9.2 How Big Is Your Dowry? (rebroadcast)

Being beautiful, witty, good natured, and accomplished is good, but for many women in history having a dowry was better. This episode discusses the rise and (to some extent) fall of the dowry.

This episode is part of Series 9: The History of Getting Hitched.

Full Transcript

Welcome to Her Half of History. My name is Lori. This week Teresa signed up as a lovely new supporter on Patreon so she can access bonus episodes, answer polls about future series, and have the satisfaction of knowing that she supports scholarship and the arts, just like powerful women before her. To be like Teresa, click on the link in the show notes or visit Patreon.com and look me up as Her Half of History.

The current series is The History of Getting Hitched, and today we get to the question that really matters. Not how much does he love me? No, not that one. Today we are reaching back to a question I asked back in series three. This rebroadcast is now episode 9.2: How Big Is Your Dowry?

If you are a Jane Austen fan, you will know that being beautiful, witty, good natured, and accomplished is good, but having a dowry is better. Austen’s impoverished heroines always get their man in the end, the sad truth is, it didn’t ork for Austen herself. She had no dowry. And she never married.

So what is this dowry thing? And why, as Mr. Bennett said, should a father have to bribe worthless young men to marry his daughters? Is it not incredibly insulting to a girl to think that the punk in question should need bribing? Are we women not enough as we are?

One landmark study on this is from George Murdock’s 1967 Ethnographic Atlas in which he surveyed 1,167 preindustrial cultures and found that only 4 percent used dowries (Anderson, Why Dowries Have Declined, 270). 4 percent! I mean, Jane Austen was just super unlucky then, right? She could have been born in a culture where no one had dowries. However, that’s a misleading look at it. The vast majority of cultures have very small population counts. A huge swathe of humanity lived in the cultures that stretched across Eurasia, which is precisely where the dowry flourished.

What many more cultures have is not dowry but brideprice. Brideprice dates back at least to 3000 BCE and was common among Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Hebrews, Aztecs, Incas, etc (Anderson, Economics of Dowry and Brideprice, 152). It is also common among the less famous pre-industrial societies. In Murdock’s study of 1,167 cultures, 2/3 of them did have brideprice. So what happens is that if a man wants to marry a woman, he (or his father) must pay the brideprice to the father of the bride. It’s the complete reverse of a dowry.

It’s also extremely similar to buying a slave. However, in theory (in theory, mind you), it’s not intended that way. A brideprice was typically considered a recognition that a woman has value. Her labor is worth something. Her ability to produce children is worth something. She is wanted by both her own family and by a groom.

This painting by Michel Garnier is called The Marriage Contract Interrupted. Because if all was not well with with the dowry, the bride’s obvious distress did not really matter. (Source)

In my own religious upbringing, there’s a movie so old that it was already an outdated joke by the time I was a child, but it still got trotted out now and then, mostly for laughs. It’s a short set on an unspecified Polynesian Island. On it there’s a woman named Mahana who is shy, sullen, and generally despised. Her own father calls her ugly. Not the type of girl to fetch a great brideprice. But in the story, a groom arrives who does not negotiate the brideprice down. Instead he negotiates it up, paying a full 8 cows for her hand in marriage, as opposed to the two or three that are customary. As a result, Mahana feels valued. She feels wanted. She blossoms. She becomes beautiful and cheerful. It’s supposed to be a heart-warming story about valuing other people and the impact that that can have on them. In reality, it sparked a great many jokes about being an 8-cow wife, as well as some complaints from feminists about exactly how we go about valuing other people. But it’s important to remember that huge numbers of women lived before the feminist movement got going, and many of them would not have understood the feminist complaint here. If you want proof, look no further than the author of the original short story this movie is based on. She’s a woman.

The short was called Johnny Lingo, if you need a laugh (Source)

So that’s the positive spin. In real life, brideprices don’t tend to be negotiated, according to economic research. They do go up or down depending on the age of the woman, but that’s because a younger woman can be expected to bear more children (Anderson, Economics of Dowry, 158). Other than that, brideprices tend to be relatively constant across whatever society we’re talking about.

