Before or after the wedding?
by Adrian Thatcher
There are two traditions regarding the beginning of marriage. The conventional
Christian view is that a marriage begins with a wedding. An earlier Christian
view is that marriage begins with betrothal, followed later by the marriage ceremony.
Sexual experience regularly began after betrothal and before the wedding. There
are historical and theological grounds for this earlier view, but there is also
an explanation for its eclipse in the 18th and 19th centuries. Might this earlier
alternative view of the entry into marriage have something to teach the churches
in their struggle to accommodate cohabitation? Could conclusions be drawn from
the earlier tradition for the churches' developing theology of marriage?
The possibility that this paper opens up is that alongside the near-universal
assumption that marriage begins with a wedding is another -- equally traditional
-- view that the entry into marriage is a process involving stages, with the wedding
marking both the "solemnization" of life commitments already entered into, and
the recognition and reception of the changed status of the couple by the community
or communities to which each belongs. If this possibility is sound, one of the
consequences that will undoubtedly follow is that at least some cases of "sex
before marriage" which used to be frenetically discussed among Christians were
misdescribed. The alterative view, that marriage is entered into in stages, renders
superfluous those easy temporal distinctions between "before" and "after" provided
by the identification between the beginning of a marriage with a wedding.
Two rival theories about marriage
It is necessary to begin as far back as the 12th century for an alternative view
of marriage to emerge, although its roots are earlier. The 12th century Western
church developed two rival theories of what made a marriage. Gratian and the Italians
held to a two-stage theory of initiation and completion. The exchange of consent
was the first phase; first intercourse was the consummation (J.A. Brundage, Sex,
Law and Marriage). This view combined the emphasis in Roman law on marriage being
defined by mutual consent, together with the biblical emphasis on marriage as
a "one flesh" unity of partners. Lombard and the Parisians held that consent alone
made the marriage. A principal reason was the strong belief, unquestioned at the
time, that the marriage of Mary, the mother of Jesus -- and virgo perpetua --
to Joseph was never physically consummated and was therefore perfect. Consent
could be made in either the present or the future tense, de praesenti or de futuro.
Consent in the present tense was marriage. Consent in the future tense was not
marriage, but betrothal (sponsalia). Betrothal "was dissoluble by mutual agreement
or unilaterally for good cause" (Brundage).
The first known instance in the West of a blessing by a priest during a wedding
ceremony is the 950 ritual of Durham, England (J.-B. Molin and P. Mutembe, Le
rituel du mariage en France du XIIme au XVIme siecle). Although the fourth Lateran
Council of 1215 required the blessing of a priest, it was unnecessary for the
validity of the marriage. Only after the Council of Trent in 1563 was a ceremony
compulsory for Roman Catholics. Not until 1754, after the Hardwicke Marriage Act
had been passed, was a ceremony a legal requirement in England and Wales.
Sex, betrothal and marriage
The importance of the distinction between betrothal and marriage, and the transition
from one to the other, cannot be overestimated. The distinction continued until
well after the Reformation (A. Macfarlane, Marriage and Love in England). Up to
the 16th century, the spousal or spousals "probably constituted the main part
of the contract." Children born to couples conceived during betrothal would be
regarded as legitimate, provided they married. According to Macfarlane, "it was
really only in the middle of the 16th century that the betrothal, which constituted
the 'real' marriage, was joined to the nuptials or celebration of that marriage.
Consequently, during the Middle Ages and up to the 18th century it was widely
held that sexual cohabitation was permitted after the betrothal." In France sexual
relations regularly began with betrothal, at least until the 16th century when
the post-Tridentine church moved against it (see J. Rémy, The Family in
Crisis or in Transition: A Sociological and Theological Perspective). In Britain,
"Until far down into the 18th century the engaged lovers before the nuptials were
held to be legally husband and wife. It was common for them to begin living together
immediately after the betrothal ceremony" (Macfarlane). According to the social
historian John Gillis, "Although the church officially frowned on couples taking
themselves as 'man and wife' before it had ratified their vows, it had to acknowledge
that vows 'done rite' were the equivalent of a church wedding" (For Better, For
Worse: British Marriages, 1600 to the Present).
The term "processual marriage" is sometimes used to describe these arrangements,
that is, "where the formation of marriage was regarded as a process rather than
a clearly defined rite of passage" (S. Parker Informal Marriage, Cohabitation
and the Law, 1750-1989).
It is no longer generally recognized that the Anglican marriage service was an
attempt to combine elements of two separate occasions into a single liturgical
event. Alan Macfarlane develops the point in detail: "In Anglo-Saxon England the
'wedding' was the occasion when the betrothal or pledging of the couple to each
other in words of the present tense took place. This was in effect the legally
binding act: It was, combined with consummation, the marriage. Later, a public
celebration and announcement of the wedding might take place -- the 'gift', the
'bridal', or 'nuptials', as it became known. This was the occasion when friends
and relatives assembled to feast and to hear the financial details. These two
stages remained separate in essence until they were united into one occasion after
the Reformation. Thus the modern Anglican wedding service includes both spousals
and nuptials (Macfarlane).
This pre-modern distinction between spousals and nuptials has been largely forgotten;
indeed, its very recollection is likely to be resisted because it shows a cherished
assumption about the entry into marriage -- that it necessarily begins with a
wedding -- to be historically dubious. Betrothal, says Gillis, "constituted the
recognized rite of transition from friends to lovers, conferring on the couple
the right to sexual as well as social intimacy." Betrothal "granted them freedom
to explore any personal faults or incompatibilities that had remained hidden during
the earlier, more inhibited phases of courtship and could be disastrous if carried
into the indissoluble status of marriage."
