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  • Writer's pictureAllison Compton

A Well-Dowered Daughter: Dowries in Late Medieval & Early Renaissance Italy

Updated: Jul 21, 2021


Marsilio Cassotti and His Bride, Faustina by Lorenzo Lotto (1523)

Image credit: Marsilio Cassotti and His Bride, Faustina by Lorenzo Lotto (1523)


For a vast majority of human history, wealth has had a significant influence on interpersonal relationships and decisions about marriage.[1] To think it did not is to ignore the complex implications that economic considerations had, and continue to have, on the dynamics of family formation. It might seem distasteful today, but in late medieval and early Renaissance Italy, especially among the elite, parents and senior family members took an active interest in playing the role of architects and arbiters of young people’s marriages. Children could be betrothed at a young age, their fate already decided. Although the Catholic church always viewed consent as a prerequisite for a valid marriage, and the threshold for this legal consent to marry was twelve for and fourteen for boys.[2] The idea of romantic love did not matter much in this equation, and factors such as social standing and reputation, political power, wealth, as well as the physical attractiveness and health of the bride and groom were considered far more important when making a match.[3]


There are several reasons why parents took such care in arranging their children’s marriages: first, it ensured that wealth was kept within the family; second, it mitigated female sexuality outside of marriage; third, it made certain that children belonged to the patriline of the husband; and fourth, it perpetuated occupational, and therefore, social and class status. Matrimonial ties had direct consequences for the patriarchal family; far too many consequences to be left to fleeting lust and individual whim.[4] Along with the political standing and prominence of a family, the size of the bride’s dowry was a major part of the negotiations to form alliances between families and “the most significant factor in a young woman’s marriageability.”[5] While the relative importance of the dowry shifted and changed over time, the exchange of such significant sums of money shaped the economic and political destiny of communities, and the familial and sexual experiences of individuals during much of European history—until the the women entered the paid workforce in significant numbers during the rise of industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century.[6]


What is a Dowry & What was its Purpose?


A dowry is a gift of money, goods, and property from the bride’s family that was given to her upon marriage. Technically, a dowry remained the property of the bride and her family, and it was meant to offset the cost of support of a woman during marriage and provide a financial safety net for her widowhood.[7] Evidence for the giving of a dowry upon marriage is evident in Italy as far back as the ancient Roman Empire, and even then, it was considered the sign of a “respectable marriage.”[8] The Germanic tribes and Lombards that lived on the edges of the Roman Empire paid a brideprice, in the form of morgengabe (or morning gift). Morgengabe was the transfer of money from the groom to the bride’s family, and even its name suggests the groom was paying for control over the woman (and her sexuality), but women had significant control over their choice of husband.[9] The practice of morgengabe significantly decreased during the eleventh and twelfth centuries and all but disappeared in northern Italy by the thirteenth century, when the practice of giving a dowry was well-established.[10] In the case of the dowry, a woman had significant control over the money and goods in her widowhood, and it may have increased her prestige in the household, however, she had little power over her choice of husband. Over time, due to the increase of restrictions on women’s property rights, it became customary to pay the dowry in cash and not in goods and property.[11] Nonetheless, a dowry was a near universal social and legal requirement for a valid marriage in Italy (and throughout Europe) during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.[12]


In Tuscany, fathers were legally required to provide the dowry: they saved up, invested money, and gathered it from extended family members, to provide nearly equal dowries for all of their daughters.[13] If a female did not have a dowry, they would not have been accepted as a marriage partner.[14] Especially for individuals of high social standing, to marry without a dowry was not considered honourable, and most parents would not let their daughter marry without one because of the social stigma that would result.[15] Even if a girl became a nun, and most nuns were from the upper class, she had to bring a dowry with her when she entered the convent.[16]


How Did Dowries Connect to Social Class?


