The Dowry

The dowry (the lump sum brought to the marriage by the bride) is still relevant: many French and Italian parents save for it from their daughters' earliest years. Serious problems existed, and perhaps still exist, for the dowryless. One of St Nicholas's prime works of charity was the provision, from his fortune, of dowries for three impoverished (and thus imperilled) daughters of a Patura nobleman. Portionless girls' chances of marriage were slim indeed and fathers of sons felt that desirable daughters-in-law came provided with the essential appurtenances. A practical solution in rural France 90 years ago, if the bride's family were very poor, was for a public collection to be taken up for the dowry or dot: donors received a kiss and a glass of wine from the pretty girls who made the collection. A father's first duty was to provide the dowry; if he died, the responsibility fell upon the brothers of the family. About 1890 Lucy Mary Garnett, a visitor to Turkey, was advised to avoid a certain young lawyer as 'not nice'; but the community nevertheless gave him full marks for striving to accumulate dowries for his orphan sisters. He had married one girl off with both dowry and dignity and was now working hard for the second.

Enterprising girls did not necessarily rely upon hard-pressed parents for endowment. In the nineteenth century thrifty girls from the Greek and Turkish islands worked as servants on the mainland and wore their savings as massive coin necklaces, excellent advertisements to prospective suitors and go-betweens. In pioneer countries a dowry was not always in coin: in America it might be a feather bed, valuable indeed, and Dutch Manhattan brides wore to the altar as many petticoats as they could carry, to demonstrate comfortable wealth. But all in all, cash was the usual provision: Judge Samuel Sewall's wife, Hannah Hull, daughter of Captain Jonn Hull, the New England mintmaster of the seventeenth century, received as dowry her own weight in silver 'pine-tree shillings', and a London tradesman in the eighteenth century disposed of his eleven daughters giving to each girl her own weight in halfpennies. They were not sylphs. The lightest received £50 ! The other traditional marriage payments are far from forgotten.

A brideprice or kalym of from £10,000 to as much as ;£ 40,000 is demanded in the remote central Asian republic of Turkmenia. Better educated, prettier girls fetch the best prices, although education only to about the age of twelve is required; highly educated women are said to make poor wives and, more important, to be less amenable to husbands' discipline. Girls cannot evade the system; in the past elopement has meant pursuit and stoning to death, with the girl's mother throwing the first stone, and it is not entirely certain that this punishment has died out in remote villages untouched by law. For families with several sons, assembling brideprices may be wearisome; if the price is paid in instalments to ease the burden, the bride returns to her father after the honeymoon and does not meet her husband again until the full sum has been handed over.

In Macedonia, girls are greatly outnumbered by men, and so although the sale of brides is now of course forbidden by law, eligible girls nevertheless command high prices. In 1974 one man complained to President Tito that a prospective bridegroom must pay to the girl's father between 40,000 and 60,000 dinars before a wedding can be arranged, and a further 40,000 dinars in gold later. (I've no idea what this ancient currency comes to in euros, which I think is what is current per? Now, I'm wrong, although it was a part of the former Yugoslavia it is now not part of the EU and their currency is the Macedonian dinar.) The letter reached the cabinet of the Macedonian State Government, but a spokesman said that the problem cannot further be solved by legal means, since the practice — acknowledged to be widespread — is already outlawed. Nothing but a shift in social attitudes will resolve it.

Throughout marriage negotiations the go-between is still likely to be an influential figure. Until about 1850 in the isolated Plougastel peninsula, Brittany, when a marriage offer was on the table, two 'bazvalans' or intermediaries visited the bride by night: her mother showed approval of the union by her willingness to light a fire for the emissaries and they began a glowing — and not entirely truthful — account of the wealth and charms of the applicant. 'Lying like a bazvalan' is an old Breton saying. For form's sake they first refused the girl's mother and grandmother, jocularly offered to them before the bride was produced. The go-betweens, in odd stockings of red and purple, with white rods of office, later escorted the lover to visit his sweetheart and the couple ate from the same plate, sealing the contract. Perhaps this is something to remember for when we are doing an American barn dance, perhaps the caller could wear something like this and go around making matches? (Eating together was a binding ritual; in pioneer America a girl and boy eating from the same trencher were considered engaged.) If this portentous meeting was interrupted, the couple's children would be born crosseyed and humpbacked.

In the East one of the go-between's duties was to select astrologically compatible marriage partners. For 2,500 years Chinese marriage adhered strictly to the Li Chi, the Book of Ritual and Ceremonies. A girl's personal data were collated with the boy's; if her birth was on a day ruled by the tiger, and his was ruled by the dog, tiger devoured dog; a fire symbol in her name destroyed the wood symbol in his, and so on. But if the match was favoured by elders, difficulties were expeditiously brushed aside and the signs pronounced propitious. In Japan, until at least the 19305 the family asked a naishokiki — 'secret finder-out' — to seek an eligible girl for their son. A semi-secret meeting was arranged for the young people; boy and parents visited a friend's silkworms as the friend's daughter (the selected girl) tended them, or the young couple appeared, chancelike, at the same healing spring. Like the three-day rent marriage, so tactful an arrangement could be dropped without embarrassment if reactions were unfavourable. Nothing was said openly. But if the young people responded, a nakaudo or go-between superintended further negotiations, performed the marriage ceremony and was responsible for the welfare of the union.