Friday, September 15, 2023

Coins: The Mystagogical Value of Traditional Wedding Customs, Part I

Las arras matrimoniales

Traditional wedding customs have a mystagogical value, teaching and initiating bride and groom into different aspects of the mysterion mega that is Christian matrimony. (Eph. 5, 32) Aside from the wedding ring and the nuptial blessing, both the 1962 and 1970 liturgical books are relatively silent about specific wedding ceremonies, in large part because both make generous allowance for local “praiseworthy customs” that vary according to time and place. In this article, we explore the theological meanings of one such praiseworthy custom that is prominent in the annals of Western liturgical nuptials but less known today: wedding coins.

Historical Overview
The long history of coins in Christian weddings is a testimony to the lingering power of economic considerations in contracting marriage, as well as the importance of local codes of honor. At least in some historical contexts, money was transferred from one party to another not simply for the sake of economic gain or financial security, but as an affirmation of the dignity and self-respect of one’s own family or clan as well as that of the other. Consequently, betrothal and nuptial dotation often involved elaborate gifts and counter-gifts from both families rather than a unilateral “payment” or donation. In the same vein, dotation could be an acknowledgement of the bride’s dignity rather than—as terms like “bride-purchase” and “bride-price” might imply—a reflection of her status as chattel. Among the Franks, for example, dotation was one of the two sine quibus non that distinguished a wife from a concubine.
Money or its equivalent (e.g., jewelry) was especially important for matrimony in Germanic lands, for while Roman law considered the couple’s consent essential for making a marriage, Germanic law laid stress on the betrothal and the dotation. The money in question could be for the husband’s parents, the husband, the wife’s parents, the wife, the wife’s future sons, or a combination thereof. Further complicating matters is that dotation could appear in either a betrothal or in a wedding, each with its own meaning. At a betrothal, coins from a groom could serve as earnest money or a pledge (arrha) to fulfill his promise to marry; should he renege, he would most likely have to forfeit his gift. Coins given after the exchange of marital vows, on the other hand, could either be a down payment or the full sum of what the husband owed his new wife or her parents—or what the bride’s family owed the husband’s. Both practices, which were known as a subarrhatio, were inherited by the Church as she converted the peoples of Europe. It would be left to medieval canonists to sort out the differences between the subarrhatio of a betrothal and of a wedding just as they would be forced to distinguish between the vows of betrothal and those of matrimony.
The most common dotation substitute for coins, both among the Romans and the Germanic tribes, was a ring: for the Visigoths, it could even substitute for a written contract. In the ninth century, Pope Nicholas would use the term arrha in reference to the “ring of faith” (fidei annulum) rather than to the dos (dower or dowry) that he mentions separately; and the subarrhatio often appears in ecclesiastical texts as the subarrhatio cum anulo (sic) or subarrhatio annuli. Nevertheless, the early Christian tendency—as evidenced in St. Isidore et al.—to see the ring as a symbol of the union of two hearts and of the spouses’ mutual fidelity lent to the ring a symbolic significance that went beyond the pecuniary. [1]
It is therefore not surprising to find the ring and coins emerging as two distinct nuptial objects in some of the first fully integrated marriage rituals of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. That said, rings and coins continued to be interchangeable items for centuries thereafter. In some parts of Europe, a couple would break a coin in half and each would keep a piece when they could not afford a ring.
It was customary for the groom to give his bride thirteen coins, thirteen being an auspicious number because it was the number of Christ and His apostles. Deniers (the rough equivalent of a U.S. dime) were the standard coins to use in pre-Revolutionary France, although beginning in the fourteenth century special commemorative medals, which were stamped with loving inscriptions and symbols of love (such as two hands joined), increasingly gained popularity. A single medaille de mariage could also be used. The custom of commemorative coins survives today, among other places, in the minting of special coins on the occasion of a royal wedding.
Coin commemorating the wedding of Emperor Franz Joseph I and Elisabeth of Bavaria (Sissi”) 1854
In those locales where rings and coins were differentiated, each object assumed its own symbolic importance. The ring, as we have seen, was interpreted as a symbol of mutual fidelity and loving union. It was either placed on the right hand to affirm the dignity of marriage (the right hand being higher in standing than the sinister left); or it was placed on the ring finger of the left hand because of a Renaissance belief that a vein ran from this finger straight to the heart. In areas where the priest gave the ring to the groom before the groom gave it to the bride, the ring could also signify that the Church approves of and seals the love of this couple.
As for the coins, during the age of feudalism they denoted the arrha, with the arrha defined not as the bride’s dowry or a bride-price but the “dower,” the portion of the husband’s estate which was guaranteed to the wife in the event of his death. (It is from the dower that we have the English noun “dowager” for a wealthy widow.) As economic and legal systems changed, however, so too did the meaning of the coins. In seventeenth-century France, the thirteen deniers or treizain de mariage were seen as a ritual acknowledgement of the groom’s obligation to provide for his wife and their future family. The money also reminded the newlyweds that God rewards His faithful, while the relatively low value of the coins’ currency admonished them to hold spiritual goods higher than temporal.
