Notary deeds: the dowry in genealogy research

The dowry was in gone times a sure element in the contract of wedding, contemplated already in antiquity by the Roman law, by means of which the bride received part of the paternal assets that were then administered by her husband - the notary deed was called "assignatio dotis".

In case the wife should die before the husband, he was obliged to give back the dowry to the father in law or however to the family of origin (this explained also why a widower, to avoid this, often married his late wife's sister) and the document was called "restitutio dotis."

The dowry could consist in feudal rights, patrimonial assets, census taxes and other revenues, precious garments, personal and house linen, silvervare and jewels, all things that were estimated with exactness because they formed and increased the dowry. The woman could dispose of her dowry, when there was a just cause, only with the consent of her husband or, in his absence, of the sons, to participate to the formation of the dowry of the daughters, respecting the criterion to safeguard the patrimony.

The dowry is one of the main aspects of nobility: the brides carry dowries above all in cash. Lands and homes will remain to their eldest brother, who will have the task of maintaining the family's surname. The dowries (and consequently the women) become, therefore, strong instruments and elements for dealings and economic alliances between the different families.

In a notary deed concerning a dowry, apart from the list of the properties with their value, which would be of cultural and historical significance, there would appear: name of the father and daughter, name of the future husband and of his father. In case the woman's father was deceased, in the deed would appear her brothers.

In a dowry deed often a final section would appear, the "bona parafernalia" that is, the properties that were given to the bride on the occasion of the wedding mostly as personal gifts from brothers and sisters, relatives, inlaw's, grandparents... and these gifts were to be treated differently in the law, that is, the bride could do whatever she liked with them, while the dowry was a kind of non-cashable check under the control of her husband.

These gifts used to mention details and relationship of the giver, which to genealogical purposes is like finding a gold mine, the more so when the research has already reached back to the period when parish records are scanty or non-existant.

Interestingly, a dowry deed was made also for nuns, when they took the vows, and the dowry was usually donated to their monastery.