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[Please note, I do not personally in any way endorse the inequality of women. I seek to understand better the politics of marriage in Renaissance Europe] 

UPDATE: Since this question was closed before more than one answer could be provided, I have edited this question to include the answers that I have found. - SEE BELOW -

Another way of stating my question is: What obligations did the groom's family assume in an arranged marriage (beyond maintaining the daughter-in-law) to justify the demand of a large dowry?

According to Margaret L. King in the introduction to "The Wealth of Wives" (1415) by Francesco Barbaro:

The dowry was a nearly universal phenomenon in Europe. It consisted of a quantity of wealth transferred from a bride’s natal family to that of her spouse, considered to be her share of her father’s patrimony, utilized in theory for her maintenance during the marriage and intended in the end, in most cases, to promote the welfare of her children. itergateway.org

Across Italy, and especially where we have good records in cities of Genoa, Florence or Venice, the price of dowries steadily rose:

Dowry inflation was characteristic of the Renaissance era, and was by no means specific to Venice. But rates of dowry inflation in Venice were exceptional. The average patrician dowry (net of trousseau, a gift to the groom) rose from 873 ducats in the period 1361–1390 to 1,230 ducats in the period 1466–1477, to 1,732 ducats in the period 1505–1507. itergateway.org

Florence even established a public debt fund in 1425 for the financing of dowries called the Monte delle Doti.

As a consequence of this inflation, an increasing share of familial assets were being devoted to dowries. According to Siwan Anderson's research in The Economics of Dowry and Brideprice:

dowries do seem to comprise a substantially larger proportion of household income [than brideprice], amounting to several times more than total annual household income

Amounts which seem far in excess of what is required for the groom's family to maintain the daughter-in-law. A fact that only seems to be further confirmed by the belief that the birth of one (or multiple) daughter(s) could be ruinous to the family's finances.

So, why did families pay high dowries?

The theories I have encountered so far:

  1. Dowries escalate where manual labor is plentiful and capital is valuable (presumably meaning the value of a female child's participation in the family is minimal and/or her maintenance is burdensome).

  2. Due to supply and demand, monogamous societies require a price to be paid to acquire a husband, while polygynous societies often see comparable prices paid for a wife in the form of a "bride price".

  3. And derived from Francesco Barbaro's own observations:

A woman's secondary function was as the means of attaching to the lineage by marriage allies from other Florentine families with desirable attributes --wealth, nobility, and political influence; she acts as "a sort of social glue." oneta.edu

The first two theories seem to rely upon modern economic analysis in which:

Marriage is viewed as a joint venture that offers greater efficiency in production

The last of these theory comes from contemporary analysis and does provide us with a clear benefit to the bride's family. But none of these explanations seem to adequately explain the advantages of paying a high dowry (and the subsequent placement of a daughter in a prestigious family) in the context of a patriarchal society where:

  • Children of the marriage belong to the groom's family
  • Women are unable to manage the assets in their dowry
  • Gifts to the bride remain property of the groom
  • Broken alliances between families are not cause to annul marriages
  • There is no requirement to bequeath property to (unmarried) female children
  • A father spent most of his energy devoted to training his sons

Under these conditions, where the groom's family seems to receive all the benefits of the marriage, why would a bride's family sometimes feel the need to mortgage their properties, limit marriage to only one daughter or prevent their sons from getting married until the daughters are married so as to help to provide a dowry?

A daughter did not have to be married off, and doing so would not continue the family's own bloodline in a system of agnate inheritance. Yet, research by Botticini and Siow (2003) suggests average dowries in Renaissance Tuscany corresponded to between 55 and 80 percent of a son’s inheritance.

Articles across the internet state the twin reasons of political alliance and increasing social status. But, if this is so, how specifically was the marriage to facilitate this? And where's the evidence? Is there correspondence which alludes to future support for or patronage of the bride's family? Or was it an unstated understanding that one looked after the interests of one's in-laws? In all these copious marriage contracts, handled like "business deals", is there mention of consideration for the bride's family or enforcement clauses should the groom's family fail to support the bride's family in the future or treated the daughter-in-law improperly?

I haven't yet found a source which elaborates on these matters adequately. At least not one that explains why it is rational in a society where the happiness of daughters was routinely disregarded for the bride's family to provide a dowry in excess of the cost of maintaining her. How specifically did the bride's family benefit from the alienation of their daughter(s) and a gift of a large dowry? Both of which might have otherwise been deployed to increase the inheritance of sons in the family?

ANSWERS I FOUND SO FAR

According to the conventional explanations, the bride's family provides a dowry to the groom's family to maintain the bride at the status level of the groom's family.

However, many dowries were devoted to endeavors well outside the scope of maintaining the bride. For example, Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici likely used the 1500 florin dowry from his marriage in 1386 to Piccarda Bueri as initial capital for a partnership stake in a new bank. And, Francesco Barbaro himself chastises men for choosing women for their wealth (as opposed to their virtue), implying that many people thought a dowry was a windfall for the groom's family.