Dowries created a web of economic and social ties.[17] The cities of Tuscany during the late Middle Ages and into the Renaissance were highly conscious of social status and “were strictly hierarchical.”[18] The dowry not only cemented the financial side of the marriage, it was a direct reflection of a family’s and an individual woman’s social position.[19] In some northern Italian cities, there were even laws governing how women could dress in public based on the amount of her dowry![20] Of course, most families did not want to have the taint of a dishonourable marriage or an inappropriate dowry on their reputation, so they made sure the dowry was in lien with the family’s position.[21] Even though males carried on the patriline, a daughter with a significant dowry could bring in prominent in-laws into a family’s circle of influence, making the ties between elite families stronger. It even prevented social mobility and blocked people who would wish to climb the social ladder by solidifying the influence and “cohesiveness” of the upper class.[22]


Not only did dowries and marriage help form horizontal relationships in society, it also formed and maintained vertical ties as well.[23] Wealthy patrons could open up employment opportunities, provide loans, and even aid advancement in the civil government for people of lower standing.[24] Young women from urban poor families would sometimes work in the homes of well-to-do families to earn their dowries. The rich sometimes took responsibility for providing dowries for their domestic servants, former slaves, and poor girls as a widespread form of charity.[25] In Florence, there was even an Office of Wards that took care of dowries for orphaned brides.[26] However, this charity can also be considered as a way of upholding the social order and keeping poor women in their lane as wives and mothers.[27]


Although social mobility was difficult, the “middling artisan classes” were an exception to the rule. They sometimes had success in “marrying up” their daughters to a higher social class.[28] The daughters of father’s with an occupation in the minor guild frequently could “marry up” into a major guild.[29, 30, 31] The daughters of minor guild families also “married down” into the sottoposti (working labourer class). In a society where guild membership was tied to economic, political, and social status, it is very interesting that the minor guild artisan class “married up and down the social ladder.”[32] While guild membership determined the marriage potential and prospects of many people, so too did geography and community. [33] Most urban workers and artisans had to find their spouses within their neighbourhoods or parishes.[34] However, rich families did not confine their search to their immediate neighbourhood, they would search all over their city for a suitable marriage partner.[35]


Who Contributed to the Dowry?


In an interesting case study from Venice, the family of one Franceschina Querini spent half of the family’s net worth to provide her with a 1,000 ducat dowry for her to “marry up” into a noble family.[36] While some women were able up to climb the social ladder the way Franceschina Querini was able to do, it was not common because gathering a dowry that was high enough for an elite family to accept a bride from an “inferior” family would have been an untenable drain on the family estate of the bride and significantly cut into the inheritance any brother(s) would receive.[37] Fathers took primary responsibility for gathering and maintaining their daughter’s dowry, generally contributing over one-quarter of the amount, and they began saving and making arrangements as soon as a female infant was born.[38] Furthermore, it was not only legitimate daughters that needed a dowry, fathers even provided a dowry to their illegitimate offspring as well.[39] How do historians know that fathers took this paternal responsibility so seriously? It is evident in their wills; where they make provision for these disbursements to their daughters as part of their final wishes.[40] In a father’s absence, due to death or other factors, the responsibility to provide a dowry fell to a bride’s uncle or brother.[41] Increasingly, after the mid-fourteenth century, mothers even dipped into funds from their own dowry so it could be added to their daughter’s, and other members of the family—grandfathers, uncles, and brothers—contributed to dowries.[42] Acquiring an adequate dowry was a family concern and people relied on their network of extended family or patrons to provide dowries for their marriageable female kin.[43]