Many of the cultures using brideprice don’t leave enough records for us to be sure how much the brideprice was, but we do know for a few. So, for example, a 9th century Visigoth man in love would expect to pay one-tenth of his wealth for his lady love, while his neighbor to the north in Frankish territory would have to pay a full one-third. In 20th century rural Zimbabwe, your average wife was indeed an 8 or 9 cow wife, which was equivalent to 2-4 times an average household’s annual income (Anderson, Economics of Dowry, 156). So not cheap is what I’m saying.

And yes, it’s possible to interpret that as valuing and honoring women’s importance to the family. But the negative spin is that it’s also possible to interpret it as slavery, and for many unfortunate women that is exactly what it is, even if she isn’t called a slave. A woman generally cannot return to her parents unless she can return the brideprice to the groom. That means a poor woman living with domestic violence has nowhere to run. Brideprice is definitely linked with increased abuse of women (Anderson, Economics of Dowry, 170).

Abusive or not, the brideprice is a long way from what Jane Austen thought was normal. The economists and anthropologists who study this have found that brideprice is associated with the so-called simple societies: the ones where social stratification is limited. Also with societies that practice light agriculture with tools women handle well, rather than the heavy plows which reduce women’s economic contribution. Also with societies that practice polygyny, meaning one man with multiple wives. And also with the possibility of divorce (Anderson, Economics of Dowry, 152-157).

Over time all of these factors shifted across Eurasia, and the marriage payment started to go the other direction. But it’s not a one-time break. There are cultures that practiced both brideprice and dowry at the same time, China being one example.

Unlike brideprices, dowries generally are individually negotiated. In a stratified society, how much money the groom has is only one factor. His social standing is important too. So a bride has to have enough assets to attract a groom who is at least her social equal, if not better. At the same time, her future economic contribution is often negligible, or at least she contributes no more than any other woman who can keep house. If a valuable groom is allowed only one wife, he may find it worthwhile to hold out for one with a large dowry because he won’t get a second shot at this unless his first wife dies. Therefore, the price goes up.

Now the question is, what happens to the dowry after the marriage? Because it is not just a bribe to the husband. It is a gift a father gives his daughter. And it remains hers after the marriage. True enough, the husband usually controls it, which is too bad for her. But at no point does it belong to him. The dowry is her security in case something goes wrong.

So, for example, in the Code of Hammurabi, it says that:

If a man set his face to put away a . . . wife who has presented him with children, he shall return to that woman her dowry and shall give to her the income of field, garden and goods and she shall bring up her children . . .

If a man would put away his wife who has not borne him children, he shall give her money to the amount of her marriage settlement and he shall make good to her the dowry which she brought from her father’s house and then he may put her away.

(Code of Hammurabi, 137-138)

Thus the dowry provides for a woman who is abandoned by her husband. And what if things go the other way, well, the Code of Hammurabi provides for that too:

If a woman hate her husband, and say: “thou shalt not have me,” they shall inquire into her antecedents for her defects; and if she have been a careful mistress and been without reproach and her husband has been going about and greatly belittling her, that woman has no blame. She shall receive her dowry and go to her father’s house.

(Code of Hammurabi, 142)

Now I cannot fail to notice that this part is all contingent on her behavior. Whereas he is allowed to divorce her without any inquiry into his defects. But my point today is that the dowry is still hers.

I do have to say that if it so happens that the inquiry does reveal some defects, such as “gadding about” or “belittling her husband” as it says in my translation, then she gets thrown into the water, but we’ll try to ignore that for now and focus on the dowry itself.

If the woman dies, the dowry still doesn’t belong to the husband, who is not even mentioned in the law that says:

If a man take a wife and she bear him children and that woman die, her father may not lay claim to her dowry. Her dowry belongs to her children.