And the maintenance cost of a daughter-in-law alone does not seem to explain why Florence, Genoa and Venice all passed sumptuary laws to try to cap what were seen as excessive dowries. Nor does it seem to explain why families in places like Greece would force sons to remain bachelors until the family was able to marry off their daughters. When only the son's progeny would continue the family line, unmarried sisters could very well be put to work to support their brother's inheritance instead.

The happiness of daughters and their comfort did not seem to have factored significantly into marital decisions in the overall patriarchal structure of Renaissance Italy.  

So, why would one family transfer wealth to another in excess of the bride's maintenance when the daughter could always remain unmarried and devote the value of the dowry to its own male children? Or, for a substantially reduced dowry, force the daughter to join a convent?

Financial and/or political alliances through marriage MUST have been a key reason. The social status of the groom's family and/or its enterprises must have been seen to be to the advantage of the bride's family and that the success of the groom's family would inevitably translate into benefits for the bride's family. In this way, providing a high dowry could mean two things: alliances with families with higher social standing and more funds towards larger enterprises.

What did this alliance by marriage entail for families at the various different levels of society and how was it beneficial to the bride's family?

How did the Bardi family benefit from marrying into the Medici? In the Wikipedia article on the Bardi family, it states:

The marriage of Contessina de' Bardi to Cosimo de' Medici around 1415 was a key factor in establishing the House of Medici in power in Florence. Cosimo rewarded the Bardi family for their support, restoring their political rights upon his ascent in 1434. In 1444, he exempted them from paying particular taxes.

But, in this case, there seems to be no dowry worth mentioning. Likely because Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici wanted to match Cosimo with a member of the Florentine nobility, it was seen that Contessina's noble status was a dowry sufficient enough.

But, at the same time, these alliances could and did backfire. How did Alexander VI actually benefit from Lucrezia's marriages (and for how long)? Marriage (and a dowry) seem to have done nothing to prevent Lucrezia's first husband from acting as a spy for Milan when his cousin (once removed) Ludovico Maria Sforza sided with Charles VIII of France. And, in the case of her second husband, the marriage seems to have become an impediment to Cesare's new alliance with Louis XII of France. So, Alfonso of Aragon may have been strangled by Cesare's hatchetman in part to reduce his family's obligations to the Kingdom of Naples. The obligations associated with alliances by marriage thus seems to have flowed both ways.

As a result, it seems marriages provided a symbolic, public and (usually) permanent means to link the bride and groom's families together into an informal arrangement of mutual cooperation, where each was assumed to help the other. Or at the very least, a marital alliance with one family impeded that family's ability to align with another family using the same means and upset existing balances of power. It also established an informal means of accountability between members of the two families, essentially extending the networks of people who can vouch for one another. The question of trust and fidelity was very important in the pursuit of trade opportunities, political office and/or warfare in the absence of strong legal systems.

The actual presence of the bride in the groom's family not only facilitated the production of heirs for the groom's family but it also provided a routine channel of communication between the two families. The daughter-in-law might also be more aware of how her natal family might benefit from any opportunities or news she encounters. Meanwhile the dowry seems to have provided some deterrent against extreme mistreatment or abandonment which might occur in the breakdown of mutual cooperation. But, significantly, it also seems to have represented the bride's family's capital contribution towards an investment in the future of the now collective endeavor of both families. Children of the marriage (with cousins in the bride's family) being a part of that "investment in the future".

Since a more prestigious family provided access to a more powerful family network, there was an incentive to match a daughter in as prestigious a family as possible. And, since those families not only had higher household expenses to maintain their members, but also greater projects in need of financing, higher dowries became the cost of a more preferential match for the bride's family.

The capacity to provide a large dowry was likely also a key consideration by the groom's family in order to filter out those families which might not be able to contribute to the family's long-term fortunes. For many families, the exclusivity of their circle of association was important for maintaining their power and influence.

As Siwan Anderson states:

Dowry then becomes a means to maintain social status by attracting a husband of at least equal standing for one’s daughter. It correlates with strongly class-based social systems where higher-level individuals — by virtue of wealth, power, and possibly claim to a superior hereditary status — do not willingly intermarry with the lower levels.

Families planned marriages carefully not only to form alliances but also as a means to maintain their intergenerational standing. So, both expecting a certain level of dowry, as well as being able to provide it, may have been an important instrument for families to maintain their membership in their social group over multiple generations.


Alas, I have not yet found a definitive source to support all these conclusions... and I do not have access to paywalls such as jstor to read germane articles. So if you come across sources that can elaborate or clarify further, please feel free to leave a link in the comment. Thanks.