However, dowries were not only the sole concern of families, it also had a significant effect on society as a whole to ensure women had the means to make honourable marriages. Gathering a dowry was essential for this to happen and it became such a major financial concern that Florence and Venice began a communal fund called the Monte delle doti (from this point, referred to as the monte) as a way to ease the cost of saving a dowry.[44] A family could place a sum the money into an account in their daughter’s name for a term of 5, 7, 11 or 15 years, it would grow returns on the initial investment, and the money would be paid out to her husband upon her marriage. The monte was generally used by the ruling class to provide for their daughters. As evidence: two-thirds of the deposits into the monte were from affluent families.[45] A common initial contribution into the monte was 100 florins (far out of the financial means of a minor guild/artisan (who might earn 45-40 florins per year) and the sottoposti class (who could expect to earn a maximum of 33 florins annually.)[46] From a 100 florin deposit, investors were promised a return of approximately 500 florins for a 15 year term and 250 florins for a term of 7.5 years.[47] Although poorer parents who worked in one of the minor guilds, or sometimes a wealthy patron on a client’s behalf, would place as little as 11-39 florins into an account and it would grow into a 25-50 florin dowry within seven years—this was a respectable dowry for providing for a girl in domestic service or from an artisan background.[48] Although for the most part, poor families might barely be able to scrape together a dowry for their daughter(s) at all, even with the existence of the monte.[49] The average age of the bride was 18.3 years at the time of payout from the monte, according to Florentine records.[50] The monte became instrumental in the financial fate of a family and Florence and Venice as a whole.[51] Overall, the monte existed to facilitate the marriages of the elite and prosperous, and functioned to “sustain the political hegemony of that class.”[52]


When a family had gathered a dowry that was commiserate with their social standing, and in Tuscany the size of a woman’s dowry was highly correlated to her social class, the search for a husband for their daughter would begin.[53] Sometimes the competition for elite grooms was fierce! This was remarkably evident in the custom of the wedding procession of the bride to the home of her new husband with her dowry in tow and the social status of her family on display for the entire community to see.[54] The dowry can be seen as a daughter's portion of the estate granted to them before the patriarch died, as opposed to male heirs who had to wait until the patriarch died.[55] Among the elite, dowry inflation (the phenomenon of families providing increasingly lavish dowries) became such a problem that laws had to be passed to cap dowry payments.[56] Families feared that if dowry payments became too onerous it would threaten the financial health of the family in future generations.[57]


The dowry can also be seen as a form of disinheritance, as women generally could make no further claims on her family’s estate other than the dowry she brought into her marriage.[58] In some areas of Tuscany married and dowered women could not inherit from their father, mother, uncle, or brother.[59] By the late Middle Ages and throughout the Renaissance, families of all classes across Tuscany notarized their betrothal agreements and the transfer and receipt of dowries.[60] When the groom acknowledged the receipt of the dowry it meant he was satisfied and could not press any further claim on the bride’s natal family for more money or goods.[61] These laws and social customs functioned to financially protect the bride’s family.


What Happened to a Dowry After a Spouse’s Death


While the dowry was by law the wife’s property, the bride had almost no rights regarding the day-to-day management of her dowry while her husband was alive. She would only be able to control it independently after he died.[62] However, when the wills of Florentine married men were studied, it appears that 80% of husbands explicitly returned dowries to their wives; meaning 20% of the time, women had to go to court to regain rights over their dowry from their adult sons or other male family members.[63] Usually, the courts in Tuscany upheld and protected women’s claims to their dowries, especially if they had the notarized receipt of the dowry mentioned earlier.[64]


Nonetheless, even though the dowry was their wife’s property, some men stipulated in their wills that their wives could only have the equivalent of their dowry back if they remained a widow. It was as though men could “[control] their wives’ economic and sexual lives from the grave.”[65] Also, in cases when husbands died too poor to pay back their wife’s dowry, there was almost no recourse for the woman to obtain financial compensation besides demanding it from her father-in-law or her husband’s other heirs. [66] As another example of the financial constraints on women: when a wife predeceased her husband, he usually never had to go to court to press his claims on his late wife’s estate and property—it was automatically considered to be his to control without much fuss.[67] What did women do with their dowries once they controlled it? Similarly to men, they invested it, sold their property, opened up commercial ventures, and provided inheritances for daughter’s and sons.[68] The most compelling difference in men and women’s dispersal of their estate/dowry in their wills was that women tended to give money to female family members at a far higher rate than men.[69]


Marriage Patterns in Late Medieval and Renaissance Tuscany


In an excerpt from a letter written by Alessandra Strozzi, a woman from a prominent family in Florence, to her son discusses her daughter’s marriage and demonstrates how much of an influence the dowry had on marriage patterns and how females married very young.

