Monday, September 07, 2009

Scholar examines marriage in late medieval Valencia

A new article on 15th century Valencia unveils a different side to marriage in the late-medieval Spanish city, and shows that women who worked as domestic servants had more independence in choosing who to marry than wealthier women.

"The Project of Marriage: Spousal Choice, Dowries, and Domestic Service in Early-Fifteenth-Century Valencia" was written by Dana Wessell Lightfoot, Professor of History at the University of Texas at El Paso. The article appears in the latest issue of Viator: Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies (Volume 40, Number 1, 2009).

Professor Lightfoot, who earned her PhD at the University of Toronto, examined marriage contracts and dowry restitution cases that found their way into the city courts of Valencia between 1420 and 1439. She focuses on women who had immigrated on their own into Valencia and worked as domestic servants.

In an interview with, Professor Lightfoot said, "I wanted to think about how the experiences of labouring-status women were different in terms of marriage in comparison to elite women. There is a lot of research done on higher status women and marriage for southern Europe but very little on lower status women so I wanted to look at how issues such as status and immigration impacted the ability of these women to make their own marital choices, especially in terms of who they married and the property they brought to marriage."

Her research finds that these women did have greater choice in finding suitable men to marry, unlike elite women who often were married off by their fathers. Moreover, the women were able to bring in their own assets to serve as a dowry for the marriage, and were able to retain control of these assets during the marriage. Lightfoot uncovers 220 cases where the wife regained her dowry from her husband, mostly because he was either broke or heavily in debt.

One example of this is the case of Teresa Dauder, who as a 12-year old, immigrated to Valencia from the rural town of Sogorb. She went to work as a servant to Maria and Francesc Oviet. When she was 19, Teresa had earned 25 pounds. To this her father donated 5 more pounds, while the Oviets gave 10 pounds for a total dowry of 40 pounds. With this she had married Tomas, a barber, in 1429. Five years later, Teresa sought to have her dowry immediately restored, because Tomas had "caused many and diverse debts...owed money to many people and had fallen into penury." Four witnessed testified for Teresa, including her former employer and three neighbours, which led to the judges ordering Tomas to return her dowry.