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Jane Minogue

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Gypsy Brides on Sale and the Money Side of Traditional Matrimony

Posted: 03/16/09 04:55 PM ET

Okay. So last week in Bulgaria, gypsy teenage girls, dressed in their finest, gathered for the yearly bride sale. This is something they do on the first Saturday after the start of the Orthodox Easter fast. The girls hope that youth and beauty wins them a large sum. While this might sound strange to us ("oh no, it's not part of our 'traditional' marriage 'cause we marry for love and never put our women on sale"), matrimony has traditionally had an economic side. Of course, when talking about tradition, the question is "how far back do you want to go?"
Marriage is problematic as an institution because it compromises love. Marriage compromises love because marriage is a commercial arrangement; it can involve an exchange where people are considered as commodities. Georges Duby writes of medieval marriage that "the exchange, then, involved a woman, or, more precisely, her anticipated motherhood, her blood and all that it brought to the new family in terms of both ancestral force and claims to inheritances." And, yes, by the thirteenth century, this exchange holds true in Europe not just for the nobility but farmers, drapers, and fishmongers. By 1290 even peasants and merchants in the British Isles had surnames, often based on their occupation or place of origin, with Christian names dropping "son of." For example, my last name, Minogue, is Irish and starts appearing in records in the eleventh century. Minogue comes from the Gaelic O'Mineog, which means "descendants of a little monk." (Now, as to why a little monk has descendants is a different story....) Even marriage for the poor involved a commercial exchange, as farmer needed a woman to spin and cook while he ploughed the fields all day. Through a fortuitous union, a farmer could possibly acquire additional land.
And the Christian church in the first eight centuries did not concern itself a great deal with marriage and divorce customs of the poor. It took several centuries for the same rules to apply to people of all classes.
Marriage contracts were for the wealthy, but they provide us some ideas of the economic exchange. One of the few surviving Anglo-Saxon marriage contracts (circa 1020) is an agreement between Godwine and Brihtric, who is father of the unnamed bride. During the courtship, Godwine gave her a "pound's weight of gold in return for her acceptance of his suit, and he granted her land with everything that belongs to it, and 150 acres at Burmarsh and in addition 30 oxen, and 20 cows, and 10 horses and 120 slaves."
In Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Merchant's Tale," the sixty-year-old rich knight January decides he wants a young, beautiful bride to engender an heir. As he seeks a bride, the shapes of women "pass through his heart.../ As if anyone took a brightly polished mirror / And set it in a public market place." Old but rich January eventually chooses the low-born but young May, who accepts his money and cuckolds him at the first opportunity. It was a bad business deal -- for him, not her.
Another May, that is, Mae West, allegedly said, "Marriage is a great institution, but I'm not ready for an institution." If you think marriage is only about love, think again.

 

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