If I had not taken this decision she would not have been married this year, because he who marries is looking for cash, and I could not find anyone who wanted to wait for the dowry until 1448, and part in 1450….We have taken this decision for the best; she was sixteen, and we didn’t want ro delay any longer in marrying her. [70]

Data from Tuscan archives backs this up. It was not uncommon for girls as young as twelve or thirteen to be betrothed, although only 1 per cent of 12-13 year-old females were married.[71] There was a very short window of time for families to find a suitable marriage partner for a daughter as more than half of all females married within a three year range in their mid- to late teens.[72] 16.5% of the female population of Florence was married by the time they were fifteen and the average age at first marriage for upper class females was shortly before their eighteenth birthday, by which age, 74.3% were married.[73] Marriage was almost the only life path open to women; 97% of females were married before their twenty-fifth birthday and only 1%remained unmarried by age 40.[74] However, when moving beyond analysis of the elite and turning attention to the majority of the urban population, the picture varies. When moving down social hierarchy, the median age at first marriage rises significantly: the daughter of an artisan minor guild family it was 16.95 years and then it rose again for the sottoposti to 17.15 years.[75] This was most likely due to a lack of adequate dowry and having to earn it through working in domestic service.[76]


In Italy at this time, there was a strong connection of female sexual propriety and family honour.[77] The pattern of early marriage for females is indicative of a culture who would not tolerate women of childbearing age being single and still living in the natal home.[78] There was far too much risk in this, families preferred to have females married off as soon as possible to prevent a possible stain on the family’s reputation.[79] The actions of one young woman in the kin group could impact the marriage prospects of her sisters, brothers, and even cousins. It should also be said that the quicker a daughter went to a husband and had children to care for, the quicker any feeling of independence would be curtailed. Marriage does appear to have been the more attractive option to most females, as only around 2.25 to 2.5% of women entered convents at some point in their lives.[80] If the family was aware there was lack of funds to provide a dowry for all of their daughters, they might decide to send her to a convent as a child if a family had multiple daughters, or one was illegitimate, “misshapen,” or disabled it was made clear that this was her destiny when she came of age.[81] If the family failed to male a match, a young woman might also be sent to a convent. Sometimes, if she were particularly devout and interested in a life of religious service, a young woman might even express her desire to enter a convent instead of marrying, for which she would receive a dowry to donate to the order she joined.[82] While poorer females generally could not afford the dowry to enter a convent, it was a popular choice for the illegitimate daughters of elite men, they joined religious orders at a rate of 12%.[83]


Let’s turn to the men. Males rarely married before their late twenties, their median age for first marriage was 28.89 years, and some did not enter their first marriage until their fifties![84] This prolonged bachelorhood for men was considered completely normal, and even desirable, as he would be independent from his natal family.[85] There are several reasons for these demographic patterns in marriage. There are several reasons a man would be induced to marry or delay it: the family’s need for money, the opportunity for a socially and politically advantageous match, and the confluence of a personal affinity would help seal a betrothal.

[86] Rich men were more financially secure and there was no social stigma in continuing to live within the natal family even after marriage, this may have contributed to their early age at first marriage compared to other social groups.[87] Men from a minor guild background would often put off marrying to find a partner with a bigger dowry or a more connected family.[88] Men became fully independent heads of household after marriage and couples of the lower classes could not marry until they could support a household on their own.[89] When elite men did marry, they tended to be between 11.69 to 14 years older than their wives.[90] The records from Florence (as a reminder, these records tell us most about the upper class of society) show that 53.9& of marriages lasted less that 19 years and 46.1% of marriages lasted between 20-39 years.[91] In a society where most women did not have a profession, this demonstrates the need for women to have financial protection when a husband died.


When a wife died, men remarried at a far higher rate than women did.[92] However, if a woman was still relatively young, she might remarry again if an advantageous match that was expedient to family interests could be found and she could still bear children.[93] Usually this was to a man who was already a widower, or who had delayed marriage for a long period. The age difference in second marriages could be even more striking than with first marriages, but even when older men remarried, they still aimed to wed virgin, teen brides.[94] Couples of lower socioeconomic status had a much smaller age gap, sometimes as little as two or three years.[95] For elite marriages the power imbalance is striking and age difference is a major factor in maintaining a husband’s supremacy in the household.