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    Hi R J, you've tagged this with Italy and Renaissance, so does that mean you want answers specifically about Italy during the Renaissance period? I'm asking because dowry is still being practiced in some areas of the world in 2020.
    – shoover
    Nov 25 '20 at 0:21
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    @shoover, it is primarily towards better understanding the dynastic politics of Renaissance Italy that I direct my question. But even modern examples might help illuminate the specific benefits of dowries to the bride's family in patriarchal societies. Thanks.
    – R J
    Nov 25 '20 at 1:05
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    @RJ It seems to me you assumed dowries were universal to patriarchal societies, which isn't the case. Many in fact expected bride prices, which is the opposite of dowries. This all comes down to the specific value of women in the society in question. It is therefore best to specific the specific scenario you're interested in, or formulate a more general question on why dowries sometimes exist.
    – Semaphore
    Nov 25 '20 at 12:04
  • While the question was closed, and the site is community moderated, I think saying that moderators closed the question is misleading; none of the mods cast a vote to close the question.
    – MCW
    Nov 26 '20 at 20:33
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    Isn't the current question answered by the first quote, " utilized in theory for her maintenance during the marriage and intended in the end, in most cases, to promote the welfare of her children."? Plus the normal politics of status, which are described further down in your question. I'm left wondering if this is question or a hypothesis? (This is emphatically not a criticism; my personal opinion is that the question is good)
    – MCW
    Nov 26 '20 at 20:36
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Value and position of woman in society

Generally speaking, you could apply following rule of thumb- higher the position of women in society, higher the dowry. This is not universal, and there are exceptions, but it is mostly true. We will go by examples :

  • In Christian societies, especially as you mentioned in Roman Catholic Italy, marriage was monogamous and usually for life. Yes, there were extramarital affairs, but divorce was especially hard to get (remember Henry VIII and his breakup with Catholicism) .This means that essentially groom was stuck with his lovely wife to the rest of his or hers life. And, if he was from a wealthy family (nobility or rich merchants for example) his wife would have to be given proper rank, respect and most importantly expenses. Her children would be his successors, again with their own expenses. Financially speaking, woman would be a burden, especially in a rich family where she would not work as much as for example peasant's wife . Although even among poor peasants usability of women for hard field work was much lower then usability of men of her age (on average of course) . From the point of the bride's family, they would have less financial burden, and usually their daughter would not inherit any property if married (except dowry given at the wedding) . Furthermore, her offspring would inherit property of another family. All of this combined makes the case for the dowry to be payed by bride's family.

  • In polygamous societies, value and position of a woman is much lower. Not to paint with too broad of the brush, but for example in Islam woman is essentially slightly better then chattel. Man, especially rich, could have many wifes, use them for his sexual pleasure, is not under obligation to recognize their children as his heirs, and could legally divorce them. Exactly for this reason, dowry called mahr is actually payed by the groom, as some sort of security for the bride in case of divorce or groom's death. Essentially, in polygamous societies man would "pay to play" with certain woman, because his obligations toward her would be much diminished.

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    Evidence to support the assertions made would be valuable, particularly as I see several as being questionable. Nov 25 '20 at 14:41
  • @rs.29 Thanks for the answer. Is this an accurate summary of it: the bride's family pays the groom's family to take care of the bride in proportion to her worth (in society) and to compensate for the groom's opportunity cost. ?? This seems to imply that the market equilibrium falls close to the cost to maintain the bride at the status level of the groom's family. But does the historical record of dowry values actually bear this out? And, how does the bride's family benefit from this? For girls who might otherwise be a burden, families often placed them into convents (with much lower dowries).
    – R J
    Nov 25 '20 at 21:31
  • @RJ From the point of bride's family, they save them self cost of upkeeping unmarried female, have less successors for their own property, have their blood relatives (bride's future children) as successor of another property, gain social connections with groom's family. As for the groom, you said yourself - opportunity cost and again upkeep. Convents are not dumping ground, church would not simply take all of females and endanger natural reproduction. Although they did somewhat serve to lessen eligible male/female imbalance.
    – rs.29
    Nov 26 '20 at 22:20
  • @PieterGeerkens Be more specific, I don't see anything questionable, these are all known facts, although presented in general manner because the question is not specific. But larger dowry for larger societal status, and groom actually paying for bride (reverse dowry) in polygamous societies are simple well-known truths.
    – rs.29
    Nov 26 '20 at 22:22
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    @rs.29 Thanks for commenting. The significance and utility of blood relatives and social connections needs even more emphasis and greater elaboration. Perhaps it is assumed that these automatically come with marriage, but from what I have read, the perceived value of these benefits seems to justify a dowry well above the maintenance cost of the bride. I ultimately found the following link to be quite helpful and in line with your comments about monogamous vs polygynous societies: economics.ubc.ca/files/2013/05/…
    – R J
    Nov 27 '20 at 0:49

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