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Published in Tournaments Illuminated Autumn 2000, Issue #136 AS XXXV
Maestra Clare de Estepa
An important aspect of all period weddings, regardless of the time or place, was the publicity they received. It was important the weddings be very public affairs so that there was no doubt later as to whether or not a couple was actually married. Another common characteristic of weddings was that the primary function was an alliance between two families, not a union between two people in love. Because it was an alliance, the wealthy and the nobility of many cultures have established customs to insure that neither family is indebted to the other.
While there was a lot of leeway open in the marriage ritual and ceremony everywhere until after 1500, in most cultures there were a series of stages established by custom. In Italy, Renaissance weddings contained four different stages. They were the impalmamento, the sponsalia, the matrimonium, and the nozze. During the early Renaissance, these stages were quite spread out chronologically. Weeks, months, or even years could intervene before any progression of events occurred. As the years passed and dowry allotments rose, the timetable was frequently condensed. In the later Renaissance, the last three stages could occur within a single month and the last two frequently occurred on the same day.1
Originally, the impalmamento referred to the handshake with which a marriage contract was sealed. Before this could occur, however, the initial negotiations had to be opened by a marriage broker (sensale) or a disinterested third party.2 These negotiations were completed through intermediaries. The impalmamento was the first time that the parents, accompanied by three or four of their closest kin, met. If the direct negotiations were successful, the parents would seal the alliance, ferme il parentado. Although the impalmamento was sufficient in the earlier years, this began to change as more and more money came into consideration. By the fifteenth century, the impalmamento included a written agreement kept by intermediaries.3 After an agreement was reached, the groom was allowed to go to the house of his betrothed with presents for the bride’s family. They in turn invited him to dinner.
Between the impalmamento and the sponsalia, the young bride-to-be met with her prospective groom at the window. It was important that she was clean, charming, and prettily clad.4 In order to ensure the groom’s consent, the young woman needed to catch the young man’s attention. From within the safe confines of the house, the girl might speak with her prospective groom and even toss him mementos such as a scarf, flowers, fruits, nuts, or any other small token. In return, the groom would bring a present of rings or jewels.5 Courtship occurring at the window casement was usually a declaration that marriage was intended.
The sponsalia, which occurs after a waiting period, was the next stage in the process. While the first stage included just the witnesses and a few members of either family and was held privately, the second stage involved a public meeting of only the male family members. No women were included, not even the bride. During the sponsalia, guarantors and arbiters were chosen to insure that each party could and did fulfill promises made during negotiations. Specific terms, payment arrangements, and dates were established.6
While the bulk of a bride’s dowry was money, the value of her trousseau would frequently be included in the overall amount. The dowry was occasionally supplemented with jewels. The size of the dowry would reflect the prestige of the groom and his family in relation to that of the bride and her family. If the marriage were an upward movement for the bride and her family, the dowry would be proportionately higher. It was important that a marriage did not constitute a too large social shift upward or downward. This would prevent the social or financial indebtedness of one family to the other.
The intention of the dowry was to provide for the care of the bride. While she was married to her husband, he was permitted to use it. Frequently there were stipulations that reserved a certain percentage of the dowry for clothing the bride during her marriage. After his death, a bride’s dowry was returned to her. There were even laws protecting the wife’s rights to the sum total of her dowry.
During the sponsalia, the man who exercised authority over the bride, usually her father, promised to gain her consent to the union. One of the reasons that the stages were spread out was to provide time to allow the suitors to meet and to become accustomed to each other. Without the bride’s consent, the marriage could not take place. Once things have progressed to this stage, any move to question the proposed marriage could be grounds for starting a feud or even a war.
If a written document had not already been drafted, a notary would now draft one, also called instrumento delli futuri sponsaliti. The groom promised to wed the bride in a manner and time frame consistent with the agreement, verba de futuro. Because the sponsalia was a public announcement of an intention to marry, in Italy, the sponsalia frequently replaced the reading of the banns.
The third stage was the matrimonium, commonly called ring day. It is important to note that this stage has also been known by the names sponsalia, anallamento, and giure. The father and the brothers of the bride invited all of their kin, any family allies, and a notary to come to their house. The groom, accompanied by his family and his family’s allies, arrived at the bride’s house. The notary then asked the prospective bride and groom an established series of questions required by the Church. In order to ensure Church recognition of a marriage, it was important to verify that the bride and groom were both willing to consent to and eligible for marriage. Factors such as age, prior commitments, and earlier marriages were all taken into consideration. Before the matrimonium stage itself could progress further, the groom would often provide the notary with a receipt that indicated the dowry was already delivered.
