Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Dowry of a Giusvalla Bride

In the days of our Giusvallini great-grandparents, the selection of a spouse was most often something along the lines of a financial transaction between two families. The process began with an agreement between two local families, the motivation was not necessarily one borne out of love or mutual affection between two young people. We are all familiar with the old stories of arranged marriages, perhaps some of these family stories have even made their way down through the generations .... sad stories of a great-grandmother who was in love with the boy from a neighboring farm, but was forced to marry another because the decision of who she was to marry was left in the hands of her parents. Such was life in the days of our forefathers, families did whatever was necessary to ensure their survival and this meant that sacrifices and difficult decisions sometimes had to be made. Sometimes our great-grandparents grew to love one another, other times they managed to learn to live with each other. Ultimately, divorce was not a possibility and the only sustainable option was to accept one’s fate and find a way to get through life.

The more traditional aspects of the arranged marriage varied from town to town and depended on what was locally considered valuable. The process was simple enough; the father of the girl would offer a dote (dowry) to the father of a local boy who he felt would make a good husband and provide well for his daughter. If the father of the boy accepted the offer, the girl and boy would accompany their parents to the local notary, where the financial aspects of the agreement would be formally recorded, as well as the intention and promise of the two young people to marry. Once the dote was witnessed and signed, it became a legal and binding contract. A breach of the contract meant financial loss to the family of the girl and the shame of rejection brought upon the boy and his family - it was understandably a rare occurrence.

Within a few weeks of the dote (and the subsequent payment to the family of the boy), the marriage ceremony would take place at the local parish church, or if the bride was from a neighboring town, the marriage would be celebrated at the parish in her hometown. Sometimes a family could not afford to make a lump payment of the dote, and in those cases a sort of “payment plan” would be made .... the dote might be 500 lire, paid in increments of 100 lire over a five year period. At the end of the five years and after the final payment (or in the event that the family of the groom for some reason decided to release the family of the bride from the balance of the original dote), a quittanza dote would be made between the two families. Again the notary would draw up the document stating that the debt had been satisfied and the family of the bride was released from its obligation.

In Giusvalla, the most prized and valuable dote was farmable land or property that included chestnut trees. Only the wealthiest families (and in Giusvalla there were few) could spare family land for the dowry of a daughter. The next most valuable dote came in the form of cash. Families that were better off could afford larger cash dowries, so when the wealthy father of Angela Maria Massa offered the family of Giuseppe Anselmi a dote of 700 lire, there was surely no question that it would be accepted. Poorer families were able to make far less lucrative offers, the young orphan Maddalena Angela Caterina Beltrame had been left a dowry of just 155 lire in the will of her father. It was hoped that it would be enough for the young girl to find a husband when the time came. Maddalena’s brother Giovanni Battista Beltrame was named the trustee of her dowry, and fortunately when Maddalena was old enough (maybe only 14 years old), a local widower named Gioanni Doglio accepted the offer.

Most of the families in Giusvalla were very poor, and the dowries of the poorest might consist only of a goat, or a bushel of chestnuts. The tradition of the dote continued virtually unchanged in Giusvalla (and throughout Italy) for hundreds of years. In the years between the World Wars, the custom fell out of practice and the young people of Giusvalla were free to choose their own spouses. Even so, for many years after, marriages outside of Giusvalla (or, at worst, a neighboring town) were still viewed with much disdain. When my cousin married a young man from Calabria in 1966, her parents did not approve, but ultimately the marriage took place and in time they came to accept the Calabrese boy with the strange customs and nearly unintelligible accent.

U temp u viagia … e lòchi u’na nent ritörn.

In the picture: Giuseppina Pesce & Giovanni Battista "Batistén" Perrone on their wedding day, October 5, 1911.