The Complex Story of ‘Who Pays for the Wedding’

Recently a friend asked me why, traditionally, the bride’s family paid for the wedding, knowing that in our modern world there are any number of ways that can go. I have worked with many couples who were paying for their own wedding, which I is pretty common these days. Historically, however, the bride’s family paid for the wedding, and I’m old enough to remember when that was a pretty clear rule, yes, even in my own lifetime.

Why? Because until modern times (and still in many places in the world) women were (and are) simply chattel – that is: property, and girl child was considered a burden on the family. Girls could not contribute in labor or produce wealth for the family.  From this arose the dowry– a payment to take the girl off the family’s hands. Marry her off. At its worst, dowries are linked to child brides. Sometimes the girl was used by her husband’s family as a domestic worker, adding insult to injury. Through this history we can draw a straight line – from the bride’s family paying the dowry, to the bride’s family paying for the wedding. In medieval Europe a large dowry enhanced the parent’s chances of making a good match for their daughter.  But sometimes it wasn’t completely heartless.

But we should not make too many assumptions, because although there are many places and examples of women simply viewed in this way, there is also some research indicating that the dowry protected women, giving them value, so they would be treated better. The dowry would even sometimes be returned to the wife if there was ill treatment by her husband and his family.

This poses an obvious age-old question: why is that women were seen as vulnerable, in need of protection? A lot of it is simply biology – women get pregnant, women bear children, and women raise children. This was risky business, and still is today for many women, in fact, our maternal mortality rate is rising here in the United States

Recently a friend asked my why, traditionally, the bride’s family paid for the wedding, knowing that in our modern world there are any number of ways that can go. I have worked with many couples who were paying for their own wedding, which I is pretty common these days. Historically, however, the bride’s family paid for the wedding, and I’m old enough to remember when that was a pretty clear rule, yes, even in my own lifetime.\

Why? Because until modern times (and still in many places in the world) women were (and are) simply chattel – that is: property, and girl child was considered a burden on the family. Girls could not contribute in labor or produce wealth for the family.  From this arose the dowry– a payment to take the girl off the family’s hands. Marry her off. At its worst, dowries are linked to child brides. Sometimes the girl was used by her husband’s family as a domestic worker, adding insult to injury. Through this history we can draw a straight line – from the bride’s family paying the dowry, to the bride’s family paying for the wedding. In medieval Europe a large dowry enhanced the parent’s chances of making a good match for their daughter.  But sometimes it wasn’t completely heartless.

But we should not make too many assumptions, because although there are many places and examples of women simply viewed in this way, there is also some research indicating that the dowry protected women, giving them value, so they would be treated better. The dowry would even sometimes be returned to the wife if there was ill treatment by her husband and his family.

This poses an obvious age-old question: why is that women were seen as vulnerable, in need of protection? A lot of it is simply biology – women get pregnant, women bear children, and women raise children. This was risky business, and still is today for many women, in fact, our maternal mortality rate is rising here in the United States!

The dowry continued in Western culture until around the dawn of the Industrial Age. It is featured prominently in the novels of Jane Austen.

After the dowry faded away, women still had a trousseau, which consisted of the bride’s dress and accouterments for the wedding, in addition to household linens, and other belongings collected for her marriage.  She was still bringing something, not a dowry, but something with her to the marriage. When these possessions were put into a trunk – we have a hope chest. A hope chest or a trousseau can be quite charming and does not have to be seen as a payment but rather as a sentimental and loving collection of items. A girl’s hope chest today can include many things, but especially items handed down from the family.

And now for a curve ball. There is another payment, we don’t hear about as much, and that is the bride-price, or sometimes referred to asbridewealth– which is the money, or other valuables, paid by the groom to the bride’s family. The exact opposite of the dowry. French anthropologist Philippe Rospabé, reports that the payment does not entail the purchase of a woman, as was thought in the early twentieth century. Instead, it is a symbolic gesture acknowledging the husband’s debt to the wife’s parents.  Is buying an expensive diamond ring really all that different?

Placing a monetary value on women sounds terrible today but given context maybe it’s not all that bad. As I’ve noted before, the Jewish tradition of a ketubah, a marriage contract, also served to protect the women’s rights. It substituted for the bride price, that a young man might have had trouble raising. He would have to pay that bride price back to the family if the wife had legitimate grounds for divorce. She was protected, he was penalized.

So, the dowry and the bride-price are two different things, but amazingly, both were attempts to improve the success of the marriage, if only in a very dated and limited way. I’m no historian, but a little research reveals a lot of complex history, but it all comes down to labor versus wealth.

The next time you hear that the bride’s family pays for the wedding, you’ll understand there is a long, long history that got us here.

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