It has also been forgotten that about half of all brides in Britain and North
America were pregnant at their weddings in the 18th century (L. Stone, "Passionate
Attachments in the West in Historical Perspective," in K. Scott and Mr. Warren
[eds.], Perspectives on Marriage: A Reader). According to Stone, "this tells us
more about sexual customs than about passionate attachments: Sex began at the
moment of engagement, and marriage in church came later, often triggered by the
pregnancy." He concludes that "among the English and American plebs in the last
half of the 18th century, almost all brides below the social élite had
experienced sexual intercourse with their future husbands before marriage."
Registration by bureaucracy
The Hardwicke Marriage Act of 1753 required registration of all marriages in England
and Wales, and set up a bureaucratic apparatus for doing so. Verbal contracts
or pledges were no longer regarded as binding. Couples were offered the choice
of having banns called in the parish of one of them, or of obtaining a licence
to dispense with the banns. Marriages at first took place in parish churches;
priests seeking to conduct informal marriages were liable to transportation to
America (R.B. Outhwaite, Clandestine Marriage in England, 1500-1800). The creeping
extension of the bureaucratic state to encompass the entry into marriage is characteristic
of the apparatus of modernity. Uniformity was imposed and policed. Betrothal no
longer had any legal force. While the working classes continued to practice alternatives
to legal marriage, the stigma of illegitimacy now attached itself to children
whose parents had not been through a wedding ceremony. Gone was the transitional
phase from singleness to marriage.
The achievement of the widespread belief that a marriage begins with a wedding
was not so much a religious or theological, but a class matter. The upper and
middle classes had the political clout to enforce the social respectability of
the new marriage laws, and they used it. As John Gillis writes, "From the mid-18th
century onwards sexual politics became increasingly bitter as the propertied classes
attempted to impose their standards on the rest of society."
Virginity for social reasons
In contrast to plebeian practice where betrothal continued long after it had any
legal force, in the upper class new courtship procedures required pre-ceremonial
virginity of brides, for social rather than moral reasons. Gillis writes, "For
all women of this group virginity was obligatory. Their class had broken with
the older tradition of betrothal that had offered the couple some measure of premarital
conjugality and had substituted for it a highly ritualized courtship that for
women began with the 'coming out' party and ended with the elaborate white wedding,
symbolizing their purity and status."
I hope it is by now apparent that the widespread entry into marriage in the 1990s
through cohabitation represents remarkable parallels with practice in pre-modern
Britain. The rise in the age of first marriage in the last quarter of the 20th
century, to 28 for men, and 26 for women, is a precise return to what it was (for
both sexes) during the reign of Elizabeth I. The destigmatization of pregnancy
prior to a wedding is a return to earlier, but still modern, ways.
Gillis' verdict, written in 1985, is: "Together law and society appear to have
reinstated a situation very much like that which existed before 1753, when betrothal
licensed pre-marital conjugality. It is also like the situation that existed in
the late 18th and early 19th centuries when so many people made their own private
'little weddings,' postponing the public, official event until such time as they
could gather the resources necessary to a proper household."
There are some tentative conclusions that may be drawn from a consideration of
the entry into marriage during earlier periods.
First, there is no longer any provision for the two-staged entry into marriage.
In the absence of this, it is possible to read the practice of cohabiting but
not-yet-married couples as a return to earlier informalities and as a rejection,
not so much of Christian marriage, but of the bourgeois form of it that became
established at the end of the 18th century and was then consolidated in the Victorian
Secondly, Christian marriage in the modern period has accommodated enormous changes
(which have largely been forgotten) and must be expected to accommodate further
changes in this new century. The Protestant denial of the sacramentality of marriage,
the social permission accorded to marrying parties to choose their partners for
themselves, the incorporation of romantic love into the meanings of marriage,
the abolition of betrothal and informal marriage, the widespread acceptance by
almost all churches of the use of contraception within marriage, the increasing
acceptance by the churches of the ending of marriage (whether by divorce or annulment)
-- all indicate that Christian marriage is a remarkably flexible institution.
There may be a deep irony here. Those conservative Christians who are generally
opposed to changes to marriage on historical grounds do not always appear to be
familiar with the history.
Thirdly, Christian morality should not equate pre-marital chastity with the expectation
that marrying couples should not make love before their wedding. It would be dishonest
to assert or assume that the tradition is unanimous about the matter or that no
other way of entry into marriage had ever been tried, or that no theological grounds
were available for thinking differently. Yet this is what much official Christian
literature still does.
Fourthly, the possibility exists that the old medieval theories of marriage, which
were responsible for the practice of betrothal, may be serviceable in the construction
of the postmodern theology of entry into marriage which would have considerable
practical value at the present time.l
Adrian Thatcher is Professor of Applied Theology, University College of St. Mark
and St. John, Plymouth, England, <firstname.lastname@example.org>. He is author
of Marriage after Modernity: Christian Marriage in Postmodern Times (Sheffield
Academic Press, 1999). This article is excerpted from "Beginning Marriage: Two
Traditions," in Religion and Sexuality, ed. Michael A. Hayes, Wendy Porter and
David Tombs (Sheffield Academic Press, 1998) and is used by permission.