Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

The joining of money and marriage

by David Johnson

Dowry Bride
A dowry—the money or property a bride brings to her husband at marriage—was common throughout much of the ancient world, and also flourished in medieval Europe.

In many places around the world, weddings were formal occasions, accompanied by much gift giving and ritual. The practice of dowries apparently originated when a bride's parents gave her presents. As time went on, the dowry developed various functions. A dowry of household goods often helped the newlyweds set up their own home. A dowry of property or jewelry would help the wife support herself if her husband died. Generally, the husband returned the dowry to his in-laws if he and his wife divorced or if his wife died childless.

Sometimes, the groom's family paid for the bride, often to compensate her family for the money spent raising her. If the bride had been a valuable worker, her family was sometimes compensated for the loss of her economic support.

Romans, who had complicated traditions governing marriages, had specific dowry laws. Traditional Chinese and Hindu engagements and weddings were also governed by specific rules and considerable ritual.

Today, traditional wedding observances are losing ground all over the world. However, some traditional cultures, including gypsies, many Hindus, and certain African societies, continue to see dowries as a usual part of marriage.

Dinka Perform the Dowry Dance

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In the African nation of Sudan, Dinka tribesmen celebrate an engagement with a party. During the dowry dance, men try to impress the family of the bride by jumping as high as possible.

Traditionally, the family of the groom has offered cattle, often as many as 100 animals, to the family of the bride. Families of men competing for the affection of one young woman would try to outdo each other by offering more cattle than their rivals. However, the brutal civil war that has been raging in the Sudan for the past 40 years has so disrupted agriculture that cattle are rarely given. Instead, families pledge to give cattle once the war is over and they are again able to do so.

Gypsies Announce the Engagement with a Necklace

A groom of the Roma people, or gypsies, pays the bride's family for the loss of their daughter. The bride price also ensures that the bride will be well treated by her new family. Negotiations between the families of the bride and groom can become quite extensive, with the bride's father calculating how much his daughter has cost him since her birth, and how much she could be expected to earn during her lifetime.

When agreement is reached, a ceremony, called a pliashka, is held. The groom's father brings a bottle of wine or brandy wrapped in a colorful silk handkerchief and attached to a necklace of coins. He puts the necklace around the bride's neck and embraces her. This indicates that she is now engaged and unavailable to any other man. The wine is drunk, but the bottle is refilled for use at the wedding ceremony.

Hindus Honor Their Ancestors

According to Hindu tradition, a young man repaid his debt to his ancestors by marrying. Therefore, everything surrounding a wedding, including the dowry, was imbued with ritual meaning.

Brides lived with their husband's family and poor families often saw the bride as another pair of hands. Therefore, the groom's family compensated the bride's family for their economic loss. On the other hand, in Brahman, or upper caste, households, the bride was seen as a burden, requiring the support of her husband's family. The bride's family had to pay the groom's family with a dowry for taking her off their hands. Traditional wedding rituals are often followed today in India, especially in rural areas.

Chinese Observed "Three Letters and Six Etiquette"

Traditionally, Chinese courtships and weddings followed complicated traditions, known as "Three Letters and Six Etiquette." The engagement became official when the groom's family presented betrothal presents, also known as "tea gifts," to the bride's family. These might have included a fruit basket, dried seafood, tea, a roast suckling pig, tobacco, and wine. The bride's family sent a dowry—clothes, jewelry, household decorations, linen, or kitchen utensils—to the groom's family shortly before, or at, the wedding ceremony.

Jewish Brides Wore Their Dowries

Historically, Sephardic Jewish brides in the Middle East received gifts of jewelry both from their own and their husband's families. The sole property of the bride, this jewelry was an insurance policy in the event of a divorce or hard times. Well-off women were sometimes literally bedecked from head to toe with hair ornaments, bracelets, rings, toe rings, and pendants of gold and precious stones.

Some jewelry served a dual purpose. Certain designs and stones were also amulets, to ward off disease or evil. Women generally wore their wealth constantly, since it was safer than storing it at home. In public, the jewelry was hidden behind voluminous scarves. In fact, some anthropologists believe the custom of the veil originated because women wanted to hide their finery from preying eyes. These customs generally died out in the 20th century.

Eastern Europeans Painted the Bridal Furniture

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During and after the Middle Ages, young Eastern European girls in rural areas typically received a dowry bed when she turned 12, followed by a wardrobe the next year. Furniture was often painted with designs representing family history and specific regions. Brides often entered marriage with enough goods to set up a household. Grooms received livestock and tools, so they could begin farming.

Clear Laws Governed the Roman Matrimonium

The ancient Romans recognized different types of marriage. An in manum marriage meant the bride and all her property came under the control of her husband. If the marriage was not in manum the bride's father controlled her and her property. Dowries were generally agreed upon at the time of betrothal, and paid after the wedding. The bride's family paid a dowry to the groom. The groom gave his bride a gift, often money, and an iron engagement ring, anulus pronubis.

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