The coins were usually kept by the couple as a precious memento of their wedding. In some parts of France they were placed in a purse: in others, in a box of silver or enamel that would have an inscription on it such as “United forever” or “One faith from two hearts.” Sometimes, this box was kept under a glass in the hearth of the home to remind the couple of fiscal responsibility and to protect them from misfortune. It was also customary in several regions for at least some of the coins to be given away either to the poor or to the priest for his services. At Amiens and Rheims in the sixteenth century, the priest kept ten of the thirteen coins, while in Bordeaux the priest took one. In the monastery of Lyre, the coins were distributed to the poor, and in pre-Reformation England, the money was “given to the clerks or poor according to the custom of the country.” This stipend would survive in the rubric of the Book of Common Prayer: “And the man shall give unto the woman a ring, laying the same upon the book, [along] with the accustomed duty to the Priest and Clerk.” [2]
The blessing of thirteen coins was a common feature of French Catholic weddings, especially in rural areas, until around the First World War; but by 1936 they were being studied as mostly a thing of the past. The Catholic Rite of Marriage in Scotland still includes an optional if rarely used ceremony in which the groom gives coins to the bride and says, “This gold and silver I give you, tokens of all my worldly goods.” A similar custom is also available in Ireland. According to the guidelines for marriage in the Diocese of Cork and Ross, the coins are “a symbol of your commitment to complete sharing.” The diocese adds:
You may use small gifts which are known only to the couple. Traditionally, a coin was used and was given by the groom to the bride. It is now considered more appropriate to have two coins and to have a two-way exchange. [3]
In Spain it was once customary for the groom to give the bride thirteen commemorative arras (as they are known in Spanish) immediately before the wedding at the doors of the church so she could carry them with her in procession up the aisle and have them blessed during the ceremony. This custom, however, is less prevalent today, and when it is observed, the coins are usually exchanged as a symbol of shared wealth.
The ancient liturgical use of wedding coins thrives mostly today not in Europe but in the Hispanic New World and in the Philippines, where commemorative coins remain almost as iconic a nuptial symbol as the ring itself. Isidore of Seville mentions the arrha in the sixth century, and the Mozarabic and Visigothic liturgies, as we will see, included a nuptial blessing for coins. The Spanish took the custom to their colonies in the New World and Southeast Asia, where it continued to develop. In Mexico, the new husband takes the coins and says: “Receive these coins; they are a pledge of the care I will take so that we will not lack what is necessary in our home.” The woman, in turn, receives the coins and says: “I receive them as a sign of the care I will take so that our home will prosper.” [4] Such rituals, which are prevalent throughout Central and South America, are becoming increasingly common in the United States due to immigration.
The coin ceremony that has arguably reached the greatest stage of development is the one conducted in a Filipino wedding. The priest empties thirteen loose coins into the groom’s open hand, who then does the same to the bride. The bride, in turn, gives the coins (usually, commemorative medals representing different virtues) back to the groom, who then hands them to an acolyte. The coins cascading from one hand to the next, it is said, represent the bounty and grace of God poured forth on His children, as well as hope for prosperity and security. The handing of coins back and forth between husband and wife symbolizes not only the husband’s obligations but the wife’s as well, who in a traditional Filipino household manages the estate and finances. The ritualized flip-flopping of funds also dramatizes that whatever one of them earns becomes the other’s, thereby teaching the equality of sharing and responsible co-ownership. Filipina bridal processions even have a coin-bearer along with the more familiar ring-bearer.
Filipino arrhae
Lastly, coins often reemerge in some other part of the wedding in places where they have ceased to be a formal part of the nuptial liturgy. In Hungary, the groom would give the bride a bag of coins at the same time that the bride gives the groom three or seven handkerchiefs (lucky numbers). In Poland, brides to this day approach the altar with “some money tucked in their shoe, their bodice or within their wedding wreath.” [5]  And, of course, the coin custom would survive after it was dropped from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer in the heel of every English bride. Hence the wedding rhyme:
Something old, something new;
Something borrowed, something blue;
And a sixpence in her shoe.
Not to be outdone, the traditional Swedish bride had a silver coin from her father in her left shoe and a gold coin from her mother in her right as a guarantee of financial solvency.
English sixpence (minted from 1551 to 1970)
A Numismatic Nuptial Theology
Given the decline of coin usage as a universal wedding token and given their historical association with economic and domestic protocols that are now outdated or no longer practiced, it may be reasonably asked whether coin blessings have any value in a contemporary Catholic wedding that is not Hispanic or Filipino. I believe that we can answer in the affirmative, and for four reasons.
First, the coin ceremony affirms the goodness of material prosperity but not as the highest good. Both points are important for a Christian marriage. There will always be marriages and families threatened by a dearth of finances, lacking “the means necessary for survival, such as food, work, housing and medicine”; and there will always be marriages and families threatened by “excessive prosperity and the consumer mentality, paradoxically joined to a certain anguish and uncertainty about the future.” Both situations, Pope St. John Paul II concludes, “deprive married couples of the generosity and courage needed for raising up new human life,” not to mention militate against several other spiritual goods. [6]  It is therefore appropriate that the Church pray for the financial necessities of the new couple while simultaneously warning them to keep temporal goods in proper perspective, all for the sake of their authentic “blossoming” as human beings and icons of Christ. Each of these elements (including the floral metaphor just used) may be found in a blessing from the eleventh-century Sacramentary of Vich, variations of which can be found in the Mozarabic rite and several French manuals from roughly the same period.
Bless, O Lord, this earnest money, which today Thy servant N. hands over to Thy handmaiden N., as Thou didst bless Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel. Grant them the grace of Thy salvation, an abundance of things, and persistence in [good] works. May they flower as the rose planted in Jericho, and may they fear and adore our Lord Jesus Christ Thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with Thee, God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever. Amen. [7]