(Code of Hammurabi, 162)

Now all of this is laid out in the law, and the only real reason for making a law is because some people aren’t naturally doing all of this of their own volition. So let’s assume that plenty of women were being cheated out of the dowries. But on the books, at least, it was her property regardless of how the marriage turned out.

The code of Hammurabi is written on this stele which is currently in the Louvre in Paris. (Source)

So the positive spin on the dowry is that this is not a bribe to a groom. What it really is is a pre-mortem inheritance for girls. A father loves all his children, in theory. He provides for his sons with a post-mortem inheritance, meaning that they get a share of the estate after he dies. The dowry is where his daughters come in for their share of the estate. Because dowries were individually negotiated, it is hard to say whether girls were getting an equal share, but there are studies that show that in Renaissance Tuscany, a girl’s dowry was between 55 and 80% of her brother’s future inheritance. So not equal, but honestly higher than I would have expected. In colonial Brazil, a girl’s dowry could actually be double what was going to her brother. So much higher than I would have expected (Anderson, Economics of Dowry, 161). But even if a father intended to be absolutely egalitarian, the timing difference means that there’s an unknown factor involved. A father’s estate might be worth a lot at the time his daughter gets married, and in financial ruin by the time a son inherits. And it could also go the other way around. Too bad for the daughter.

If you think about it in terms of an inheritance, it’s a lot more similar to something we still do today. In the modern world, we work hard to provide a good education for our kids, both boys and girls, on the theory that a good education is what will allow them to eventually get a good job, and that job is what is going to support them through life. But that whole concept is fairly modern. In the past, good jobs (especially for girls) were not really a thing, so what you did to provide for your girls was work hard to give her a good dowry, and that dowry (plus the groom it attracts) is what will support the girl through life. In 15th century Florence, there was even a fund where fathers could deposit money at regular intervals to build up the dowries as their girls grew up, in exactly the same way that modern American parents may set up a fund for their kids’ college education. The Florentine government got to use the money in the meantime and everyone’s happy, at least as long as it lasted (Anderson, Economics of Dowry, 161).

Now what about girls who for whatever reason, weren’t going to be getting much in dowry? Well, that depended on her exact situation. Dowry was used by all classes of society in medieval Europe. It’s just that in a poor family, the dowry might consist of a bed or some household tools for the new home (Yalom, 47). If the girl’s a bit better off, it might also include servants, livestock, or land. If nothing is forthcoming from parents, then a girl might hire herself out in domestic service. In medieval Italy, sometimes the pay arrangements were such that she got only room and board for years, but that at the end of her service the employer would pay her dowry (Yalom, 84). In that case, it’s hardly a pre-mortem inheritance, of course, but it is a girl providing for herself in the best way that she could under such a system. Another option was to get her to a nunnery. Placing a girl in a convent was only half as expensive as providing a dowry, hence the appeal (Yalom, 87). Non-Christian countries sometimes had similar possibilities.

This painting by Fra Angelico depicts the story of Saint Nicholas (aka Santa Claus) providing bags of gold to be three girls’ dowries. (Source)

And that is just the beginning of the downside. Even if a large dowry was meant to be a father providing for his daughter in the best way that he could, the system had plenty of negative impacts along the way. The first being that a girl without a dowry would struggle to get married at all. And she still wouldn’t have any other great options for her own support.

There is also the question of what it does to the father-daughter relationship. Sons would get married and bring their wives’ dowries under family management, with potentially profitable results. But daughters would get married and remove their dowries from under the family management, making it a significant drain on the family finances. That’s hard on a family who’s already stretching the budget, be it large or small. Not every father was super loving about it. Ancient Greece is widely reported to have high levels of female infanticide because a daughter was a financial liability by her very existence (Ingalls, 251).

There is also what it did to the husband-wife relationship. Dowries were often paid in installments. One common arrangement was to pay 1/3 before the bride moved into her husband’s house. The remaining 2/3 were paid in installments over a period of years (Yalom, 85). Then as now, things happen, maybe you can’t or won’t pay when the bill comes due. The husband, who was counting on income from that dowry, gets mad. And guess who is awfully available to take his anger out on? That’s right, the wife. It was a very common source of marital friction and abuse.

