Putting a Price on Marriage: The Long-standing Custom of Dowries
A dowry is an ancient custom that requires the transfer of parental property to a daughter at her marriage, rather than at her father’s death. It is a tradition in which emotion does not play a role in decision making. A dowry establishes a type of conjugal fund, the nature of which may vary widely. It is a type of financial security in widowhood or against a neglectful husband, and can also ensure economic independence for children. Dowries are not just about money, household items such as linens and furniture, and even animals, may be included too.
A reproduction of the painting ‘Choosing a Dowry’ (1910) by Nikolay Bekryashev, published in the magazine Niva in 1911. (Public Domain)
Bride Price is Not Dowry
Other old traditions related to the dowry are bride price and dower, but these customs should not be confused with a dowry. The bride price (bride service) is a payment by the groom or his family to the bride’s parents. But the dowry is given by the bride’s family to the groom or his family. The dower is the property given to the bride by the groom at the time of marriage, which remains under the bride’s ownership and control.
Dower agreement (Proikosymfono) before wedding at Kastoria, Greece, (1905). (Pvasiliadis/CC BY SA 3.0)
The custom of bride price is more common in societies where property is limited because it circulates both property and women. This contrasts with a dowry, which concentrates property and is found among property-owning classes or commercial or landed pastoral peoples. When parents give a dowry, they hope to ensure their daughter’s economic security while securing the best possible son-in-law for themselves.
A Papuan feathered shell and basketry bride price. (The Children's Museum of Indianapolis/CC BY SA 3.0)
Preparing for the Future
One of the main goals of a dowry is to serve as a form of protection for women at the very real possibility of mistreatment by her husband or his family. A dowry used in this way is actually a conditional gift that is supposed to be restored to the wife or her family if the husband divorces, abuses, or commits other serious offenses against his wife. Thus, it’s an incentive for the husband not to harm his wife.
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A dowry quite often helps the new husband to meet the responsibilities that come with married life. This function assumes special importance in societies where marriages have regularly been made between very young people. The dowry enables the new couple to establish a household, which would be almost impossible otherwise. In many cases, the dowry also gives the wife a means of support in case of her husband’s death. The dowry can be considered a substitute for inheriting, all or part of, her husband’s estate - which she will not be able to exploit.
Wedding Procession- Bride Under a Canopy with Gifts. Circa 1800. (Public Domain)
The custom of a dowry has often served as a reciprocal gesture by the bride’s relatives to the groom for the costs incurred by him when he paid the bride price and was financially burdened. These exchanges serve to validate the marriage and consolidation of friendship between the two families, but also create a sense of recognition of generosity by both parties.
An Ancient Practice
The practice of giving a dowry is mentioned even in the oldest law codes, such as that of Hammurabi in ancient Babylon. Daughters did not normally inherit anything from their father’s estate, but they got a dowry from their parents when they married - which was intended to offer as much lifetime security as her family could afford. A wife’s dowry was administered by her husband as part of the family assets. In the case of a divorce without reason, a man was required to give his wife the dowry she brought as well as the bride price he paid. If the woman died childless, her dowry reverted to her family.
In ancient Greece, the usual practice was to give a bride price. Dowries were not exchanged until the late classical period (5th century BC). At that time, a husband had certain property rights to his wife’s dowry. In addition, the wife might bring her own property to the marriage, which was not included in the dowry and which was, as a result, hers alone. This property was “beyond the dowry” and is referred to as paraphernalia property or extra-dotal property.
A woman and her maid. Attic white-ground lekythos. (Marie-Lan Nguyen/CC BY 2.5) The chest in the image would have contained jewels that were part of the dowry, a mirror, and the woman’s cosmetics.
The custom of a dowry continued on in ancient Rome where the bride, or someone on her behalf, transferred property to the groom or his father at the time of the marriage. A dowry was a very common institution in Roman times and it came about through the desire to get a bride’s family and benefactors to contribute a share of the costs involved in setting up a new household. The dowry that was given or promised could include any form of property, and not only the bride’s family, but any person could donate his property as dowry for the woman.
Fragment from the front of a sarcophagus showing a Roman marriage ceremony. (CC BY SA 4.0)
Dowries are also referred to in the Bible and appear to have held an important place in all marriages. The groom presented gifts to the bride that were not considered a payment or a purchase price for a wife, but as indemnity to her father for the loss of her help. Lots of negotiation and bargaining about the size of the dowry was common in Hebrew marriages. The dowry could be money or goods, service to make up for the loss of the woman’s work, or the performance of some assigned task. Occasionally, a bride received a dowry in the form of land. In later Jewish history, written marriage contracts were instituted that arranged for the nature and size of the dowry.
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Four Jewish men seated on the ground next to two large covered bundles, inspecting the dowry. (Public Domain)
Later Dowry Practices
The dowry system was widely practiced in medieval Europe and frequently served not only to enhance the desirability of a woman for marriage but also to build the power and wealth of great families, and even to determine the frontiers and policies of states. Vast inheritances were standard as dowries for aristocratic and royal brides in Europe during the Middle Ages and many centuries later. In England, failure to provide a customary, or agreed-upon, dowry could cause a marriage to be called off.
‘Marriage A-la-Mode: 1, The Marriage Settlement’ (c. 1743) by William Hogarth. (Public Domain)
During the Renaissance, one common penalty for the kidnapping and rape of an unmarried woman was that the abductor or rapist had to provide her dowry. In some cases, nuns were also required to bring a dowry when joining a convent. This may have been a reaction to parents putting less attractive daughters in convents so that the more marriageable daughters could have larger dowries.
In Victorian England, dowries were viewed by the upper class as an early payment of the daughter’s inheritance. The financial aspects of a marriage were openly discussed, much like today’s prenuptial agreements. Both parties disclosed the size of their fortunes. A man had to prove his worth in keeping his wife at the level of life she was accustomed to. A woman, often looking to improve her social standing, used a dowry as a lure. It was also regarded as a form of charity by wealthier parishioners to provide dowries for poor women.
Painting titled ‘The Story of St Nicholas: Giving Dowry to Three Poor Girls’ (c. 1437) by Fra Angelico. (Public Domain)
A Fading Tradition that Still Hangs On
The custom of dowries started to disappear in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In other places, however, dowries grew in popularity at the end of the 20th century - even when declared illegal or otherwise discouraged by the government. The dowry system is still common in many parts of the world, especially in South Asia and several Middle Eastern and North African countries. Dowries continue to be expected - and demanded - as a condition to accepting a marriage proposal.
Jadeite Cabbage - Jin received it as part of her dowry for her wedding to Guangxu, in 1889. (peellden/CC BY SA 3.0)
In general, people today do not believe in a dowry, as it supports the demotion of women and their absolute dependence on their husbands. A dowry ultimately refutes the long-fought battle for equality of the sexes and incorrectly characterizes women as second-class people.
‘Without a Dowry’ aka ‘Sunday in the Luxembourg Gardens’. (1883-1885) by James Tissot. (Public Domain)
Top Image: Receiving the dowry in a merchant family. (1873) By Vasili Pukirev. Source: Public Domain
Cowan, A. 2015. Marriage and Dowry. Available at: http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780195399301/obo-9780195399301-0014.xml
Gurudev. 2012. The Origin of Dowry System – British Policies convert Gifts to Bride into an instrument of oppression against women. Available at: http://www.hitxp.com/articles/history/origin-dowry-system-bride-woman-india-british/
Women in the Ancient World. n.d. Women and Property in Ancient Athens. Available at: http://www.womenintheancientworld.com/women_and_property_in_athens.htm