The Emotional World of the Wedding Certificate

Dr Katie Barclay, University of Adelaide


Originally posted on the Embedded Emotions blog


In 1830, the Perthshire Couriertold of a farmer who discovered on returning from the local market that he had been relieved of his wallet. The reporter noted that he had lost almost four pounds in money, but that it was the loss of his marriage lines ‘which he seemed to lament more than that of the money, having kept them carefully for twenty years’. The history of ‘marriage lines’, or wedding certificates in modern parlance, is entangled with emotion. Often sitting in wallets, pockets and chests for decades, it is at moments of juncture – whether the marriage ceremony, its dissolution, or during crises like theft and bigamy – that they appear in the historical record. As the Perthshire farmer’s lament suggests, for many people marriage lines were emotional objects – things that were embedded within networks of affective exchange and thus came to capture or signify that emotional relationship for the owner. Their destruction could symbolically – if not in law – mark its dissolution, a rejection of the emotions associated with married life.

The growth in the new history of emotions increasingly recognises the importance of objects to our emotional lives, not least love. Technologies of love – from the pen to the gift to the marriage ritual – become not just how we make love but part of its makeup. This has led scholars to return to the practices and technologies of love as components of human emotional experiences. Objects as sites of memory and emotion that tie people to their ancestors or to a gift-giver, a loved one dead or distant, has been significant in histories of the family. Material practices, such as making Valentine’s Day cards or tending to the body of a beloved, are increasingly recognised as things used to ‘represent’, ‘embody’, or ‘negotiate’ love, or as ‘things people do emotions with’. I would take this further to argue that emotional objects and the practices in which they are embedded ‘materialise’ love, shaping what romantic love is.

The marriage certificate, or ‘lines’ is a good example of this. Marriage lines generally referred to a document that acknowledged a pre-existing marriage, typically written shortly after an exchange of vows (that ‘made’ the marriage). They survive today as part of the legal record, following criminal prosecutions for bigamy and celebrating ‘irregular’ marriages, or arising from a range of civil suits designed to affirm or contest the validity of a marriage or the legitimacy of its offspring. I locate marriage lines as part of the production of romantic love because within eighteenth-century Scotland, love is the central emotion associated with courtship and marriage. Whilst couples may in practice experience many other emotions as part of their relationship – pain, anger, annoyance, joy, friendship, jealousy – love was the framework that gave their romantic relationship meaning and context. Marriage lines became the documentary evidence of marital love and so part of how it was produced.

Marriage lines of Andrew McNaught and Catherine Cameron, 1820, Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland AD13/23/59 John Fairburn and William Leitch, celebrating clandestine marriage, 1823.

Surviving marriage lines are typically small scraps of paper (perhaps 10cm x 5cm). Those that accompany irregular marriage (those that do not follow the form dictated by the Church of Scotland) are usually on roughly cut cheap paper. The image above shows a printed proforma from 1820 that includes both a section to mark the calling of banns and a place for the minister to sign after the ceremony was complete. It includes no section for the couple to sign.

Handwritten marriage lines could be inscribed by a variety of people. If the husband was literate, he may have written them. In many cases, another member of the community who witnessed the ceremony acted as a scribe. The significance of legal process can also be seen in the practice of couples copying the text from other married couple’s paperwork.

Marriage lines of Alexander Davidson and Ann Nelson, 1734, Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland JC25/125 David Strang, celebrating clandestine marriage, 1736.

The size and physicality of the marriage lines, small scraps of ephemera, belie their cultural importance, something suggested instead by the ways the document builds relationships – most immediately between the couple, their minister, and witnesses, but extending out to incorporate family, friends, church and state – through the inscriptions that appear upon it. As well as evidencing that couples were located within their communities of friends and family, marriage lines also highlight their history of participation in the judicial process. This can include notes by the lawyers or clerk that record what case or couple the certificate relates to.

As objects that supported character and security, marriage lines were often treated as significant and treasured objects. Both men and women could often produce them after decades of marriage. The ability to provide marriage lines for lodging keepers suggests that they were often carried around. Laurence Allkan testified in 1747 that, after he had collected the neighbour Widow Beatts and the local constable as witnesses, he found Jean Gabriel in bed with ‘a man’. When confronted, ‘the said Man taking hold of his Cloaths that were lying upon a Chair before the Bed pulled out [of] one of his pockets Marriage lines betwixt the Defender & him which the Deponent & the Constable both of them read’. Other people kept them more securely. In 1805, Ann Junor described how her husband ‘by force broke upon a Chest in which [she] was in use of keeping any little Articles peculiarly her own’, and took her marriage lines. Such a concern for their safety was not unwarranted. Many women informed the court of the destruction of their lines by marriage partners, attempting to hide, deny or dissolve their relationships.

As marriage lines became a key item that could be used by the community to display the validity and so legitimacy of their union and its offspring, they came to carry the emotional ‘freight’ of marriage. This can be seen in the willingness of individuals to destroy or hand over marriage lines to the church or legal authorities when told their marriages were invalid. Such judgements of validity by lay people do not always appear technically correct, but the close association between the paperwork and legitimate marriage allowed for it to become the material embodiment of legal marriage – without marriage, the paperwork lost its value. Destroying marriage lines in this context was not only an effort to remove proof of a match or the claims of one spouse upon another, but evidenced the breakdown of the couple’s emotional relationship. Marriage lines became the materialisation of marriage – and its associated emotions – in documentary form.


Read more in the Cultural & Social History article

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About the Author: Dr Katie Barclay is Deputy-Director of the ARC Centre for the History of Emotions and Associate Professor in History, University of Adelaide. She is the author of Love, Intimacy and Power: Marriage and Patriarchy in Scotland, 1650-1850 (Manchester University Press, 2011), Men on Trial: Performing Emotion, Embodiment and Identity in Ireland, 1800-45 (Manchester University Press, 2018) and numerous articles on the history of emotion, identity and family, most recently including ‘Doing the Paperwork: the Emotional World of Wedding Certificates’, Cultural & Social History, published online 14 March 2019.

One response to “The Emotional World of the Wedding Certificate

  1. I got a little insight into related fourteenth century practices from my translation of Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

    A FRIAR there was, carefree and merry.
    Licensed to solemnise rites in his patch,
    all four orders of friars had none to match
    him for friendliness and good fluent speeches.
    He had solemnised many marriages
    For young women without asking a fee;
    a right pillar of his order, was he.

    I’m doing the translation for fun, and so it’s fairly free, but I hope catches Chaucer’s satirical humour and innuendo.

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