The blessing combines petitions for material and spiritual gain but without falling into the heresy of a “Prosperity Gospel” or the Weberian Protestant work ethic. The following blessing from fourteenth-century Cambrai, France is even more explicit:
Bless, O Lord, these coins, which we bless in Thy name, entreating Thine immense clemency: that whoever is endowed with them, may be divinely endowed with the riches of grace and glory—here, in eternity, and forever and ever. Amen. [8]
No sooner are the coins, the necessary mammon of this world, put into the hands of the bride and groom than their thoughts are turned to everlasting riches, yet not in a way that vilifies money per se or belittles the concern for it. The coin ceremony reminds the newlyweds that for them to be poor in spirit and to reject the false gods of consumerism and materialism, they need not and should not take a vow of poverty.
This latter point brings us to our second and related affirmation of the coin ceremony, namely, that this numismatic tradition teaches several honorable qualities of a successful marriage that do not appear elsewhere in the Rite of Marriage. The ring has long ceased to function as an arrha with monetary connotations and has instead become a symbol of fidelity, union, and love—especially nowadays, when two rings are typically exchanged by the spouses. As such, it is fitting that a second symbol be used for good habits befitting the married life that concern money, habits such as fiscal responsibility, a shared stewardship of their common estate, and a generosity to the Church and to the poor. An inability to handle money prudently and virtuously can harm the freshly-minted union of man and wife, even when that union is sacramental. In 2012, a U.S. study concluded that arguments about money—especially early in the marriage and regardless of a couple’s income, net worth, or debt—were by far the top predictor of divorce, exceeding adultery and substance abuse. [9]
Third, just as the traditional coin ceremony teaches generic lessons that apply equally to bride and groom, it likewise provides a sex-specific template of the husband as the family’s provider and protector and the wife as the family’s treasurer and keeper. In an age of two-income households in which married women (at least in the United States) are now on average more educated than their husbands, this model will no doubt seem obsolete, even constricting and suffocating. It should be noted, however, that the categories of this template are not mutually exclusive: in some sense, a husband also needs to be a responsible keeper and treasurer and a wife also needs to be a responsible provider and protector. Moreover, like any generalized template, the model proposed by the arrha ceremony is one that needs to be worked out by the virtues of prudence and charity in response to particular circumstances, beginning with the individual temperaments and talents of the man and woman in question. Finally, the model needs to be adjusted over the course of a marriage as conditions change, which they can very much do in a protean job market such as ours, rife with career changes and upheavals.
ABC News graphic, 2013
The model remains valuable as a model, however, for at least two reasons. First, it ably targets specific postlapsarian temptations that, even in the face of changing societal gender roles, tend to assault one sex more than the other. The temptation not to be a provider is generally greater in a father than in a mother, as the statistics on “deadbeat dads” and court-ordered alimonies would suggest. Conversely and secondly, the template supplies a basic sex-specific image that, when followed properly and in the right spirit, brings out what is noblest in each sex and actuates their natural gifts. Even in a household in which the woman earns more than the man (an increasingly common phenomenon), a man is more inclined to reject the adolescent Island of the Lotus Eaters (e.g., playing video games all day in his Man Cave) when he is animated by a chivalrous sense of self-sacrifice and a protectiveness concerning women and children, a sense that can be cultivated in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ without succumbing to the lamentable distortions of male chauvinism, machismo, or sexism. Simply put, a man is less likely to become a playboy or a predator when he sees himself as called to be a provider and protector. And similarly, a woman is generally more inspired when she sees herself as the unique keeper of her husband’s trust, as the nurturer of something precious and indispensable, as the maternal center of warmth and life and flourishing that, like the good and faithful servant in the Gospel, turns five talents of gold into ten. (Matt. 25, 16)
Claims about a sex-specific template in marriage are, of course, increasingly unpopular in a society such as ours, but that may be all the more reason to make them. Rather than devalue the traditional coin ceremony with a doctrine of radical egalitarianism or eliminate it altogether, the ceremony should be used as a window into an authentically Catholic theological anthropology and as an opportunity to discuss the non-interchangeable dignities of Christian husbandhood and Christian wifehood. In this respect the Filipino coin ceremony is particularly commendable because it retains the symbolism of the husband and wife’s different obligations as well as their equal co-ownership.
Issac and Rebecca, by Lambert Lombard, 1530-35
Fourth, the traditional liturgical use of wedding coins provides an additional way of locating the new couple’s life together within the biblical narrative. The medieval blessings, such as those cited above, typically invoke figures from the Hebrew Bible (Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel) or use metaphors from the deuterocanonical books, such as the rose planted in Jericho (see Ecclesiasticus [Sirach] 24, 18). Among other things, these instances of intertextuality invite the new husband and wife to find the meaning of their own “story” within that of the Sacred Scriptures, much like St. Augustine does with his life in the Confessions. And while such an invitation occurs in a privileged way during the Liturgy of the Word/Mass of the Catechumens through the proclaimed scriptural readings, it is fitting that the invitation also be extended through ritual enactment; for the goal of the invitation is ultimately a mystagogical participation in the mystery of the union of Christ and His Church. 

