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Dowries and Marriage Contracts

Golden dowry girl

Dowries were, until quite recently, a fact of French life, with the unseemly spectacle of daughters of wealthy families being seen as golden calves. The corruption of young souls by making marriage and the building of a family a financial affair is hilariously described by Juliette Adam in her excellent and informative article of 1891,  "The Dowries of Women in France".*  Every girl knew that she had to be either rich or very pretty to be marriageable and was warned always "Don't fall foolishly in love with a poor man." When the big day came, "how many young girls go sorrowfully to marriage with the feeling -- the certainty -- that they are being married for their dowries."

The custom was not the same throughout the country, there being very different traditions in the south from those in the north. The southern part of the country followed the old Roman law, which is explained in this little passage from the great 11th Edition:

"In the earliest period of Roman law no provision for the wife was required, for she passed under manus of her husband, and became in law his daughter, entitled as such to a share in his property at his death. In course of time the plebeian form of marriage by usus, according to which the wife did not become subject to manus, ...  superseded the older form and it became necessary to make a provision for the wife by contract. Such provision from the wife's side was made by the dos, the property contributed by the wife or by someone on her behalf towards the expenses of the new household."

In France, this was called the régime dotal and was considered to be the least favourable to the husband, though it did not give the wife total freedom over her money either, (except in Normandy, where women seem to have had more rights over such things. Probably their Viking heritage).

More often found in the northern part of the country was the régime de la communauté, which gave the husband full authority over any money and property brought to the marriage by the wife.  If he did a very bad job of it, she could go to the courts and ask for the third option (which could have been the choice from the beginning) to be imposed, the régime de la séparation de biens, which separated the money and property of each. This last was considered to be the most favourable to the wife, as it gave her full control over her money and property, unless she were to give power of attorney to her husband, silly thing. 

At times, the dowry was so large that the wife's family had to pay it in land, or in installments, usually at Michaelmas, after the autumn harvest would have provided some cash or cows. There would have been a meeting for the payment and the notaire would have issued a quittance de dot, a receipt for payment of the dowry.  The marriage contract would also mention biens immobiliers (real estate),  maisons (houses), terrain (land), the trousseau (household linens and clothing, often described in great detail, down to the quality of the fabric) and, very rarely, bijoux (jewels). 

Quite a lot of squabbling went on about these contracts. As Madame Adam wrote: "Then comes the drawing up of the marriage contract, which is of so much importance to the relatives," so much so that it was often they alone who negotiated the contract, afterward merely informing the prospective bride and groom of its details. "Very often, thanks to their youth, they are offended...But if they venture an indignant remark, some one answers...."Love dies and money remains." We have often noted this view of the French toward marriage, even today and, in striving to explain it to Americans, have come up with our own epigram:

As the Americans are about business, so the French are about marriage; as the French are about business, so the Americans are about marriage. 


One or the other of these three forms of dowry management governed French marriages of all but the very poorest classes for hundreds of years, providing notaires with plenty of work negotiating and drawing up the contracts, and genealogists with mountains of revealing documentation.  The marriage contract may be quite hard to find, however, for it will be in the notarial records held in the Departmental Archives. Notarial records are almost never microfilmed. One must determine which notaire wrote the contract. Then, one simply has to plough through all the notarial files and hope to come across the contract  one is seeking, but if one does, it is genealogical pay dirt. 


©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

*North American Review, vol. 152, issue 410, January, 1891, pp.37-47, on the Cornell University digital Library/Making of America