An example of a handfasting knot where each wedding guest has tied a ribbon around the clasped hands of the couple.

Handfasting is a traditional European ceremony of (temporary or permanent) betrothal or wedding. It usually involved the tying or binding of the right hands of the bride and groom with a cord or ribbon for the duration of the wedding ceremony.



The term is derived from the verb to handfast, used in Middle to Early Modern English for the making of a contract of marriage.[1] The term is originally from Old Norse hand-festa "to strike a bargain by joining hands.".[1] Or a translation from German,"Hände fest halten" that is to hold hands firmly and fixedly.


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, 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 [2] 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, "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 ignomiously 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'".[3][4]

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.[5] To minimize any resulting legal actions, the ceremony was to be performed in public.[6] This situation persisted until 1939, when Scottish marriage laws were reformed by the Marriage (Scotland) Act 1939 and handfasting was no longer recognized.[7]

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. 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.

Modern usage

Neopagan handfasting ceremony.

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-gender or opposite-gender 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.[8]

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

Handfasting during a civil ceremony in Ukraine. The cloth is a ceremonial rushnyk decorated with traditional Ukrainian embroidery.

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.[9]


In addition to Sir Walter Scott's The Monastery, a hand-fast marriage is mentioned in William Shakespeare's Cymbeline (act I, scene vi). Also, in Trudi Canavan's Priestess of the White, the marriage customs of the Siyee involve handfasting.


  1. ^ a b "handfast, v.". OED Online. November 2010. Oxford University Press
  2. ^ A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, by Martin Martin, 1693 (1st Edition) p.114, 1716 (2nd Editin).
  3. ^ History of Skye, by Alexander Nicolson (1930) p. 87
  4. ^ History of the Western Highlands and Isles of Scotland, D Gregory (1881) p. 331
  5. ^ Andrews, William (1899). Bygone Church Life in Scotland. Hull Press. pp. 210–212. http://books.google.com/books?id=tvYOAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q=&f=false. 
  6. ^ 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. pp. 75. ISBN 90-04-10097-4. http://books.google.com/books?id=Yl71m3YBVGwC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q=&f=false. 
  7. ^ 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. http://books.google.com/books?id=GZWpQi7vY0QC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q=&f=false. 
  8. ^ http://www.independent.ie/lifestyle/independent-woman/love-sex/breaking-with-tradition-704404.html
  9. ^ "Wedding Rushnyk". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rushnyk#Wedding_rushnyks. 


  • 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.
  • Nicolson, Alexander "History of Skye" MacLean Press, 60 Aird Bhearnasdail, by Portree, Isle of Skye (1930) pp. 73, 86, and 120.

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

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  • handfasting — [hand′fas΄tiŋ] n. 〚OE handfæstunge: see HANDFAST〛 Archaic 1. a betrothal 2. a form of irregular or trial marriage confirmed by a joining of hands * * * …   Universalium

  • handfasting — [hand′fas΄tiŋ] n. [OE handfæstunge: see HANDFAST] Archaic 1. a betrothal 2. a form of irregular or trial marriage confirmed by a joining of hands …   English World dictionary

  • handfasting — handfast hand fast , v. t. [imp. & p. p. {handfasted}; p. pr. & vb. n. {handfasting}.] 1. To pledge; to bind. [Obs.] [1913 Webster] 2. To betroth by joining hands, in order to permit cohabitation, before the formal celebration of marriage; in… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • handfasting — noun The ceremony in which people handfast …   Wiktionary

  • handfasting — A kind of trial marriage which prevailed anciently in parts of Scotland, referred to in The Monastery by Sir Walter Scott, Chapter XXV. See trial marriage …   Ballentine's law dictionary

  • handfasting — noun ( s) 1. archaic : betrothal 2. : an irregular or probationary marriage contracted by joining hands and agreeing to live together as man and wife; also : the living together under such an agreement …   Useful english dictionary

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