Marriage Agreements. After a man and woman were betrothed, their families typically negotiated a marriage contract. There were many different economic arrangements involved in a marriage contract. Inherited from the ancient practices of the Romans and the Germanic peoples, these compacts evolved and changed over the course of the Middle Ages. In Roman practice the bride’s family provided a dos (dowry) at the time of her marriage to assist the couple in establishing their household. By the third century the groom’s family was providing the bride with a substantial marriage gift, the donatio propter nuptias (donation on account of marriage). This gift usually exceeded the amount of the dowry, indicating that wives had become increasingly prized. In an 866 letter to the Boris I, King of the Bulgarians, Pope Nicholas I mentioned that in the marriage ceremony the man conveyed property to the woman through a written agreement. Moreover, there is evidence that throughout the early Middle Ages, the value of this gift was increasing, suggesting that women were in demand as marriage partners and men were having to pay for the privilege of marrying. This situation has been explained in two ways. Some scholars have suggested that there was a demographic imbalance in the population, with men significantly outnumbering women. Others have pointed out that the practices of polygamy and concubinage made a large proportion of eligible women the wives and mistresses of relatively few elite men; thus, there were fewer women available to marry other men. In either case men would have had to make themselves attractive to prospective partners.
Payments to Brides. Among the Germanic peoples, the ancient bride price that had once been paid to the bride’s family had transformed into a payment to the bride herself from the groom. Moreover, this practice was supplemented by the Morgengabe (morning gift) made to the bride after her first night with her husband, a recognition that she had surrendered her virginity to the groom and that he had acquired sexual rights to her. Both these payments were originally monetary but, over time, they began to include land grants as well.
Payments to Grooms. Sometime in the early twelfth century, the economic burdens of marriage gradually shifted from the groom and his family to the bride and her family. This shift may be explained in part by another demographic change. During this period religious life was becoming increasing popular, and many new orders were founded. It is possible that the large numbers of men entering religious life, as well as strict enforcement of clerical celibacy, led to a shortage of marriageable men. Consequently, a woman had to make herself an attractive marriage partner by bringing a larger dowry to the union.
Equal Contributions. According to twelfth-century records, lawyers such as the Italian ecclesiastic and jurist Gratian stated that the bride’s contribution to the marriage (the dowry) should be at least equal to that of the groom (the dower). Notarial records kept in Genoa from 1155 to 1164 reveal that the contributions of the bride and groom were, in fact, equal, but that equality did not last for long. The Morgengabe fell into disuse, and the dower, which had previously been a free gift from husband to wife, was now reduced to lifetime use. At the wife’s death the property reverted back to her husband’s heirs, and the wife could no longer dispose of it freely in her will. For example, a woman could not bequeath to children of a second marriage land she had received as dower in a first marriage.
Other Marriage Expenses. When a female customary tenant (or serf) wanted to marry, she first had to pay the lord of the manor a fine known as the merchet. Long after other customary fines had fallen into disuse, lords still exacted the merchet. By the late fourteenth century, establishing whether a mother or sister had paid the merchet was one means of determining whether a villager was free or servile. The practice of allowing a woman to buy the right to marry freely became increasingly prominent after the mid ninth century, when the Church asserted the necessity of consent in marriage. Records of manorial courts include many instances in which a woman, or her father, paid a fine to the lord so she could many freely. Though in such a case a specific man had not yet been chosen as a husband, this practice was essentially the same as paying the merchet.
Dowry Inflation. As early as the mid twelfth century, some Italian cities were limiting to one-third the amount of household property a wife could claim upon her husband’s death. This practice was also common in French custom and occurred in England as well. Other legislation tried to limit the amount of the man’s donation to one-quarter of the value of the woman’s dowry. At the same time, however, the wife’s dowry was fully incorporated into the family’s property, with the result that it could be inherited by her husband and children rather than being left to a person or persons chosen by the wife in her will. By the late Middle Ages the husband’s contribution had dwindled to insignificance while the size of the dowry had grown significantly. In fact, dowry inflation was so great that, as Dante commented, the birth of a daughter could strike terror in her father’s heart as he contemplated casting his family into poverty in order to provide her with a dowry. In the thirteenth century the problem was so severe that leaving money to provide dowries to poor girls became a favorite form of deathbed charity.
The Declining Status of Women. Other late medieval innovations indicate the declining status of women in marriage. For example, in the thirteenth century, married women in England were no longer allowed to control movable goods. All a woman’s land and chattels passed into her husband’s control at marriage. Instead of inheriting from her husband outright, a woman only had lifetime use of the land her husband had given her as dower. These changes were likely the result of marriage strategies implemented to consolidate the patrilineage. Families tried to betroth all their daughters, but only their eldest son. Consequently, this practice added to the demographic imbalance as more women than men were actively seeking marriage partners. Thus, women needed large dowries to attract an appropriate husband. At the same time, however, a wife’s rights to part of her husband’s estate were also curtailed. While these practices helped to conserve and even enhance the husband’s property and lineage, they did so at the expense of the woman’s father’s lineage and interests.
Georges Duby, Medieval Marriage: Two Models from Twelfth-Century France, translated by Elborg Forster (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).
Frances Gies and Joseph Gies, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages (New York: Harper & Row, 1987).
David Herlihy, Medieval Households (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985).