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  • Dowry Fossil May 13, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite, Ancient, Medieval, Modern , trackback

     money in hand

    A wrong time post… There are few things in history as fascinating as the archaic customs that have been handed down from generation to generation and that survive in our societies like the tail-bone’s pointy edge on our spines. A particular Beachcombian favourite is the dowry. Civilisations basically fall into three categories here: those where the bride’s family pay the bridegroom for taking a daughter off their hands (the dowry); those where the bridegroom pays the bride’s family for the bride (the dower); and those with neither or both of these institutions. In European history the dowry has been, of course, by far the most important. Traces of the dowry can be found in the Europe’s seeding bed: the Fertile Crescent and the Archaic Mediterranean. And much of Europe (though by no means all) resorted to the dowry, depending on class and location, down to the eighteenth or even the nineteenth century. It would be interesting to establish what was the last corner of Europe to pay dowries or whether even if that condition continues? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com We’ll come to the dowry fossil in a moment.

    If you were a parent with mainly daughters – and a third of numerous families fall into that category, including potentially Beach’s – then the dowry system was a killer: the modern equivalent of having to put all your kids through university. Why did parents bother to shell out for the honour of having their daughters deflowered by some spotty butcher’s son down the street, a kid who would after conspicuously spend their money? They did so because of course it was dishonourable not to do so: paying your dowry was all part of the social dance. Indeed, the dowry was so important that it was there at the birth of the modern welfare state. The Republic of Florence’s Monte delle Doti was an early fifteenth-century fund into which fathers could pay a contribution and eventually have dowries covered. It is the closest thing from the middle ages that we have to modern ‘national insurance’.

    So what about this last surviving trace of the dowry system. It is, of course, there in the convention that the bride’s family pay for the wedding of their daughter and also that the wedding takes place in the daughter’s home town. Beach knows from anecdotal evidence – though not he should say, ever the traditionalist when it suits him, his own wedding… – that this custom is in abeyance. A glance through the internet glossy pages gives this all a statistical edge: ‘just under one in 10 (9%) [marrying couples] would adopt a more traditional approach and expect the bride’s parents to pay for their wedding’ (UK 2012). As a father of two daughters one sentence particularly got Beach’s attention: ‘There’s no law that says every wedding has to cost more than $15,000, or $10,000, or even $5,000.’ Talk about choking on the breakfast cereal… By 2100 the bride’s family will no longer pay, though there is a good chance that the tradition of the bride’s town will survive. The fossil is slowly being sanded away to nothing.


    15 May 2013: Invisible writes in: ‘I don’t know if this counts or not, but many religious orders (and I’m only speaking for the nuns – I don’t know about monks.) still either require or strongly suggest a dowry. This pays for things like health insurance and living expenses. Some of it may be refundable if the candidate does not stay – and it would be interesting to know if one would get more of the dowry back if the order decided she was not suitable rather than the aspirant decided to leave. Candidates are also provided with lists of ‘trousseau’ items – sensible shoes, toiletries, stockings, etc. – to bring with them. This kind of shopping could be an amusing exercise in culture shock during the last gasp of religious life before Vatican II – imagine shopping for veil pins, nun’s shoes and black stockings while wearing a miniskirt. Some girls were feted at ‘showers’ and given gifts to take with them to the convent. So possibly the dowry still survives in the world of the Brides of Christ. I have always jokingly told my daughter’s suitors that she comes fully equipped with a dowry and trousseau. Oddly enough, all of them knew what I meant. Being something of a reactionary, I have assembled a trousseau that will allow her to entertain on the scale of an Edwardian ambassador’s wife. The convent-embroidered linens will look lovely with the Ikea furniture.’ Thanks Invisible!