I’m currently trying to write a chapter for a handbook on medieval women, and started reading up on some areas of Carolingian social history I don’t know so well. One of the things I’ve been looking at is dowry, and I am currently working my way through 500+ pages of a recent French conference on the subject. I am now facing again the problem of dealing with any early medieval topic with legal aspects: how do we discern patterns in the sources and are there actually patterns to be discerned?
As evidence for the upper classes in the eighth and ninth centuries we have some barbarian laws, Frankish formularies (model documents), a handful of dowry documents, and a few more charters which give indirect evidence about dowries. There have been a lot of attempts to reconstruct the dowry ‘system’ from the law codes, but they all tend to break down fairly soon. The different codes don’t use the same terminology, or use it in different ways, and as usual they’re not comprehensive. Lombard law has most to say, but patterns are definitely changing between the seventh and eighth century; there’s also the normal danger of trying to read across from one barbarian law to another. To make things even more complicated, in Italy, Lombard, Roman and Frankish law all seem to be converging towards one another: there are charters in which men make provisions by ‘Roman law’ that look like Lombard customs.
As this example shows, it’s hard to make the charters mesh nicely with the law code evidence: there are terms used in the Lombard code, (such as faderfyo, for example), that don’t appear in any contemporary charters, but only in eleventh century charters by archaism loving lawyers. One alternative is to look just at the charters, but they might not be dealing with typical cases, there are very few for any one region, and the one thing that does seem to be clear is that there are lots of regional differences. The formularies are probably the most useful, but only for Francia, and they only cover transfers in writing, whereas probably a number of the transfers involved are never written down.
All this leaves me wondering whether it’s possible to synthesize the information without creating something totally misleading. Is there anything between individual case studies (not really feasible when it’s only a small part of a chapter) and an inaccurate and unwarranted certainty? I can identify a few generalities, such as a pattern of indirect dowry from husband to wife (dos and/or Morgengabe), with direct dowry from father to daughter playing a secondary role. But as soon as I try and say anything more detailed, the patterns start to blur.
One of the problems is whether there is actually a ‘system’ to discover. There clearly isn’t isn’t a legal system for dowries, just intermittent decisions. The question is whether there is a customary system. If there is, in theory if we had enough charters, we could understand it. But suppose there wasn’t a system (in which the husband does X, the father does Y, the wife is entitles to Z in the way of rights, because ‘that is what we have always done’)? Suppose instead, early medieval societies had a series of (sometimes contradictory) norms: husbands and fathers ought to provide for the couple, the couple ought to have enough to set up their own household, widows should be provided for, but not at the expense of their children, etc. Within these norms, who actually transfered what, when and on what conditions then depended on the resources available and the power of different parties, so that widows might be able to hold onto their dowries if they remarried, but not necessarily so. (There’s an Italian placitum which actually deals with a dowry dispute of this sort). If the whole thing is about norms rather than customs or laws, then we can’t reconstruct the ‘system’ by making ever finer distinctions. Instead, all we can do is point out the kinds of principles that were considered, and then say that they’re making their ‘system’ up as they go along.
The other problem is trying to work out the significance of the dowry for wives themselves. If there’s a definite system (the wife gets a certain percentage of the husband’s goods, which she keeps when widowed, unless remarried etc) then you can say something about women’s economic resources. But there is Italian evidence for the ‘quarta’ being sold (which suggests it can’t literally be a quarter of the husband’s goods), and it’s not clear to what extent wives elsewhere had sole control over their dowries during the marriage. Given that there’s also variance between whether a widow without children has full control over her dowry or merely the usufruct of it (I’m not convinced by Régine Le Jan’s argument that there was a consistent move toward ususfruct), I’m not sure whether we can say anything definite about what wives had or what they could do with it. We seem to be back with the perennial statement of the contingency of early medieval women’s lives: depending on their circumstances and their personal relationships, they might have opportunities within their subservient position, whatever the ‘legal’ situation said. We can see charters and formulae that endeavour to ensure wives’ protection and resources. On the other hand, law, in the Carolingian world, was only as good as the muscle to back it up. Even if there was a ‘system’ of dowry, to focus too much on that may be to create an artificial view of the past, removed from the actual experiences of women.