Trial marriages, a form of handfasting, really are not a new wedding tradition. Nor is the custom of a bride keeping her own surname. Until the mid-19th century, this was a common practice in Scotland.
The handfast ceremony, like an engagement, expressed an intent to marry. As a wedding tradition, this custom can be traced back to the Celtic wedding ceremony of the 1500’s. The guests formed a circle around the bride and groom, while the couple pledged themselves to one another.
The ceremony was solemnized by the physical contact of “hands on fist”. Their hands were gently tied with a cord or strip of cloth, preferably tartan. ‘Tying the Knot’ may have come from this wedding tradition.
This trial marriage lasted for a year and a day. When the time expired, the couple either wed or separated. Either one could end the contract.
There were practical reasons for this arrangement. Children were needed to work in the father’s trade. During this year, the bride’s fertility, or lack thereof, could be determined.
Any child produced was considered legitimate. If either party chose to end the contract, and not enter into marriage, they became responsible for raising the child. Sometimes, if the father wanted, the child went to him regardless of who chose not to marry.
Most handfastings were entered into at Lammas Fair time. This was when the annual rent was due and country folk gathered. The custom was for single persons of both sexes to choose a companion for the next year. When Lammas Fair time came again, they were to wed or separate.
This fair atmosphere probably contributed to the wedding tradition in Scotland where the wedding became a celebration, or ceiligh, with music, dancing, food, performers, and general gaiety.
There is a recorded marriage contract registered as late as 1858, where a hand-fasting was entered into in January, with a wedding recorded in November.
“Additional Notes on Handfasting", provided by Sharon Krossa, http://www.stanford.edu/~skrossa/medievalscotland/index.html. The information is from her website, which is no longer available.
Sharon Krossa used this information for her PhD dissertation on Scottish marriage customs, history, and law. Sharon was quoting Anton, AE, 1958 Handfasting in Scotland, The Scottish Historical Review XXXVII.124:89-102.
Handfasting as a modern trial marriage is a misunderstanding of historical Scottish betrothal and marriage.
The word handfasting is a medieval Scottish tradition of joining hands as part of the public betrothal proceedings. It was not a trial marriage. It was a synonym for betrothal, that is, getting engaged.
At a handfasting betrothal ceremony, the couple promises to get married in the future. In a marriage ceremony, the couple consent to the marriage and get married. The words are alike except for a change in verb tense.
In medieval Scotland, if a couple consented to be married in the present tense, then they were married. Witnesses or priest didn’t matter, though both could substantiate the marriage. The marriage didn’t have to be blessed, there didn’t have to be a mass. It did not even have to be consummated. This was true until 1940.
In medieval Scotland, if a couple became formally betrothed, promising to marry one another at some future date, including witnesses, a marriage contract, and a ceremony, then they were handfasted, or engaged, to be married. They were not married.
If, in medieval Scotland, a couple had sex after being Handfasted, whether the betrothal was public at a formal ceremony or privately with no witnesses, they became married when the sex occurred.
In medieval Scotland, when a couple married it was for life. There was no trial marriage for a year and a day. The only things to negate the marriage were if one were underage, too closely related in bloodline, impotency, or already married to another. There was no divorce or remarriage until the Reformation.
A year and a day was April 1, 1528, to April 1, 1529. The year was counted including the beginning date.The year and a day aspect comes from Scottish property and inheritance law. A widow or widower had the right to a part of their spouse’s real property until they too died, when it reverted to the spouse’s heirs. But if the couple had not been married for a year and a day, the surviving spouse did not get a share of their late spouse’s real property, unless a child had been born, in which case the widow or widower did get their share.