An earlier version of this essay appeared as part of an article entitled, “Coins and Care-Cloths: The Mystagogical Value of Traditional Wedding Customs,” Antiphon 18:2 (Summer 2014), pp. 115–143. Many thanks to its editors for allowing its publication here.

[1] See Isidore of Seville, De ecclesiasticis officiis 2.20.8 (PL 83:812).
[2] J. Wickham Legg, “Notes on the Marriage Service in the Book of Common Prayer, 1549,” in The Library of Liturgiology & Ecclesiology for English Readers, ed. Vernon Staley (London: Alexander Moring, Ltd., 1905), 188-89.
[3], retrieved 27 February 2014 but no longer online.
[4] See Timothy S. Matovina, “Marriage Celebrations in Mexican American Communities,” Liturgical Ministry 5 (1996), 23.
[5] Sophie Hodorowicz Knab, Polish Wedding Customs and Traditions (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1997), 76.
[6] Pope St. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio 6.
[7] See also J.B. Molin and P. Mutembe, Le rituel du mariage en France du XIIe au XVIe siècle (Paris: Beauchesne, 1974), 319-20.
[8] Ibid., 320.
[9] Jeffrey Dew, Sonya Britt, and Sandra Huston, “Examining the Relationship Between Financial Issues and Divorce,” Family Relations 61:4 (October 2012), 615–628.

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