had quoted at the beginning of the pamphlet. One example of this is the continuing use of the bridal crowns in the area around the Baltic coast, but the most frequent addition was the addition of the introductory homily on the three purposes of marriage. Less common, but sometimes occurring in Lutheran rites, was a brisk pastoral reminder that the Biblical grounds for divorce were adultery and desertion, and some theologically phrased warning that “what’s sauce for the goose, is sauce for the gander.”
Both Luther and his contemporary John Calvin were anxious to ensure that in marriage ceremonies, the Protestant doctrinal position that marriage was not a sacrament be made clear. Calvin wrote, at one point,
Lastly, there is matrimony, which all admit was instituted by God, though no one before the time of Gregory regarded it as a sacrament. What man in his sober senses could so regard it? God's ordinance is good and holy; so also are agriculture, architecture, shoemaking, hair-cutting legitimate ordinances of God, but they are not sacraments (John Calvin, Institutes, IV, xix, 34).Nonetheless, the actual ceremony that Calvin prescribed for the Genevan church in 1542 had the husband promise to be faithfully “loving and caring” for his wife, whereas she promised to “obey, serving him and being submissive to him” (Stevenson 1983, 131). This order of service was later largely adopted into the Scots Presbyterian ritual (John Knox’s 1564 Book of Common Order, see Searle and Stevenson 1992, 227-233), which, like the Genevan order, omitting the ring, contained vows that have considerable similarity to those of the Book of Common Prayer (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 16). Knox omitted the blessings but had an extensive “exhortation” addressed to the spouses. The man promised to:
kepe her, to love and intreate her in all thynges accordynge to the dewtie of a faythful howsband, forsakyng all other duryne her lyfe; and briefelie, to lyve in holy conversation with her, kepynge faythe and trewthe in all poyntes (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 231).The wife’s promise did not involve love, but rather “subjection and obedience” (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 231). It’s possible that many Presbyterians found this a bit much, for the order for the solemnization of marriage issued by the Westminster Assembly in 1645 had the groom promise to be a “loving and faithful” husband, and the bride a “loving and faithful” in addition to “obedient” wife (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 237). Not all Calvinist marriage orders omitted the rings. Several in the German states, such as that of the Palatinate, retained the practice of exchanging them (Stevenson 1983, 132).
Calvinism, like Lutheranism (but unlike the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England) acknowledged the existence of “biblical” grounds for divorce – namely adultery and desertion. This can be of importance to authors and readers of romance novels, because it meant that the Scottish secular laws covering the termination of a marriage developed quite differently from those in England.6
Throughout the early modern period, all European Protestant countries had state churches. In some regions, such as in Switzerland and most of the German Protestant states, matrimonial (consistorial) courts consisted of both lay and ecclesiastical officials. They had the task of sorting through the debris of failed but legally binding betrothals, abandonments, and adulteries, many of the lawsuits and petitions being introduced by women.7
In this context, the possibility of termination allowed for considerably more civilized endings to matrimonial debacles than those of Henry VIII in England. In 1574, William the Silent divorced one of his wives, Anna of Saxony, for adultery, after thirteen years of marriage and six children. The survival of the co-respondent, who later became the father of the artist Pieter Paul Rubens, made a big difference to the art world. Johann Casimir of Saxe-Coburg divorced another Anna of Saxony, also for adultery, in 1593.
In England, the system was somewhat different. Essentially, however, from the Reformation onwards, the English church operated under legal provisions established by laws passed in Parliament. The marriage vows in the Book of Common Prayer, summarized at the beginning of this essay, were a part of the civil laws of England as well as of the church ceremony. When the Church of England was “in,” they were a legal requirement. During the period of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, Parliament abolished them and substituted a system of civil marriages. At the Restoration, the Book of Common Prayer was, like the Merry Monarch, restored. Nearly a century later, such a significant procedural change in regard to matrimony as Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753 was a civil law that was implemented and executed by ecclesiastical authorities.8 It was Parliament that determined the complex, multi-stage, mixed ecclesiastical and secular, procedure which was the only mode by which an Englishman could obtain divorce during the early modern period.
