Bride Price, Dowry & Other Economic Marriage Customs

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  • 0:01 Economic Transactions…
  • 1:28 Bride Price
  • 2:09 Bride Service
  • 2:41 Gift Exchange
  • 3:19 Dowry
  • 4:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will seek to explain the concept of marriage as an economic transaction. In doing so, it will define the concepts of bride price, bride service, gift exchange, and dowries, which are used around the globe.

Economic Transactions in Marriage

For today's lesson on how marriage is often arranged through economic transactions, like bride price and dowry, I'll use a little story from my past.

As a young woman, I traveled with about 30 other young people to the heart of Africa. As we backpacked our way into the center of our first destination village, we were met by a local man. Walking up to us in an ominous way, he pointed at a few of us girls and said in very broken English, 'My son needs a bride. I'll give you two cows and a goat for one of them!'

Before we could all run all the way back to the U.S., our English guide saved us by breaking into gales of laughter and smacking the huge man on the back. Obviously, the two of them were old friends, and this was a joke they liked to play on newcomers. Unfortunately, it became an instant source of teasing, as the boys in our group threatened to sell us off every time we entered a new village.

However, after spending a few months among these rather wonderful people, we did learn there was some truth in these jests, that we had entered into a culture where marriage was not governed by love, but by economic trade. Since I'm guessing this topic is as new to most of you as it was to me, today's lesson will focus on the economic aspects of marriage found around the globe, specifically in the forms of bride price, bride service, exchange, and dowry.

Bride Price

Since the joke our African friend played was a great example of bride price, we'll start with it. Bride price, as the name implies, is a gift of money or goods given from a groom and his family to the family of the bride.

In very Western terms, it's sort of the price tag placed on the bride, and in most cases, the price is rather substantial. However, anyone who wants her is going to have to pay it. Whether it be in the form of land, livestock, or crops, a price is paid for the right to take a female in marriage. Of all the different ways that marriages are arranged through what we'd call sort of business deals, bride price is the most common.

Bride Service

Leaving bride price, we now switch to bride service. Bride service is when a groom works for the family of the bride in exchange for the right to marry her. In other words, while bride price sees the groom and his family giving something for the bride, bride service sees the groom actually working to pay for the bride. As the second most common form of economic transactions governing marriage, probably the most famous example of bride service is the biblical story of Jacob and Rachel, in which Jacob worked 14 years to pay for his bride.

Gift Exchange

Next we come to marriage governed by gift exchange. Again, as the name pretty much gives away, gift exchange occurs when the families of the bride and groom exchange gifts of equal value. Not just seen as payments to one another, anthropologists assert the employment of gift exchange acts as a means for the two families to create a bond.

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