So, lots of problems in execution, even if we want to take the super-positive spin on intent.

And indeed, many people in the past were concerned about the impact dowries were having on their society. So concerned that some politicians tried to limit the practice and Plato advocated an absolute prohibition against it. But female infanticide wasn’t his reason. Wife beating wasn’t his reason. No, no, he said that banning the dowry would be good because then there would be “less insolence on the part of the wives and less humiliation on the part of the husbands” (Ingalls, 251, and Plato). Thank you, Plato, for reminding us that the only relevant issue is how the husband feels about it.

In any case, Plato’s suggestion was not implemented. Dowries were alive and well when Jane Austen needed one 2000 years later.  But something has changed in the last 200 years, right? Because no one I dated asked me the size of my dowry. For those of us who never worried about a dowry, here’s the scoop. Dowry payments declined with modernization for Europe and North America. The papers I’ve read all agree on that. They even agree on the different factors involved. They just don’t agree on the relative importance of the factors. But in no particular order, here are the reasons:

  1. With capitalization, both grooms and (to some extent) brides have expanded access to employment that can provide for their support, rather than needing to inherit property for their support.
  2. With changing inheritance laws, if girls are allowed to inherit an equal share in the post-mortem will, it is no longer necessary to give them a pre-mortem inheritance.
  3. With changing marital property laws, the dowry is less important for a wife’s protection because a woman can expect a share of the combined assets in case of divorce.
  4. As inherited social status became less important, grooms in the nobility were no longer as valuable, so a bride’s family did not need to pay for the privilege of bringing a title into the family.

But all this is pretty high-level theoretical, and what I really wanted was a rollicking good story about the last dowry payment paid. Unfortunately there is no such story because the last dowry payment has not yet been paid. Dowries are dead in my culture, but not in many, many others. It is particularly well-documented in India, where dowries didn’t just fail to die in the 20th century, they actually increased to the extent that the average dowry payment in 1980 was 14 times the amount in 1920, and can now amount to six times the annual income of the bride’s family, which is massive (Anderson, Why Dowry Payments, 270).

The question is why? And the answer, at least according to an article in the Journal of Political Economy, is the caste system. In Europe, dowries broke down as people decided that having money was more important than having a title. In India, being from a higher caste is still very important. But modernization means that many families in lower castes can afford to pay high dowries in order to marry their girls into a higher caste family. Her children will inherit their father’s caste. The potential brides in that higher caste must match those high dowries in order to avoid being left single or marrying down in caste, where, again, the children will inherit their father’s lower caste. So there is competition between the brides, driving the price for a groom up.

To a Western ear, it’s almost funny, because we don’t think about grooms being worth any price. Or do I mean they are priceless? Something like that.

But it is in fact, not funny at all. One woman is killed every hour in a dispute over dowry (One Indian Woman). It is a huge, huge problem, despite the fact that it’s actually illegal to have a dowry in India and has been since 1961. And they’re not the only ones. The dowry is still common in south Asia, the middle east, and north Africa. It’s also still used in Western countries that have subcultures from these areas. In fact, I have seen more than one website lamenting that dowries are forbidden in India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Kenya, but they are not illegal in the UK.

Nor is it illegal in the US, though it’s risky to try to enforce it through the courts. The case law is contradictory as various courts have tried to figure out whether these religious marriage contracts constitute a valid pre-nuptial agreement or not (Awad, Neil). Same have said yes. Others have said no. I am no lawyer, so I will refrain from giving you any legal advice on that subject.

Today’s sources are a hodgepodge of different articles and websites. I will put some of more readable ones up on the website herhalfofhistory.com, and including the ones that give you the exact mathematical calculations to determine how much your groom is worth. dFollow me on Twitter @her_half or on Facebook or Instagram at Her Half of History. Reviews and ratings make my day. Or indeed my week. Come back next week to learn out why a diamond ring has anything to do with getting hitched. Thanks!

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