Once questioning had established that mutual consent existed, the notary would witness the exchange of vows. With the exception of the phrase “Do you so-and-so take you so-and-so to be….” found in Duby’s A History of Private Life (p. 293), there is very little written information about the actual wording of the vows sworn by the Italians. Some research indicates that Italy may have used a formula similar to the vows found in England, France, and Wales, which were all close in nature. In later periods, Italy followed many of the variations encountered throughout the rest of Europe; it is not unreasonable to surmise that they did so during the Renaissance. According to Kenneth Stevenson, the Sarum Manuel, a script of liturgical doctrine that was quite common, does provide an example of the vows.7
The Sarum Manuel dictated that the banns were read a final time before the priest conducted the ceremony. Italy followed a similar practice. The notary would read the terms of the contract aloud so that all present would be witnesses to the agreement. At this point the Sarum Manuel indicated the ceremony would begin with the priest asking, “Do you wish to have this woman as your wife, and to love her, honour her, keep her and protect her, in health and in sickness, as a husband should his wife, to keep from all other women except her, as long as your lives shall last?” The question asked of the woman includes the phrase ‘obey and serve’. The priest places the bride’s hand in the groom’s. In Italy it would not be the priest who conducted the ceremony and placed the bride’s hand, but the notary. Because the wedding was a civil ceremony, the notary replaced the priest’s role.
Once the questioning was complete, the notary took the bride’s right hand and drew it towards the groom who placed a wedding ring on her finger. Placing the ring on the left hand did not come into fashion until after the Reformation.8 At this time, the couple also exchanged vows called verba de praesenti. The ‘verbs of the present’ in the Sarum Manuel9 were as follows:
Groom: “I take the N. to my wedded wyf, to haue and to holde, fro this day forwarde, for bettere for worse, for richere for pourer in sycknesse and in hele, tyl dethe us departe, if holy chyrche it woll ordeyne, and therto I plight the my trouthe.” [sic]
Bride: “I take the N. to my wedded housbonde, to haue and to holde, fro this day forwarde, for better for worse, for richer for pourer, in sycknesse and in hele, to be bonere and boxsom, in bedde and atte bord, tyll dethe us departhe, if holy chyrche it wol ordeyne, and therto I plight the my trouthe.” [sic]
After the couple takes their vows, the groom placed the ring directly on the bride’s ring finger. When a priest was involved, the ring was now blessed before being returned to the groom. The groom then gave the ring to his bride with these words, “With this rynge I the wed, and this gold and siluer I the geure, and with my body I the worshipe and with all my worldley cathel I the endowe.’ [sic] The evidence suggests that the Italian ring was placed directly on the ring finger, as opposed to the rituals of England and France, where the ring was placed on the thumb, the index finger, the middle finger, and finally the ring finger. In some cases, there was a mutual exchange of rings.10 It was quite common for a friend of the Italian groom to clap him solidly on the shoulder as he finished his vows.11 It is thought that the blow’s purpose was to congratulate him and to fix this moment in the mind of the groom.
From comparing several different ceremonies, the phrase ‘I take the N to my wedded wyf.’ is ‘I take thee, Bride’s name, to my wedded wife.’ Additional comparisons show that in the groom’s oath, “….with all my worldley cathel I the endow,’ the word ‘cathel’ refered to all of the groom’s possessions or ‘worldly goods.’ While the notary was empowered to perform marriage ceremonies, he was not able to perform any blessings. Any blessing performed in Italy waited until all the stages were completed. At that point, the couple would go to the Church the Sunday following the nozze to allow the priest to perform all blessings. In some Italian cities, the couple would interrupt the processional to stop at the Church to receive the blessing.
For the matrimonial ceremony, the young couple wore their best clothes. The bride’s dress always followed the most popular fashion of the day and its color was not important. She wore her hair loose and hanging.12 The bride usually wore a headpiece of flowers or jewels and usually included rosemary.13
The couple is now legally married although the public celebration and the consummation have not yet occurred. While they are married, the process is not completed or perfetto. The notary had the additional role of recording the event in the instrumentum matrimonii, a special section reserved for weddings in registers kept by the notaries.14
Before and after the ring day, the groom had been providing his wife with a countertrousseau which included a bridal belt, jewelry, clothing, and sometimes furniture.15 While it was a firmly established custom, none of the notaries included this exchange in their recordings. These gifts were intended to balance the dowry and to prevent one family from being in debt to the other. They were also designed to make the couple’s bed chamber comfortable and attractive. If the groom enjoyed a higher social status than his bride did, his gifts to her were expected to be quite generous.16
In some Italian marriages, the giving of the bridal belt involved an extra ceremony involving the placing of a beautiful belt around the bride’s waist. This was done in memory of the god Vulcan giving the cestus, a bridal belt giving the power to inspire love, to the goddess Venus.17 Herald’s book, Renaissance Dress in Italy 1400-1500, presents a picture of a velvet belt decorated with elaborate silver medallions. The belts have decorations that include the profiles of a man and woman facing each other and the motto ‘Con el tempo’ (‘With time’) which suggest that this specific belt was intended as a bridal gift.
