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Love and Money: A Brief History of Dowries
Figuring out money stuff when you’re married—or getting married—can be tough. You and your partner could be bringing two entirely different mindsets to the table, not to mention all your bank accounts, debts, and various assets—and yes, those mint condition Pokemon cards do count as assets, thank you very much.
But what if your family was required to make a payment to your partner’s family in order for you to get married? Imagine how stressful that would be. Welcome to the wild world of dowries.
What is a dowry?
Dowries are sets of assets (money, material goods, real estate) that a bride’s family gifts to a groom when the two are wed.
The purpose of a dowry is often threefold. First, it gives the bride and groom the money and goods that they will need to build a home together. Second, the loss of a dowry gives the bride some manner of protection in cases where her husband becomes abusive and/or the marriage ends in a divorce.
Dowries are conditional gifts, meaning, in essence, that the rule of “no takebacks” does not apply. Takebacks are very much on the table. In the case that a husband and wife divorce, the husband is expected to repay the dowry to the bride’s family.
Lastly, dowries can serve as a kind of enticement to potential grooms, as a larger dowry could make a family’s daughter seem more marriageable. We won’t go into this too deeply as, frankly, the implications here are kind of gross.
The opposite of a dowry is a “bride price,” also known as a “bridewealth.” As you might have deduced from the name, this is money that the groom would pay to the bride’s family in order to secure her hand in marriage. Once again, the implications here are … not great.
Dowries are a tale as old as time.
Dowries are an ancient practice. They’re practically as old as civilization itself. We’re not joking. Rules regarding dowries can be found in the Code of Hammurabi, one of the earliest sets of written legal codes known to man.
Hammurabi was the king of Babylon, ruling from 1792 to 1750 B.C. This means that the Code of Hammurabi is almost 3,000 years old—and the customs surrounding dowries likely existed for centuries before being codified in the Code itself.
According to the Code of Hammurabi, a father whose daughter dies after she is married has no claim to her dowry if she has borne sons. The dowry belongs to them. However, if the man’s daughter dies before bearing any sons, then the dowry must be repaid to him—so long as the father has first repaid his daughter’s “purchase price” to the husband.
Dowries were also commonplace in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. While couples in modern-day society often marry for love, ancient marriages were more like business arrangements. In this context, the inclusion of a dowry and/or a bride price makes a lot of sense: It's an exchange of assets in order to facilitate the desired merger.
And dowries weren’t just a European thing, either. They were used in one form or another all across the world, including in Asia and Africa. Dowries are mentioned in the Quran and they were considered an important marriage custom in Ancient China. The only thing that varied from culture to culture was whether dowries were preferred over bride prices.
Some of these medieval dowries were pretty nuts.
Dowries persisted throughout the Middle Ages. And while dowry practices were often found across all rungs of society—with the size of the average dowry varying based on the social status of the people getting married—it’s the dowries for the noble folks that are most closely recorded.
And, wow, some of these dowries were extremely lavish! How lavish, you ask? Imagine getting married and your dowry including, say, a hefty chunk of France. That’s exactly what King Louis VII got when his dad, Louis VI, married him off to Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose dowry included, well, all of Aquitaine.
The thing about dowries, however, is that they revert to the bride’s family if the couple gets divorced. So it was for Louis VII, who lost Aquitaine when he and Eleanor divorced in 1152. Aquitaine was included again when Eleanor remarried, this time to Henry Plantagenet, the Duke of Normandy—and future King of England.
Another notable medieval dowry belonged to Violante Visconti, who married Lionel of Antwerp (Duke of Clarence and son of King Edward III), whose package included 100,000 gold florins and a whole bunch of territory owned by her father, the Duke of Milan. When Lionel died soon after their marriage, his family refused at first to the return the dowry—in part because they thought the Duke of Milan had poisoned Lionel.
Before we jump forward to modern day, we also want to shout out Joan of Beaufort, the niece of King Henry IV who married the future King of Scotland, James I. The two had met while James was being held in captivity by the English, and got married upon James’ release. James still had to pay back his ransom in a series of installments, one of which was discounted. That discount was Joan’s dowry. Ah, young love!
Dowries are mostly a thing of the past … mostly.
In western culture, dowries are mostly a thing of the past. Why? Well, marriages today are rarely an arranged contract between two families. Instead, people marry for love! As arranged, formal marriages have gone the way of the dodo, so has the need for dowries and bride prices.
However, this isn’t true the world over. Despite dowries having been illegal in India since 1961, for example, they are still quite commonplace because Indian society still practices arranged marriages. If you want to learn more about modern dowry practices in India—and the many issues that can arise from them—check out this great essay from Kavya Sukumar on Vox.com.