He kept her the space of a year: Celtic secular marriage in Late Medieval Scotland

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Domino, Lynda
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According to oral tradition, medieval Scots appear to have participated in a Celtic secular marriage custom that was quite peculiar. These stories report a custom, which allowed for a temporary union between men and women. This was the custom of trial marriages or 'handfasting,' as it has been popularly known. But what exactly was this custom of trial marriage? More importantly, was the custom real or merely the product of overly active literary imaginations? And if it was real, how did such a custom come to be in use in Scotland? Sir Walter Scott described the custom in his early nineteenth-century novel, The Monastery, when his medieval Baron of Avenel discussed marriage with an English priest: "When we are handfasted, as we call it, we are man and wife for a year and a day; that space gone by each may choose another mate, or, at their pleasure, may call the priest to marry them for life..." Such literary interpretations of the custom are confirmed by further research. The evidence, when considered as a body, is sufficient to conclude that such a custom did indeed exist in medieval Scotland and elsewhere in Britain. It is the intent of this thesis to show that trial marriages were indeed practiced in medieval Scotland and to answer the questions posed previously. Examples are given of the cases of trial marriage that oral tradition and genealogies have handed down to the modern day, as well as other reports of the practice. Canon law and the actions of the pre- and post-Reformation Church, with regard to uncanonical unions, are discussed together with the many requests for dispensation to marry. Finally, consideration is given to the origins of the custom in the pagan festivals and Celtic mythology of Ireland. Ancient Irish laws regulating social connections, marriage, and women are discussed, with emphasis on understanding the laws of marriage, particularly in relation to pagan custom.

Wed Jan 01 00:00:00 UTC 2003