Welcome to My World: From Marriage by Capture, by Contract, to Mutual Love

Reprint (2017 Screamin Mamas)

Marriage for the bride has certainly evolved over the centuries from “marriage by force or capture,” during ancient tribal days. It wasn’t unusual for a tribe, when in the process of conquering and pillaging a rival tribe, a groom, with the help of his “best man” to assist him, literally kidnapped the woman he desired for marriage. The origin of “carrying the bride over the threshold” comes from this act of the groom carrying his screaming bride to his tribal home.

The next step of marriage was by purchase or contract, possibly so the rival tribe wouldn’t retaliate in warfare for stealing the bride. At first, in a marriage by purchase, an exchange could be made by the bridegroom, to the family, such as livestock, land, or even his own sister.

Although the bride was still seen as property, she was now bought. In written contracts, the bride’s father and the bridegroom drew up a contract. After the contract was agreeable to both parties, the bride was given to the groom for the price agreed upon. In addition, some of this price was given for the security of the bride if the husband died early and she became a widow.

This is the custom of a dower (from Italian dos), a gift to the bride for insurance purposes if the husband dies or decides to obtain a divorce. The practice of a dower came from the German custom of bride price (old English, weotuma), or gift given to the bride’s family before the marriage took place. Later, it was given to the wife directly.

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The dowry, or dos, custom flourished in ancient and medieval Europe. It was in fashion mostly among the wealthy in Greece. In William Fieldings book, Strange Customs of Courtship and Marriage, he tells us Aristole, the Greek philosopher (384-322 BC) claimed two-fifths of the territory of Sparta belonged to women as their dowers.

In Rome, a wife could legally demand a dower from her father to help her husband with the expenses of a new household. Later, Roman law recognized a woman to be the sole owner of the dower.

Still another word for dowry was trousseau, in French, meaning “little bundle.” It was actually the bride’s wardrobe of clothes and linen that she brought to her new husband’s home. During medieval days, the suitor of a bride could actually ask to see her trousseau beforehand, to make sure she was worth her “little bundle!”

The dowry eventually became more than a “little bundle” and the hope chest (also called dowry chest, cedar chest or glory box) grew out of the trousseau custom.

Girls, at a very young age, used their sewing skills in finery and household linens to place in their hope chest in “hopes” of the most important day of their life---marriage.

Today, hope chests are bought in department stores and often filled with “store-bought” items for a soon-to-be marriage. Not so for my older sisters, Mary Alice and Dorothy. I recall what they termed “hope chests” were actually large cardboard boxes. As a young child, I often snooped through these boxes in the attic, only to find embroidered bureau scarfs, tablecloths, and even dishes. I do know, the dishes came from the Sunday School department, at church, for perfect attendance.

We’ve come a long way from marriage by capture, by contract, but I still haven’t mentioned the third stage of marriage---mutual love. It evolved gradually and by the 10th century women began to decide for themselves whether they’d accept, or not accept, a man in marriage.

I’ll end with a quote form Bertrand Russell, a British philosopher (1872-1970), “Those who have not known the days of intimacy and the intense companionship of happy mutual love have missed the best thing that life has to give.”