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Banns of Wedlock

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When Lady Agnes de Kyrri asked me if I could help out in preparing her banns of wedlock for Canterbury Faire, I was delighted – a worthy wordy project which would involve wordsmithery, some theatrics and associated typesetting and printing. Huzzah!

After some initial research and discussion, we settled on a format that would make use of the various elements Canterbury Faire had to offer, and which suited the late-period Italian persona of Agnes’ partner, Elena (with Agnes being an Anglo-Saxon, we had relatively little to work with there in terms of recorded ceremonies).

Historical Background

Marriage was a relatively simple affair for much of the SCA time period, but by the time the 1500s rolled round, things were getting fairly formal. This was partly in response to increasing concerns regarding the validity of all-too-casual betrothals and their consequent challenges in the law courts.

In 1563, the Council of Trent attempted to bring some certainty to pre-marital relations (as it were), by formalising the requirement that those intending marriage have that intention announced publicly in church during Mass on three consecutive Holy Days. This was to be done in the resident parishes of both parties, and aimed at ensuring any possible impediments were identified before a wedding took place. Over the next 50 years, additional sets of canons were passed codifying things still further.

Thus we have the “banns” (from the Middle English for “proclamation”). These days they are solely associated with proclaiming a marriage, but a section called “The Proclamation of the Banns” in a collection of plays from the latter half of the 1400s makes use of another sense. According to the annotations of the N-Town Plays:

…medieval European banns took three basic and public forms: a lord’s proclamation, a marriage announcement, or an advertisement of a play performance

The banns prologue has a set of vexillators (flag bearers) whose job it is to proclaim the future performance of the plays somewhere else in town. Think of them as the medieval equivalents of sandwich-board advertisers.


The Banns; ed Douglas Sugano
The Canons of 1584
The Collected Works of William Shakespeare His Life and Times
To Have and to Hold: Marriage in Pre-Modern Europe, 1200-1700
Medieval and Renaissance Marriage: Theory and Customs
The Parish Registers of EnglandThomas Cromwell; Metheun 1910
The True Contract of Marriage between Q. Mary and James Duke of Orknay, Earl Boithvile etc; from John Hosack; Mary Queen of Scots and her accusers etc; pg 557-561
Weddings in Renaissance Italy, Maestra Clare de Estepa; Tournaments Illuminated Autumn 2000, Issue #136 AS XXXV

The proclamation itself was fairly simple. From the Book of Common Prayer on, the wording simply sought to announce the names of those involved and inquire whether anyone had any knowledge of a canonical or civil legal impediment to the marriage. Such impediments could include a pre-existing marriage or commitment, a vow of celibacy, a lack of consent, or kinship too close for comfort. The relationships dictated in the consanguinity rules were listed to allow for checking.

You could get around the waiting period that the banns imposed by arranging a marriage license or bond. This allowed the banns to be waived, so long as you could swear before a bishop or archdeacon that you were “good to go” (the marriage allegation). You usually had to have good cause, such as marrying away from your home parish, but a suitably generous bond payment could probably make the priest acquiesce to your request….

Perhaps the most notorious case of this was that of one William Shakespeare, who was married under a bond with just one reading of the banns. Not only was he under the age of consent (18, instead of 21), but his would-be bride was pregnant and the wedding-free period of Advent was fast approaching...

The Canons of 1584 included one which was “for restraining of licenses to marry [for the celebration of matrimony] without [the threefold proclamation which they call matrimonial] banns”. It laid out the conditions under which the banns could be waived, including the major one of lack of impediment, as well as legal issues, as well as the need for the consent of parents or governors. Anyone who offended against the canon was to be “suspended for one half year”.

Canons passed in 1566 and 1597 further stipulated the information to go on the marriage license, where the banns were waived or where one of the parties was under the age of consent. In that case the licence required the names of the parties, their parents’ and their parishes.

The Italian Approach

During the Renaissance, the Italians had a variety of ways of slowing down the betrothal period to allow a good, hard look at the relationship that would bring two families together, with four different stages that could take a considerable amount of time to work through (de Estepa):

  • the impalmamento: negotiations conducted, often through a third-party, with the terms of the marriage contract discussed and sealed by a handshake
  • the sponsalia: the negotiation of the dowry, involving the male members of the families, with the drafting of the instrumento delli futuri sponsaliti, recognising the future marriage to come
  • the matrimonium: the ring day, where the couple met, were questioned, the contract read aloud, and the marriage vows exchanged (the verba de praesenti)
  • the nozze: public promulgation of the marriage, dowry payment completed, and consummation assumed

One thing which may startle modern traditionalists is that the marriage process could be very secular. The formal documentation of contracts, dowries and the like could well be undertaken by notaries and written banns were posted at public marketplaces. Even the exchange of vows was, for a long time, typically held outside the doors of the church, with a Mass taking place afterwards.

The Banns of Agnes and Elen

In the “brief” for the banns, Agnes mentioned that they wanted some kind of proclamation to announce a Canterbury Faire celebration for the wedding (which was planned for a few months later). We thought about making three heraldic announcements over the three days from the Faire’s opening, but that seem a bit much, so the idea of one written proclamation of the banns, followed by some kind of contract theatrics on the celebration night started to take shape.

I started researching banns and how they could be applied to meet Agnes and Elen’s aims. Here’s what we came up with.

Broadside Banns #1

I had planned to produce a set of daily newsbooks for Canterbury Faire. Here was an additional push to get them done, as I could put one proclamation in the Monday broadside, acting as both a bann and as an invitation for people to attend the Tuesday evening party.

