HISTORY OF HANDFASTING:
4,000 and 2001 BCE In Newgrange, Fourknocks and Creevykeel (Ireland) Huge (megalithic) tombs and monuments were built in Ireland, Artifacts found in and around them strongly suggests these were used for many ritual purposes.
664 CE Following the Synod of Whitby (UK), handfasting began to be supressed after Celtic Christianity was abandoned for the Catholic Church.
1563 Council of Trent- Roman Catholic Cannon law was altered, so that paperwork, in addition to a priest, became part of a formalised marriage ritual.
1753 Lord Hardwicke’s Act - after this no marriage was recognised unless formalised by a Clergyman and
recorded in civil records. Prior to this Handfastings were under the jurisdiction of common law rather than canon law.
1790 Thomas Pennant "Tour in Scotland" wrote - "Among the various customs now obsolete the most curious was that of handfasting, in use about a century past. In the upper part of Eskdale ... there was an annual fair where multitudes of each sex repaired. The unmarried looked out for mates, made their engagements by joining hands, or by handfasting, went off in pairs, cohabited until the next annual return of the fair, appeared there again and then were at liberty to declare their approbation or dislike of each other. If each party continued constant, the handfasting was renewed for life...."
Please note that Thomas Pennant does not cite any historical source, evidence or otherwise to support what he says, This is the earliest record of this mythical version of handfasting, and none of the historical evidence supports his version of events. In fact the practice of Handfasting continues to this very day, and was extremely common up until 1900. Followers of various Neopagan religions, believing the myth to be an actual pre-Christian practice, adopted the form of the myth into their own modern religious practices and ceremonies.
1820 Sir Walter Scott wrote "The Monastery". In this work he described a fictional sacred ritual that bound the couple in a form of temporary marriage for a year and a day.
"When we are handfasted, as we term 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; and this we call handfasting."
A great many of our modern misconceptions about this practice stem from this book, which maintained relatively high sales for many years after publication.
1939 Handfasting was made illegal in Scotland, there was some exemption from the imposition of English law (Lord Harwicke’s Act) prior to this.
2000 William Mackie is a bishop of Celtic Church in Scotland, and has been lobbying parliament to have handfasting recognised more fully.
(please bear in mind that this is primarily a British and European summary of this ritual)
As there is a great deal of variation in performance of this bonding ritual,due to it being a "common law" (in England) or "folk practice" it is not possible to produce a standardised format. Therefore bear in mind that not all of these may be used in a handfasting, but that as a general rule some will be used.
The joining of hands - When viewed from above the arms form an infinity symbol.
Witnesses - Due to the fact that handfasting is a declaration of intent, there are generally people present to recognise this promise.
The tying together of hands - Obviously symbolic, it is where the phrase "tying the knot" comes from.
Shaking Hands - A method by which a contract is sealed (we still do this today, though we take it far less seriously...)
The ritual being held outdoors - It's nice, but not recorded in any historical record of this tradition.
A Broomstick - representing the sweeping aside of the old to make way for the new, in some parts of scotland the couple would jump over the handle after the ceremony.
Sharing a drink from a cup or chalice: This practice is continued after modern weddings, where the couple will each hold the glass for the other.
Smout, T. C. "Scottish Marriage, Regular and Irregular, 1500-1940." In Marriage and Society: Studies in the Social History of Marriage, edited by R. B. Outhwaite, 204-36. London: Europa Publications Limited, 1981.
Anton, A. E. "'Handfasting' in Scotland." The Scottish Historical Review 37, no. 124 (October 1958): 89-102.
Brundage, James A. Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990
Forte, A. D. M. "Some Aspects of the Law of Marriage in Scotland: 1500-1700." In Marriage and Property Ñ Women and Marital Customs in History, edited by Elizabeth Craik, 104-18. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1991.
Leneman, Leah, and Rosalind Mitchison. Sexuality and Social Control: Scotland 1660-1780. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.
Please feel free to message with suggestions to improve the layout of this writeup, I will also research and add further material if asked, regarding more specific aspects of the history of this practice.