The Economics of Marriage in Calvin’s Geneva

Peasant House
I am continuing to work through Kingdon and Witte’s book on marriage in Geneva. 

Chapter 11 of the book is devoted to the economics of marriage in Geneva. It is tempting to think this is an area of similarity to 21st century America. However the opening paragraph of the chapter shows that, while there are some similarities, there are also substantial differences.

In sixteenth-century Geneva, as much as today, marriage is not only a union of persons. It was also a merger of properties-land, money, jewelry, clothing, household commodities, social titles, property rents, business interests, and sundry other “real” and “personal” property. When the parties were members of aristocracy or of the ruling class, a marriage could be the occasion for a massive exchange of power, property, and prerogatives that distilled into lengthy written contracts. But even paupers who intended marriage generally made at least token exchanges of property and oral agreements about future transactions.

Today the rich and wealthy probably do something similar to what is described here. However, the lower and middle classes rarely have anything like a written contract concerning financial obligations, etc. before marriage. The reasons are many, but one would be that most of us have little wealth that we bring into marriage.

These marital property contracts were not essential to a marriage, but they were expected in most cases. Often the property contracts would be negotiated by the families, not the couples. There were three types of marital property exchanges at that time.

First, it was customary for a man to accompany his marriage proposal with some form of a gift to the woman, and sometimes her family. At minimum, the man offered the woman a token gift to signify his affection…A man of more ample means could be more elaborate…But an elaborate engagement gift was neither required not customary by the sixteenth century.

If the marriage went forward the engagement gift became the woman’s or her families. However, if the engagement failed she had to return the gift. A failure to do so could lead to litigation.

Second, it was common for the woman, and her family, to bring property to the marriage. This was called her dowry. The dowry consisted, at minimum, in the woman’s clothing and personal effects. But the dowry usually involved a good deal more. Frequently, it included other personal property such as household furnishings and decorations, cooking utensils and linens, poultry and cattle, standing orders for newly harvested fruit and grain, and more. Sometimes, especially with an aristocratic marriage, the dowry was a form of real property, whether land, a home, a rental property, or a place of business…[the] dowry was often a very expensive proposition for the woman and her family, and an ample source of tension for the couple and their families during the marital property negotiations…Once delivered, the woman’s dowry did not pass entirely beyond her control or that of her family. The civil law provided that a portion of the dowry remained reserved to the woman and her family after the wedding.

This last sentence is interesting. The amount of the dowry that remained reserved for the woman was negotiated during the engagement. In most cases, when married, the husband retained control over all the dowry, including the wife’s portion. However, the husband could not sell or give away the wife’s portion without her consent.  If the husband died the wife’s portion went to her and/or her family, while the rest of the dowry went to their children or other heirs.

Third, not only did the wife reserve rights over a portion of her own property through the law of marriage portion. Upon marriage, she also gained rights over a portion of her husband’s property through the law of dower. Dower was a form of built-in insurance to provide for wife upon her husband’s death. If the wife became a widow, she would be entitled to one-third to one-half of all the personal property (that is, movables, not the land) owned by her husband during the marriage. This was not just the personal property that the husband brought into the marriage or left at his death. Dower rights attached as well to any personal property the husband acquired during the marriage-including, importantly, the personal property in his inheritance from his own family. Typically the widow received…the right to use and possess the dower property for her lifetime, but with no right to sell or dispose of the property. This dower property would revert to the couple’s children upon her death. Dower rights imposed an ample restriction on the husband’s rights to dispose of his own personal property during the course of his married life. He could not simply sell, encumber, or give away his personal property without consideration of his wife’s dower interests…only if the wife was convicted for adultery or malicious desertion of her husband would she forfeit her dower.

Calvin used the story of Jacob and Rachel, as well as Isaac and Rebekah’s engagement to argue for gifts when engagements were contracted, as well as having the finances of the marriage arranged prior to the marriage. Calvin also believed that if a woman was raped or there was fornication the man had to pay the full marriage price the father demanded. He could he also be forced to marry the woman if that was what the father and woman desired. These men also lost the right of divorce.

Calvin and his successors did little to change prevailing laws and customs of marital property at the time. All financial arrangements were to be made ahead of time in a contract that was clear. They did depart from medieval tradition in two ways. First, marital property disputes were to be resolved by the Council, not by the Consistory. That is it was resolved in civil courts, not in church courts. Second, a failure to deliver on the financial end of a marriage contract did not dissolve the marriage. Many engaged couples were dragged into marriage even after the promised financial deal was not delivered.

What is striking about this chapter is how small a role finances play in most modern engagements compared to ones in the sixteenth century. There are exceptions of course, but it is usually the rich who create contracts before marriage today. Most of us give little thought to what our future spouse possesses and how it will be distributed during and after marriage. There are a couple of reasons for this. We have no concept of inheritance and passing things down to our children or retaining what was passed down to us. Many of the laws were designed to make sure a portion of the wealth of both the husband and wife remained with the family. When we get little inheritance, give little inheritance, and solidarity with our families means so little, it is no surprise that the laws they had make little sense to us. The other factor is life insurance, social security, and retirement accounts. Husbands still provide for their wives after death. But it does not usually come through property and goods. Instead it comes through these other means. The one difference is that today’s husband does not have to provide for his wife after his death. In other words, he could make someone else the beneficiary of life insurance or his retirement funds should he die. In Geneva, it was a stipulation of the marital property contract that the wife must be provided for upon the death of the husband.