It was also Parliament which determined that in England, when it came to matters of divorce, the matrimonial vow of fidelity made by both man and wife in the church applied only to the woman when it came to obtaining a divorce on grounds of adultery.
So much for promises.
1 For a general discussion, see Kenneth Stevenson, Nuptial Blessing: A Study of Christian Marriage Rites (Oxford University Press, 1983).
2 Since the overwhelming majority of historical romance heroes and heroines are presented as European and therefore presumably belong to some variety of church that falls within the Christian tradition, whether or not it plays a significant role in their beliefs and actions, the issue here is the promises made within that context. Even when one or the other comes from a non-Christian tradition (e.g. Thomas B. Costain, The Black Rose, 1945), the relationship is almost shown as involving an ultimate monogamous commitment and ultimate settlement of the couple somewhere in Europe. It is statistically astonishing how many of the “sheikhs” from the original to 21st century series romances turn out to be of at least partly European ancestry, educated at European, usually English, schools and universities, and adherents of some form of the Christian faith.
3 This formulation was adopted by John Wesley. In 1792, the Methodist Synod in the United States removed the preface from the wedding ceremony on the grounds that it was “too indelicate.”
4 This led in the French context to the occasional mariage à la gaumine (left-hand marriage) in which a couple who could not obtain permission to marry, perhaps because one of them was excommunicated, or they were more nearly related than canon law permitted, etc., would meet the technical requirements of Tametsi by standing up at a regular Sunday mass and rapidly exchanging the words of consent in the presence of the priest and congregation. Such a marriage was “irregular” in the sense of not occurring through the forms prescribed by law, but was not invalid. If the couple later returned to good standing in the church, obtained the necessary dispensations, or otherwise completed their paperwork properly, they could have the marriage “rehabilitated,” as could Catholic couples who married by exchange of vows in the present tense before non-ecclesiastical witnesses only in the unavailability of a priest (in frontier conditions or, for example, in colonial New York, where it was illegal for a Catholic priest to enter the colony).
5 There’s another version of this reprinted in Searle and Stevenson 1992, 210-214.
6 See Leah Leneman, Alienated Affections: The Scottish Experience of Divorce and Separation, 1684-1830 (Edinburgh University Press, 1998) as compared to Lawrence Stone, Road to Divorce, England 1530-1987: A History of the Making and Breaking of Marriage in England (Oxford University Press, 1995).
7 Joel F. Harrington, Reordering marriage and society in Reformation Germany (Cambridge University Press, 1995); Jeffrey R. Watt, The Making of Modern Marriage: Matrimonial Control and the Rise of sentiment in Neuchâtel, 1550-1800 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1992).
A Catholic territory, such as Bavaria, did not have the option of divorce with the right to remarriage, but both men and women could petition for “separation from bed and board” if they found their marriage intolerable. See Rainer Beck, “Traces of Emotion? Marital Discord in Early Modern Bavaria,” in: Richard Wall, Tamara K. Hareven, and Josef Ehmer, eds., Family History Revisited: Comparative Perspectives (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, and London: Associated University Presses, 2001), 125-160.
8 Martin Ingram, Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, 1570-1640 (Cambridge University Press, 1987); R.B. Outhwaite, The Rise and Fall of the English Ecclesiastical Courts, 1500-1860 (Cambridge University Press, 2006).
The picture is by Pietro Longhi (1702 - 1785), dates from c. 1755 and is titled "Il Matrimonio." It forms part of a set of seven paintings about "I Sette Sacramenti." The paintings of all seven sacraments can be found at the Querini Stampalia virtual gallery. I obtained a copy of this particular painting, however, from Wikimedia Commons.