Five hundred years ago, most people died within twenty-five miles of their birthplace.  In those days, men and women awakened with the dawn and retired with the dusk.  At night they slept and made babies.  In the daytime, they pursued whatever made them productive to their society.  We know what we know of these people because they bothered to write it down — or they left behind them evidence of their lives.

In the year 1350, fifteen-million people lived in France.  For five full years beginning in A.D. 1347, bubonic plague killed half the number of people living in Europe.  Human life in medieval times was living in the slow lane.  It must have seemed that way when people were dying by the thousands from a disease they could not escape.  Seven hundred years later, more than sixty-million people lived in Franc — and very few of them today know how it was to live among their grandparents thirty-one generations ago.



A dowry consists of money, material goods, and property that a bride’s family gifts to a groom when the two are married.  There are three reasons for such a tradition: first, it supplies the bride and groom with money and goods they will need to begin a new household.  Second, the prospect of losing a dowry was enough to keep a bride’s husband from becoming abusive toward her.  Moreover, if the groom were not careful, he could lose his entire dowry and life.  Since there have always been more females than males, large dowries made a daughter more marriageable.

A dowry’s opposite is a “brides’ price” — the money a groom pays to the bride’s family to secure her hand in marriage.

Dowries go back a long way in time — at least 4,000 (or more) years.  Hammurabi decreed that a bride’s father has no claim to his daughter’s dowry if she dies after she is married and has given birth to a son.  The groom must repay his wife’s father if the woman dies before delivering a son.

Dowries were also commonplace in Ancient Greece and Rome.  This was because weddings in the ancient world were more like business arrangements.  The inclusion of jewelry was a medium of exchange to facilitate a profitable merger.  The rules and procedures for dowries were quite similar, whether practiced in China, the Middle East, or during the early modern period.

Some dowries included castles, large (or several) estates, titles, jewels, gold, and silver.  If the bride’s parents were very wealthy and titled, scribes, priests, and the groom’s family may have noted the dowry carefully.  When King Louis VII married my 32nd Great-grandmother, her dowry included Aquitaine.  When Louis and Eleanor divorced, she took Aquitaine back again and presented it to her second husband, Henry II of England.

The Knots

There were simple marriages and complex affairs.  What decided whether a wedding was simple or complicated was social class.  Nobility always had their due because protocol demanded it; minor nobility mimicked the upper rank for as much as they could afford it.  Weddings among the peasants were hardly much of an affair at all.

In modern times, people think of weddings as joyous demonstrations of devotion, love, and commitment — except that our divorce rates suggest a different story.  Do we exaggerate the worthiness of wedding ceremonies?  I think not — but it is true that such observances have dark traditions.

Tradition holds that the purpose of a marriage veil is to ward off evil spirits.  It was not the purpose of a bouquet to present a sweet picture of a virginal bride; they instead masked the odor of an unwashed body.  It was true that a man carried his bride over the threshold of their new home, but it symbolized a woman who did not wish to go.  Women were the property of men; anthropologists tell us that wedding rings date back to the Roman Republic, when wives wore rings with keys attached, showing that they were the property of their husbands.  In this regard, the marriage ceremonies did not stipulate the worthiness of women until around 1477, when the Archduke Maximillian of Austria first commissioned a diamond ring for his bride.

Another tradition from ancient Rome involves dressing brides and bridesmaids in similar garments.  This was a trick to confuse evil spirits and keep them from interrupting a marriage ceremony.  One modern lecturer argues that this tradition had more to do with keeping the ladies from competing for the same fellow.

Centuries ago, bride-knapping was a real problem in Europe.  A groom who did not have a father’s permission to marry his daughter simply kidnapped her.  Under these circumstances, the role of the best man was to defend the groom — with his life if necessary.  A bride’s father might retaliate because marriages were often vital to the success of the family’s business.

June weddings became popular for one reason: May was the month when everyone took their annual bath.  As an aside, one of the most powerful women on earth in her own time was Queen Isabella of Spain.  This woman took six baths in her entire life: one on the eve of her wedding and one following the birth of each child.

Within the foregoing, we are mostly talking about marriages in high society.  Marriage within the peasantry was an entirely different matter.  Among Christians, getting married was incredibly simple.  All that was necessary was for each person to declare, “I will.”

It was easier to get married than prove that you were married.  This is why people began reciting the marriage banns (reading three times their intention to marry) and declaring those vows in front of witnesses.  Witnesses to marriage rites were proof of matrimony.

The Weddings

There was no formal requirement for a church marriage in medieval times because becoming wed was something people could do anywhere — from the pub to somewhere between the sheets.  It was only a matter of saying, “I choose thee.” The fixed requirement for marriage was puberty; no one needed the permission of their parents, or a ceremony conducted by a priest or shaman.  They may have to notify the lord of the manor or the sheriff for reasons beyond permission.

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, human society entered a transitional stage from pagan skeptic to Christian believer — where most people were somewhere in the middle.  People liked the idea that God looked favorably upon their union.  But even those who remained unconvinced felt better about having a marriage ceremony in or near a religious sanctuary because it gave the rite greater weight.  Six hundred years later, Christian churches did try to gain some control over marriage rites, but this was less about giving structure to the ceremonies than it was about asserting the authority of God over community households.

The wedding needed one thing: the consent of those getting married — but given the number of marriages fathers arranged on behalf of their children, consent was not a fixed rule.

Oh, Romeo!

In 1597, the English playwright William Shakespeare wrote a play titled Romeo and Juliet.  It is the story of two feuding families in Verona, Italy.  Revenge, love, and a secret marriage force the teenage couple to end their lives rather than live apart.  Given what we know today about the transition from adolescence to adulthood, one wonders why most school systems force this play down the throats of young teens.  What remarkably good decision has any teenager ever made involving the opposite sex?