A Florentine merchant describes in his diary (dated between 1391 and 1435) about his motivations for his four marriages, each time he received a substantial dowry. Before remarrying after the death of his first wife (who had died in childbirth) he admits that he “had no money, but...was about to marry and to receive a dowry” which would enable him to buy a partnership in a business venture. The merchant’s second wife also died in childbirth, and he wrote “I hope to find a wife who will bring me a large dowry if God sees fit to bestow it on me.” His third wife brought with her a handsome dowry of 2000 florins. Unfortunately, the merchant’s third marriage ended with the death of yet another wife in childbirth. He married for the fourth, and final time, in 1421; and he received 1000 florins for her dowry.[96] This excerpt from only one man’s diary reveals marriage patterns in late medieval and Renaissance Italy and the importance of the dowries in forming these unions.


Conclusions


When studying the history of the dowry and marriage patterns in late medieval and Renaissance Italy we must keep in mind three important things: families were strictly patrilineal in this era and place, people did not view marriage as the joining of two individuals but as the joining of two families that had implications for the moral and financial stability of the community, and there were legal mechanisms in place to influence marriage ties and their impact on the perpetuation of class and economic status. While there is plenty of historical evidence to show the warm and affectionate relationships between married couples of this time, their unions were not driven by any notions of mutual intense sexual attraction or sentiment. In general, their only common interest when they married was increasing the prestige and influence of their family.


On the one hand, the amount of a bride’s dowry was a significant factor in a marriage negotiation, not only the groom’s ability to provide for her and their future anticipated children. It can, and has been interpreted by historians, as an indication that women brought significant financial resources, and therefore, some clout into her marriage.[97] On the other hand, we also have to consider that dowries constrained marriage choice, limited women’s financial independence, and functioned to funnel them into one life choice: marriage and motherhood.

 

Notes


1. Marion K. Kaplan, “Introduction,” in The Marriage Bargain: Women and Dowries in European History, ed. Marion K. Kaplan (New York: Harrington Park Press, 1985), 1.

2. Tovah Bender, “Negotiating Marriage: Artisan Women in Fifteenth-Century Florentine Society,” (PhD diss, University of Minnesota, 2009), 174.; Kaplan, 22, 23, 24.

3. Kaplan, 1.

4. Kaplan, 1.

5. Heather Gregory, “Daughter, Dowries, and the Family in Fifteenth-Century Florence,” Rinascimento; Firenze 27 (January, 1987): 226.; Kaplan, 2, 4.

6. Kaplan, 1-2.

7. Linda Guzzetti, “Dowries in Fourteenth-Century Venice,” Renaissance Studies 16, no. 4 (2002): 430.; Dianne Owen Hughes, “From Brideprice to Dowry in Mediterranean Europe,” in The Marriage Bargain: Women and Dowries in European History, ed. Marion K. Kaplan (New York: Harrington Park Press, 1985), 35.; Riemer, “Women, Dowries, and Capital Investment in Thirteenth-Century Siena,” in The Marriage Bargain: Women and Dowries in European History, ed. Marion K. Kaplan (New York: Harrington Park Press, 1985), 65.

8. Hughes, 14, 32.

9. Hughes, 18.

10. Hughes, 24, 31.

11. Bender, 25.; Stanley Chojnacki, “Dowries and Kinsmen in Early Renaissance Venice,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 5, no. 4 (Spring, 1975): 575.

12. Maristella Botticini, “A Loveless Economy? Intergenerational Altruism and the Marriage Market in a Tuscan Town, 1415-1436,” The Journal of Economic History 59, no.1 (March 1999): 104-5.

13. Gregory, 217.; Hughes, 4.

14. Gregory, 217.; Hughes, 34.

15. Bender, 25, 210.

16. Julius Kirshner and Anthony Molho, “The Dowry Fund and the Marriage Market in Early Quattrocento Florence,” The Journal of Modern History 50, no. 3 (September 1978): 428.