On the day of the wedding, the bride’s trousseau arrived in an elaborately decorated box, called the cassoni. At first the cassoni were practical, painted articles of furniture. As competition increased, the decorations became so elaborately carved that the boxes lost most of their functional nature.18
Another interesting custom was one known as the ring game. It occurred on the day of the wedding or the morning following the wedding at the bride’s house. The ring game involved an elaborate exchange between the two allied families. The married women of the groom’s household presented the young bride with rings.19 The purpose of this custom was twofold. The first was to establish the young wife in her proper place within the family and to welcome her. The second was to strengthen previously existing alliances within the husband’s family. These rings were originally given to the older women when they themselves were young wives. It was the husband of each woman who decided when certain rings should be given to a young relative’s new wife. In order to prevent the young wife’s family from being obligated at this giving of gifts, the bride’s mother gave her new son-in-law a bowl adorned with both families coat of arms and she also gave other gifts to those who gave a ring to her daughter.20 While there were many variations involving the giving of counter-gifts, all of the customs were aimed at preventing the indebtedness of one family to another.
While feasting was an important part, no specialized food was part of it. The origin of the wedding cake had roots in the Medieval Era. Almonds were frequently a key ingredient. The important thing was that the feast included unusual and costly treats.21 Several favorites were almonds, dried fruit, sugar, and spices. At some point in Italy, sugared almonds became popular at wedding feasts.22
The final stage of Italian Renaissance weddings was the Nozze, the main purpose of which was to publicize the marriage, as well as signal the consummation of the marriage. The bride was escorted by her husband’s household to her new home. She was crowned and beautifully dressed for the torchlit procession, and if she were nobility, she would ride a white horse.23 Once the procession arrived at the groom’s house there was much celebration.
Early in the Renaissance, there could be a lapse of up to a year or more between the matrimonium and the nozze. However, it was very rare for the nozze to occur without small portions of the dowry already being delivered to the groom and his family. The delay would allow the bride’s family ample time to collect the remainder of her dowry and to provide time for the groom to deliver the countertrousseau. Additionally, the time lapse ensured that the marriage would be common knowledge to all before it was completed. By the end of the fifteenth century, however, they began to occur on the same day. The rising dowry inflation had made the Monte delle Doti, a dowry bank, an invaluable element in dowry accumulation. The government of Florence in 1425 established the Monte.24 It was a savings-bond institution that allowed a father to invest money to ensure his daughter’s future marriagability. The bride’s spouse could not collect the remainder of the bride’s dowry from the Monte until the marriage was consummated.
Interestingly enough, marriage in Renaissance Italy was primarily civil rather than religious. In some instances, various stages of marriage and the celebrations surrounding them might take place on Church grounds. The purpose of this was to increase the publicity they received or to provide neutral grounds. Because Italy was composed of small independent city-states until the nineteenth century, Italians did not want anyone instructing them in the correct manner of doing things. The ironic result of this was the fact that the celebrations frequently occurred on Sunday in order to limit the Churches involvement while providing the maximum number of witnesses possible.26
Because of the secular nature of Renaissance Italian weddings, as well as the propensity of elaborate garb and expansive celebration, they are well designed for adaptation to the SCA. For those participants who are uncomfortable with religious displays at events, or a couple who has no particular religious background, the civil nature of an Italian Renaissance wedding is conducive to a beautiful and period celebration without religious overtones.
Brucker, Gene. Giovanni and Lusana: Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
Charsley, Simon R. Wedding Cakes and Cultural History. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Cunnington, Phyllis and Catherine Lucas. Costume for Births, Marriages & Deaths. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1972.
Duby, Georges. A History of Private Life. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1988.
Gies, Frances and Joseph. Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages. New york: Harper and Row, 1987.
Goldberg, P. J. P. Women, Work, and Life Cycle in a Medieval Economy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.
Herald, Jacqueline. Renaissance Dress in Italy 1400-1500. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1981.
Klapisch-Zuber, Christiane. Women, Family, and Ritual in Renaissance Italy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
Phillips, Clare. Jewelry from Antiquity to the Present. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1996.
Plumb, J.H. The Horizon Book of the Renaissance. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1961
Stevenson, Kenneth. Nuptial Blessings: A Study of Christian Marriage Rites. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Stuard, Susan Mosher. Women in Medieval Society. United States of America: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc., 1976.
Tegg, William. The Knot Tied: Marriage Ceremonies of All Nations. Cheapside, William Tegg & Co., 1877.
Thomas, Kirsti. “Medieval and Renaissance Marriage: Theory and Customs.”
Urlin, Ethel L. A Short History of Marriage. Detroit: Singing Tree Press, 1969.
If you would like to know the source of a particulary footnote, please contact me and I will be happy to relay that information to you. I did not include them because they would not transfer easily from my word processing program to my webpage program.
(Copyright 2000, Katherine Estep Stephenson)