But the 1500s was a perfect world for the likes of Romeo and Juliet; people could marry as soon as they’d reached puberty — even without their parent’s permission.  The overlying principle was that there was only ONE acceptable basis for sexual intercourse — marriage.  There were many consequences of making decisions without input from one’s parents, and not all of these were “good outcomes.”

As for puberty, not everyone reaches that gate at the same time in their lives.  In Shakespeare’s time, females reached puberty with the onset of their menstruation period (between eleven and thirteen years).  For males, puberty begins between ages nine and fourteen.  This may seem too young, but perhaps not after considering that the average life span of a human being in the 1500s was around 45 years.

Exchanging Gifts

Once more, a marriage only needed the couple’s mutual acknowledgment — “I will.” But a couple might exchange a gift.  It could be something as simple as giving a bride a bouquet of heather to symbolize good luck, adoration, and a promise to protect.  A bride might give her groom a ring made from straw or grass.  In old English, the word for such gifts was “wed.” The exchange of marriage gifts became “a wedding.” If they didn’t want to exchange words or gifts, a couple could become married by engaging in sexual intercourse — the sex act was what made marriages legally binding.

The Protocols

We have already discussed the issue of mutual consent and have seen a fallacy in its proposition.  If a man took a woman sexually, he’d married her.  There was no “consent.” Scholars argue that parental consent was never a condition of marriage — but this claim is unconvincing.  Parents were essential safeguards to ensure genetic separation.  Traditionally, until a young woman was married, her father was her protector — a job most fathers take seriously.  A young lad would be unimaginably stupid to defy a young woman’s father.

Families and social networks influenced marital decisions, including the ceremony itself.  If the family wanted the church involved, the church would be involved.  Additionally, the lord of the manor may have something to say about the marriage.

One controversial provision in Latin exists, called Jus Prima Nocta (right of the first night).  This “right” gave the lord of the manor the right to bed any female subject, regardless of her social rank, on her wedding night.  We know of this because of a mention in Gilgamesh and the works of Herodotus (although not in Latin).  We also believe there was a revolt in Volsinii (Italy) for such abuses against newly wedded females by the Etruscans.

There is no evidence of Jus Prima Nocta in medieval records, but there are notations in history of a marriage fine or merchet.  A bride’s father paid the fine to his lord to compensate him for the young woman leaving his land.  This lord may have been a count, an alderman, or a reeve.  A shire reeve (sheriff) kept track of such things as population counts, marriages, and deaths.  Some historians suggest that the merchet was one way for the girl’s father to avoid Jus Prima Nocta.  A father paid similar indulgences to the Church.

There was no middle class in medieval times, so there were only two classifications according to relative wealth: rich and poor.  Most people were “poor.” Among the poor, or working class, life was simple out of necessity.  When the poor married, they said the magic words and remained together “unto death.” There was nothing egalitarian about medieval times — poor people married other poor people, and wealthy people married other wealthy people.

The Arrangements

The University of Nottingham (England) assures us that people from land-owning families did not usually marry for love; their parents or guardians arranged their marriages.  Nor is this a “thing of the past.” Many societies today continue to arrange marriages.  Land was an important aspect of the negotiating process of arranged marriages.  If women did not bring land to the altar, they brought cash.  The family of the groom routinely matched whatever the bride’s family offered.  Shown at right is a copy of an agreement in a marriage made before the union of Philip Boteler and Isabel Willoughby (1436, in old English).

At times, it may be necessary to cancel an arranged marriage — notably in case of a downturn in family fortunes.  But if the arrangement were possible, both families would work to ensure that it became successful.  In medieval times, many marriages became matters of State, such as forming foreign alliances.  Whenever monarchs were involved, wedding hosts invited “everyone who was anyone.” To have such a wedding, the hosts accepted an obligation to satisfy social protocols, observing the rights of nobility and rank.

Marriage contracts not only arranged marriages but also outlined how to care for the offspring of such arrangements.  Early death was an unpleasant fact in medieval times, so in the case of a husband’s death, or that of his wife, there might be an understanding about the right of inheritance or to whom the widow might next marry.  When Henry VIII of England married Catherine of Aragon, she was already the widow of Henry’s older brother Arthur.  This issue later came to bear when King Henry decided to divorce Catherine.

Every culture has its ways of conducting rites and ceremonies, and some are a bit stranger than others.  And, of course, there are misunderstandings in every human interaction — or at least the potential for them.  This potential for mistake increases when people from different cultures wed, but there are plenty of “issues” within homogeneous societies, too.  For example, the use of precious metals in constructing wedding rings came about because some boys were known to “play jokes” on young girls by offering them grass rings. 

In 1217, the church included a warning about this very thing: “No man should place a ring of reeds or another material, vile or precious, on a young woman’s hands in jest, so that he might more easily fornicate with them, lest, while he thinks himself to be joking, he pledges himself to the burdens of matrimony.” It was also in the twelfth century that marriage became a holy sacrament — the union of a man and a woman in marriage and sex stood for the union of Christ and the church, and this was hardly a symbol taken lightly.  Protestantism in England evolved because of its King’s wicked and corrupted heart.


  1. McSheffrey, S.  Marriage, Sex, and Civic Culture in Late Medieval London.  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. 
  2. Pounds, G. & Roome, C.C.  Population Density in Fifteenth Century France and the Low Countries, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 1971.

University of Nottingham (U.K., China, Malaysia): “Marriage Arrangements.” Section: Manuscripts and Special Collections, online. 

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.

5 Responses to DOWRIES & KNOTS

  1. Andy says:

    And interesting and entertaining essay.

    Well done.



  2. Baysider says:

    Hear hear!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: DOWRIES & KNOTS — Searching History | Vermont Folk Troth

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