My new historical, Luther and Katharina has released. Reviews are pouring in and invariably readers are commenting on the strangeness of one particular tradition in the book: the witnessing of the betrothal night consummation.
Witnessing of a marriage consummation? What is that? Essentially the newly married couple had sex in the presence of witnesses, usually with the bed curtains closed and the observers discreetly waiting on the outer fringes of the room.
I can hear you saying: Ick! You’ve got to be kidding, right? That can’t be true. And if it is, why in the world would anyone do it? That’s so strange!
Yes, I agree. The practice seems very strange to modern readers. But having witnesses at the marriage bed to make sure the marriage was consummated was indeed practiced during the Middle Ages.
In fact, just this week I was watching the show Reign (on Netflix) which is about Mary Queen of Scots. While the writers of the show have taken great liberty with the facts in order to make a riveting plot, they did depict the witnessing of the wedding night consummation between Queen Mary and Francis, the Dauphin of France.
While we can’t fathom a new bride and groom agreeing to having company on their wedding night, people during the Middle Ages wouldn’t have found the practice all that strange. Privacy was not as common as it is today. Poor married couples very rarely had their own bedrooms, and wealthy couples had servants coming and going from their chambers (often sleeping on pallets on the floor). Therefore most people were unabashed or unembarrassed by something considered natural and good between a husband and wife.
In general, the act of bedding on the wedding night was not considered a private affair, but rather a public investment in a couple. It was common for families and friends to bring the couple to their bed as a way of endorsing the couple’s marriage (even when they didn’t stay to witness the consummation).
The practice of having witnesses applied primarily to royalty or important people who used marriages to form alliances and strategic advantages in wealth and power. In such cases it was important that the marital act signal an unbreakable union. Without consummation, the marriage could later be declared null and the couple could be granted an annulment. Thus witnesses could testify to the validity of the marriage, especially if anyone later questioned it. If the bride became pregnant on the wedding night, the witnesses also helped to defend the legitimacy of the heir.
Why, then, you might be asking, did Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora need to have their consummation witnessed? They weren’t royal. They weren’t even wealthy.
During my research, I learned that the practice of witnessing consummation of marriage was practiced in the German culture, particularly among nobility. Katharina was of the noble class, but Luther was not, so one would assume that such a practice wouldn’t be necessary for them.
However, Luther and his advisors likely came to the conclusion that witnesses were essential. Luther had so many enemies who not only wanted him dead but who spread malicious rumors about him and undermined everything he did.
Luther knew his enemies would be especially vicious if he took a wife and would question the validity of his marriage. After all, if he a former monk got married, then he would be sending a very clear message to other monks that he supported the institution of marriage. Such a move could possibly incite them to forsake their vows of celibacy as well, which obviously the pope didn’t want.
Luther also had supporters within the Reformation who didn’t want him to get married. So having witnesses of his consummation would prevent them from declaring his marriage null.
Since betrothal was considered the official contract of marriage, Luther and Katharina consummated their marriage on the evening of their betrothal ceremony (which was two weeks before the church wedding). Luther asked his good friend Jonas to be the witness in the bed chamber.
I won’t say anymore about the betrothal ceremony but will let you read more about it in the book! (Released October 6.) Now that you know the custom behind such a strange tradition, hopefully when you get to that part of the story, you won’t be quite as disturbed or freaked out!