In Europe up until about the ninth century, betrothals were more important than weddings. At the betrothal stage, the bride price and/or dowry was exchanged, and the woman often assumed the title of "wife." Following Germanic tradition, the deal was sealed when the couple consummated the relationship--which could occur a year or more after the betrothal. However, though the woman was part of her future husband's family during this time, the betrothal was not seen as absolutely binding. To make matters worse, early medieval society recognized concubinage as a non-binding, second-class form of marriage. At least in the area of weddings, the traditions and values of the early church had been overtaken by pagan customs.
As the Roman Catholic church gained power, it decided to weigh in on marital matters, shifting from a Germanic model (consummation is key) to a Roman model (the couple's mutual consent is key). This was not a popular move, since the church basically declared common custom inadequate in forming a marriage. Also, by deciding at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) that a priest must bless and witness weddings, church leaders were making a religious ceremony of what had once just been a big party. Reformers, including Martin Luther, weren't sure the clergy should even be involved in such a bawdy affair. One sixteenth-century English reformer complained, "They come with a great noise of basins and drums, wherewith they trouble the whole church and hinder them in particulars pertaining to God."
Much of this controvery died down by the seventeenth century. English poet and minister John Donne seemed to represent popular opinion when he wrote in 1621, "As marriage is a civil contract, it must be done so in public, as that may have the testimony of men. As marriage is a religious contract, it must be done so as it may have the benediction of the priest." Luther, too, came around to supporting marriages with clergy present, though he felt, not surprisingly, that the ceremonies should take place at the church door.
What none of this explains is why I chose the topic of weddings for this week's newsletter. Well, it's a personal reason--I'm getting married Saturday. So this is the last editorial you'll read from Elesha Hodge. Elesha Coffman will be bringing you this newsletter the week after next.