17. Chojnacki, 592.

18. Bender, 12.

19. Bender, 29, 121, 211.; Hughes, 42, 43.; Donald E. Queller and Thomas F. Madden, “Father of the Bride: Fathers, Daughters, and Dowries in Late Medieval and Early Renaissance Venice,” Renaissance Quarterly 46, no.4 (Winter, 1993): 698.

20. Bender, 212.; Hughes, 42.

21. Bender, 178.

22. Bender, 29, 49, 50, 177, 228.; Chojnacki, 576.; Gregory, 215, 217.; Hughes, 43.; Kaplan, 3.

23. Bender, 14.

24. Bender, 53.

25. Bender, 190.; Kirshner and Molho, 429.

26. Bender, 76, 147, 220, 221.

27. Bender, 215.

28. Bender, 14, 45.

29. Minor guilds are: armourers and swordsmiths, bakers, blacksmiths, butchers, carpenters, cloth dealers and tailors, graziers, linen manufacturers, locksmiths, millers, olive oil-merchants and provision-dealers, retail cloth dealers and tailors, saddlers and harness-makers, shoemakers, stonemasons, toolmakers and braziers, vintners, and wood-carvers

30. Major guilds are: bankers and money-changers, finishers and dyers of foreign cloth, furriers and skinners, judges and notaries, merchants, physicians and pharmacists, silk weavers and merchants, and wool manufacturers and merchants.

31. Bender, 69.

32. Bender, 70-1.

33. Bender, 56, 58, 155.

34. Bender, 159.

35. Bender, 153.

36. Queller and Madden, 685.

37. Bender, 70.

38. Kirshner and Molho, 415-6.

39. Kirshner and Molho, 415.

40. Bender, 214.

41. Chojnacki, 576.

42. Chojnacki, 587.; Queller and Madden, 690.

43. Bender, 214.

44. Kirshner and Molho, 404-4.

45. Kirshner and Molho, 414.

46. Bender, 211.

47. Kirshner and Molho, 404.

48. Kirshner and Molho, 418-9.

49. Bender 213.

50. Kirshner and Molho, 413.

51. Kirshner and Molho, 404.

52. Kirshner and Molho, 403.

53. Kaplan, 3.

54. Bender, 208.

55. Kaplan, 2.; Queller and Madden, 690.

56. Chojnacki, 572.

57. Guzzetti, 454.

58. Kirshner and Molho, 435.

59. Hughes, 33, 45.; Riemer, 61.; Chojnacki, 575.

60. Bender, 19.; Guzzetti, 434.

61. Hughes, 33, 45.; Riemer, 61.; Chojnacki, 575.

62. Bender, 214.; Queller and Madden, 104.

63. Botticini, 104.; Guzzetti, 433.

64. Guzzetti, 431-4.; Riemer, 62, 66.

65. Riemer, 63.

66. Guzzetti, 436.

67. Guzzetti, 461

68. Kaplan, 61.

69. Chojnacki, 590.

70. Quoted in Gregory, 220.

71. Bender, 115.

72. Bender, 126

73. Bender, 115.; Botticini, 107.

74. Bender, 106.; Botticini, 107.

75. Bender, 127-8.

76. Bender, 220.

77. Bender, 54-5.

78. Bender, 242-3.

79. Bender, 127-8.; Gregory, 220.

80. Chojnacki, 576.; Kirshner and Molho, 424-6.

81. Chojnacki, 576.

82. Botticini, 105.; Chojnacki, 576.; Gregory, 223.; Kirshner and Molho, 409.

83. Kirshner and Molho, 413.

84. Kirshner and Molho, 430.

85. Bender, 116-7, 119.

86. Bender, 117.

87. Bender, 121, 136.

88. Bender, 134-35.

89. Bender, 138

90. Bender, 120-1.

91. Guzzetti, 447.

92. Bender, 122, 132, 145.; Kirshner and Molho, 432.

93. Bender, 108-9.

95. Bender 124, 132, 160.

96. Shulamith Shahar, The Fourth Estate : A History of Women in the Middle Ages, trans. Chaya Galai (New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2003), 179.

97. Bender, 262.


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