When marriage is more of an economic transaction between families than a union of two people for reasons of personal attachment, it isn’t at all surprising that money gets involved.
There’s good reason for this. Taking a new person into your household entails new expenses; conversely, the household losing that person loses the benefits of their labor. How that ledger gets balanced — who ends up being seen as needing compensation for the shift — varies depending on place and time.
The version most of you have probably heard of is the dowry: wealth given by the bride’s family to the groom or the groom’s family as part of the marriage deal. It provides endless fodder for romance novelists writing historical tales, because much like college in the United States nowadays, it was a big expense, and one families had to plan for early if they wanted to handle it right.
One of the ways to view a dowry’s function is that it “purchases” a husband for the daughter, and as with anything else, the more money you have, the better a product you can buy. You can also cast dowry in modern terms as the startup fund for a household — especially when you consider the different forms it might take. Money is one possibility, but household goods like linens or furniture are another; assembling your trousseau was a very practical thing once upon a time (and still is in some places), and a girl who could show off excellent needlework skills was more attractive than one who couldn’t sew to save her life. And then, of course, there’s land: the dowry of a royal bride might include entire cities or provinces.
Dowry might also be a form of inheritance for the bride, and therefore of financial insurance — but how well that works out depends on the situation. If the bride retains control of her dowry, that’s one thing, but if the groom or his family controls it, then it’s all too easy for a feckless husband to fritter it all away. In theory a husband is often liable for returning the dowry to the bride’s family if he sets her aside or their marriage is otherwise ended, but historical records are full of lawsuits over the failure to do so.
But that’s only one approach to the marriage transaction. The inverse of dowry is bride price or bridewealth: the groom or his family transferring property or wealth to the bride’s family. Sometimes this is again a form of financial security for the bride, but in other situations it’s very much not, depending on whether her family is expected to return the bride price in the event of the marriage failing. It also theoretically demonstrates the husband’s ability to support a wife.
Then there’s dower — which, despite the similarity of sound, is not the same thing as dowry. It’s more akin to bride price, in that it’s a payment made by the groom, but in this case it goes directly to the bride herself, rather than to her family (though it may be held in trust in some fashion). This takes a bunch of different forms, and the legal intricacies are too much to get into here, but it’s generally based on the idea that the wife depends on her husband for financial support, and if he dies or divorces her, she’ll need something to keep her afloat.
You might think that pre-nuptial agreements are a modern thing, and the province of rich people who expect to have ugly divorces a few years down the road. In fact they’re quite old and often quite necessary, even for people who don’t have much in the way of property. As with any type of legal transaction, it’s better for all involved if the terms of the deal are laid out unambiguously, and documented for future reference. In Judaism there is the ketubah; Islam also has marriage contracts. Other societies may have written documents specifying the dowry, bride price, dower, or other financial arrangements, especially in the event of one spouse’s decease — at which point they intersect with the broader category of wills.
How these things fit into their respective societies is a complex question, and the details are a matter of debate among anthropologists. Are dowries more common in cultures where capital is the primary source of wealth, and bride prices in cultures where that honor goes to labor? Are one or both of these demeaning to women, or a way of providing for them and their future? What significance can you read into the form the gift takes, be it money or land or goods? What factors cause the expected gift to rise or fall in value?
It’s a little easier to talk about the effects of such things. Being required to pay money up front before you can get married means that people without much (relative to their social class) are going to have a harder time getting married. (And don’t think that shipping your spare daughters off to become nuns will solve the problem: some convents required a dowry, too, before they would take in a new novice.) This leads to people marrying later, or borrowing from their relatives to raise the necessary sum, or even engaging in crime — stealing cattle, for example, if you’re expected to pay bride price in the form of a herd. In Europe, one of the pious and charitable things you could do was to fund dowries for girls with none. And the dower-style terms of a ketubah were in part a workaround for the problem of an up-front sum, letting a husband essentially promise money later, when he’s more likely to have financial security, rather than having to deliver it at the outset.
Such things have mostly fallen by the wayside in the United States and other Western countries, but that doesn’t mean they’re entirely gone. Remember me saying that a bride’s trousseau was material she brought into the marriage, for the setting up of a new household? Now think about wedding registries, which can fill the same practical function. And think about the custom, still widespread today, of the bride’s family paying for the wedding and reception. There’s expense associated with marriage — quite a lot of it, if you let the wedding-industrial complex talk you into all the optional bells and whistles — and we still have to answer the question of how to pay for it today. It’s just the priorities and details that have changed.