["Marriage of Margaret of Austria to Ottavio Farnese," Palazzo Farnese]
[16th century, photographed by me]
First of all, it’s important not to get dowry confused with dower. Dowry comes from the wife and her family, dower from the husband and his family.* I’ll talk about dower some other time, but the important thing to remember is that while they function differently, both have something to do with helping a household deal with the addition or loss of one of its members.
In both Ancient Rome and Medieval Europe, the dowry was intended, at least in part, to contribute to a wife’s support after her marriage. Dotal property, as it is known, went under the husband’s control while he was still alive, even if it technically belonged to her. Because of this, many places had laws penalizing a husband who misspent his wife’s dowry.
In the event of a divorce or the death of the husband, a dowry reverted to his widow or her father. In Ancient Rome, who the dowry went to at this point depended on whether the widow’s father was still her guardian. In Medieval Italy, the dowry reverted to her control automatically, along with any other property she owned.
One other important thing to talk about here is the connection between wealth and honor. The size of a dowry in a lot of ways indicated a bride’s worth, meaning not only her family’s wealth, but also its standing and honor. Some marriages were called off due to loss of a dowry. In other cases young women and their families were able to use the size of a dowry as a bargaining chip in marriage negotiations. While dowry may have been an indicator of worth in society, women used it to their own benefit as much as men did.
*Usually. Enough people use the two terms fairly interchangeably that this is more of a guideline than a hard and fast rule.
Mary Lefkowitz & Maureen Fant, Women's Life in Greece & Rome: A Sourcebook in Translation
Dowry - Wikipedia