Banns of Wedlock
Herein is proclaimed for the first time of asking the banns between Lady Agnes đe Kyrri and Elena Sophia Luciano de Medici, both residing in the Barony of Southron Gaard. If any know cause or just impediment why these persons should not be joined together in wedlock, ye are to declare it at the Impalmamento to be held at the Marquee on the Feast Day of Saint Marcella being the last day of Januarie from the hour of eight or thereabouts. Should there be no lawful objection, the Impalmamento shall be followed thereafter by a Sponsalia celebration, wherein all members of the populace are welcome to come raise a glass and wish the happy couple well for the matrimonium some three months hence.

This announcement was based on the standard wording of the banns from the Book of Common Prayer issued by Edward VI (and they are still proclaimed in much the same form).

Impalmamento and Sponsalia

The TI article (Autum 2000, No 136) of Maestra Clare de Estepa on Weddings in Renaissance Italy provided inspiration for adding a few Italian touches to the celebration, in recognition of Elena.

I wrote what, in effect, was a script for how the whole thing could go, based on the research and what Agnes had described, thus:

The party move forward through the crowd, with the vexillators carrying standards, and the herald crying for attention, followed by the ladies and their attendants. A table, the contract and pen are “on stage”.

Herald: As per the canons and as set down by the worthies of the Council of Trent, know that this Impalmamento is to witness the contract for the celebration of forthcoming matrimony and is to be recognised without the threefold proclamation which they call matrimonial banns.

Herald: And that the aforesaid contract is between Lady Agnes đe Kyrri and Elena Sophia Luciano de Medici, residing within the Barony of Southron Gaard.

Herald: As that is it known that persons of honest, worshipful and honourable calling may necessarily and reasonably have occasions sometimes to proclaim the intent to wed for the banns' asking, or for once or twice without any great harm, so for avoiding generally of inconveniences noted in this behalf it is thought expedient that no dispensations be granted for such without banns but under this instrumento delli futuri sponsaliti and through the payment of sufficient and large bonds, with these conditions following.

Herald: To wit the aforesaid persons both now allege.

Herald: (holds up one finger) Imprimus. That there shall not afterwards appear any lawful let or impediment, by reason of any pre-contract, consanguinity, affinity, lack of consent, vow of celibacy, or any other lawful means whatsoever.

Herald: (holds up two fingers) Secundus. That there be not at this present time of granting such dispensation, any suit, plaint, quarrel or demand, moved or depending before any judge ecclesiastical or temporal, for or concerning any such lawful impediment between such the parties.

At this point we had a conscientious objector, the helpful Lady Jadwiga, announce from the back that she objected. She started to make her way to the front and was promptly hustled out of view by two of the burlier attendants. I did suggest the possibility of an actual duel….

Herald: Ahem (holds up three fingers) ….Tertius. That said parties proceed not to the solemnization of wedlock without consent of parents or governors, the which may be waived if either is widowed or of an age above 14 years.

Looks inquiringly at ladies, who nod enthusiastically. Herald continues to speak as ladies step forward to sign the contract. Once signed, ladies shake hands in Italian style.

Herald: Let it be known that this matrimonial bond shall be solemnized openly at a convenient time, as per verbo de futuro, that time being set down for Passion Sunday next, to wit the first day of April.
Hip, hip…

Populace: Huzzah!

Herald: And know that being persons of good repute, the ladies provide a copy of this contract and a bond set at no less than 50 golden florins to be held in the safe-keeping of the Baron and Baroness of Southron Gaard that none may say them nay.

If I spotted it rightly, Her Excellency received a copy of the contract, and the ladies passed around chocolates. A copy of the contract was duly posted on the wall of the Mong for public display. The people who gathered around seemed to have enjoyed the theatre and the nature of the occasion.

Broadside Report

I prepared a a report on the Impalmamento and Sponsalia for the Wednesday broadside, which also formed the basis for the final signed contract.

I had hunted down some examples of published banns, to get an idea for the language used. I managed to find some examples listed in Cromwell’s Parish Registers of England.

The twelth day of Februarie in the yeare abovesaid Stephen Browne and Jeane Simmons both of Westerliegh in the County of Glouc. being Three severall markett daies published in the Markett place between the hours of Eleavn of the clocke and Two of the clocke according to the Act and noe objection made to the contrary were married before John Gostlett Esq r , Justice of the peace.
1654, from Cromwell, The Parish Registers of England

Admittedly they were a little late for SCA use (1654, 1657), but I felt that they at least provided a model for a draft version, as well as evidence that the marketplace was considered a suitable place to display the banns.

Know that the Lady Agnes đe Kyrri and Elena Sophia Luciano de Medici, both of the Barony of Southron Gaard in the Crescent Isles of the Kingdom of Lochac having signed a contract yester e’en to wedde and said contract being publyshed in the publick meeting place upon the last daie of Januarie ASXLVI in the reign of Their Maiesties Siridean and Margie of Glen More and noe objection made to the contrarie are henceforth in verba de futuro set to celebrayte their matrimonial bonde on Passion Sundae next.
And on the occaysion of the said impalmamento was a sponsalia held with feasting and trumpets and much mirthe with frolicks, besides mixt dancing (a thing heretofore accounted profane) till late of the clock.

And that formed the basis for the actual scribed contract. I wanted to keep away from using the term license, as that tends to have a specific modern legal sense associated directly with marriage, and our focus was on the older sense as when in use alongside the waiving of the banns.

The format was based on a couple of documents which I provided as examples. Agnes liked the simplicity of this one and the large initial letter on this letter patent. I produced three drafts forms using different fonts to provide a variety of looks (Wir Wenzslaw, Ludovicus, Aquiline) which would be acceptable for a scribed document from the mid-1500s, with an Italian edge. The final one was done in Ludovicus.

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