BETROTHAL (A.S. treowth, "truth"), the giving "one's truth," or pledging one's faith to marry. Although left optional by the church and not necessary in law, betrothal was anciently a formal ceremony which in most cases preceded the actual marriage service, usually by a period of some weeks, but the marriage might for various reasons be delayed for years. The canon law distinguished two types of betrothal: - (1) Sponsalia de praesenti, (2) Sponsalia de futuro. The first was a true though irregular marriage, and was abolished by the council of Trent as leading to clandestine unions and therefore being inimical to morality. The second, or betrothal properly so called, was a promise to marry at a future date, which promise without further ceremony became a valid marriage upon consummation. The church never precisely determined the form of the ceremony, but demanded for its validity that it should have been entered into freely and at a legal age, i.e. after the seventh birthday. The church further declared that females between the ages of seven and twelve, and males between seven and fourteen, could be betrothed, but not married, and that all such betrothals were to be public. The ill-defined laws as to betrothals tended to encourage abuses; and the people, especially in the rural districts, inclined to hold betrothal sufficient justification for cohabitation. Such pre-contract is known to have existed in the case of Shakespeare (q.v.). Francis Douce (Illustrations of Shakespeare and of Antient Manners, 1807) says that betrothal consisted of the "interchange of rings - the kiss - the joining of hands, to which is to be added the testimony of witnesses." In France the presence of a priest seems to have been considered essential, and though this was not so elsewhere it was customary for the couple to get their parish priest to witness their promise. In England solemn betrothal was almost universally practised. Among the peasantry the place of rings was taken by a coin which was broken between the pair, each taking a part. But almost any gift sufficed. A case in 1582 is recorded where the lover gave the girl a pair of gloves, two oranges, two handkerchiefs and a red silk girdle. Sometimes the bride-elect received a bent or crooked sixpence. At the conclusion of the ceremony, which by no means always took place in a church, it seems to have been usual for the couple to pledge each other in a cup of wine, as do the Jews and Russians to-day. This drinking together was ever the universal custom of parties in ratification of a bargain. Joseph Strutt (1749-1802) states that by the civil law gifts given at betrothal could be recovered by the parties, if the marriage did not take place. But only conditionally, for if the man "had had a kiss for his money, he should lose one half of that which he gave. Yet with the woman it is otherwise, for, kissing or not kissing, whatever she gave, she may ask and have it again. However, this extends only to gloves, rings, bracelets and such-like small wares." Though the church abstained from prescribing the form of the ceremony, it jealously watched over the fulfilment of such contracts and punished their violation. Betrothal, validly contracted, could be dissolved either by mutual consent, or by the supervening of some radical physical or social change in the parties, or by the omission to fulfil one of the conditions of the contract. But here the church stepped in, and endeavoured to override such law as existed in the matter by decreeing that whoever, after betrothal, refused to marry in facie ecclesiae, was liable to excommunication till relieved by public penance. In England the law was settled by an act of 1753, which enacted that an aggrieved party could obtain redress only by an action at common law for breach of promise of marriage (see Marriage).
Formal betrothal is no longer customary in England, but on the European continent it retains much of its former importance. There it is either solemn (publicly in church) or private (simply before witnesses). Such betrothals are legal contracts. They are only valid between persons of legal age, both of whom consent; and they are rendered void by fraud, intimidation and duress. In Germany if the parties are under age the consent of the parents is needed; but if this be unreasonably withheld the couple may appeal to a magistrate, who can sanction the betrothal. If the parents disagree, the father's wish prevails. Public betrothal carries with it an obligation to marry, and in case of refusal an action "lies" for the injured party. In Germany the betrothal is generally celebrated before the relatives, and the couple are called bride and bridegroom from that day until marriage. In Russia, where it was once as binding as marriage, it is now a mere formal part of the marriage ceremony.
Among the ancient Jews betrothal was formal and as binding as marriage. After the ceremony, which consisted of the handing of a ring or some object of value to the bride and formal words of contract, and the mutual pledging of the couple in consecrated wine, a period of twelve months elapsed before the marriage was completed by the formal home-taking; unless the bride was a widow or the groom a widower, when this interval was reduced to thirty days. Latterly the ceremony of betrothal has become a part of the marriage ceremony, and the engagement has become the informal affair it is in England.
For betrothal customs in China, the East and elsewhere, consult L.J. Miln, Wooings and Weddings in Many Climes (London, 1900), and H.N. Hutchinson, Marriage Customs in Many Lands (London, 1897). On early English law as to betrothals see Sir F. Pollock and Maitland, History of English Law before the time of Edward I. (2nd ed., 1898). See also J.O. Halliwell-Phillipps, Outlines of the Life of Shakespeare (London, 1848, 1883).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)