The dowry deed in genealogy research

What is a "dowry"? The ancient laws define the dote (dowry) as "i beni che la moglie reca al marito, per goderne durante il matrimonio" (properties that a wife brings to the husband to be enjoyed during the couple's married life). The husband has only a right of use but no property of the goods, and this right of use finishes with the end of the marriage contract - since divorce was introduced in Italy only in the 1970s, this means the contract ended on the death of his wife - in which case he has to give back the dowry.

The Dowry in Roman Times

The Romans law ("de iure dotium") identified two types of dowry:
  • the "dotis profectitia", coming from the father's line. This dowry was to be returned in case of dissolution of marriage.
  • the "dotis adventitia", coming from other sources.

The Dowry in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies

The dowry was of various types:
  • according to the quality: mobiliare (objects, jewels, clothes, kitchen tools) and immobiliare (land, houses)
  • according to the quantity: generale, including all the properties of the wife, in the present and future; speciale, with reference to one or more items

◊ Dote Mobiliare

These items (mobile properties, that is objects, clothes, linen) are supposed for the use of the couple, and they are usually estimated with a money equivalent. These items in case of dissolution of marriage can be returned also under their money equivalent.

◊ Dote Immobiliare

These items (non-mobile properties, such as land) are inalienable, that is, they remain in the exclusive property of the woman, even if the husband can use and also administer them, use the harvest or cash the rentals for the family.

◊ Beni Parafernali

These are gifts given to the bride by family members, godmother, friends, and usually they are not included in the dowry regime. Often in the conclusion of the act or as a second act the bride gives to her husband the absolute administration of the dowry goods, though in some cases there may be a sentence excluding the parafernalia.

Forms of Dowry Assignment

A dowry can be given in three ways: tradizione, enunciazione, promessa.
  • By "tradizione" (from the Latin verb "trado" meaning to transmit) when the dowry is actually delivered to the husband.
  • By "enunciazione" when the father, or a lawful male tutor of the bride, expresses in words the value or items of the dowry.
  • By "promessa" when the items were not actually delivered but remained a promise.
Since the dowry included the property of goods, it had to be drawn in writing before a notary with witnesses. The necessary element to make the contract of dowry effective is the celebration of the marriage, and the permanence of the marriage, that is the dowry has value throughout the marriage of the bride.

The Beni Parafernali

The word comes from the ancient Greek παραφερναλια meaning , meaning "outside dowry". These goods were either mentioned in the dowry contract, or came to the wife during her life as donation, inheritance or other, and remained in her absolute property.

The dowry properties are only those included in the dowry contract, with the exception of those goods mentioned under the special title of parafernali. From the dowry contract all goods that in any form come in the property of the woman as gifts, inheritance or other, are not dowry property, but parafernali, which means the woman can dispose of them as she likes. The dowry instead is inalienable, and only a judge or feudal lord may give the woman consent to use the dowry to pay, for example, the husband's creditors.

The Parafernali in Genealogy Research

In each dowry there are important family connections, especially on the bride's side: usually her father is the first party in the contract, and the husband, or husband's father, appears as the second party. If the bride's father is deceased, one or more elder brothers or an uncle may act as first party ("dotante", dowry-giver) ; if no male relations are living, the mother can appear. If the bride is with no living relatives, she will personally appear as dotante, that is establishing her own dowry.

After the declaration of the parties appearing in the notary deed, there usually follows the list of all dowry items, with their equivalent in money. Usually the witnesses to the deed were also "apprezzatori" (estimators) that is, they evaluated if the money equivalent was correct. After this list with its total in ducati, there is often a section under the title of "parafernalia" " bona parafernalia" or "beni parafernali" and each of the items listed will include the name of the person giving the gift ant often its relation to the bride. Rarely even relations of the bridegroom may give gifts.


"Trattati della dote e dei beni parafernali o sviluppamento dei principii esposti nel capitolo 3., 2., del libro 3. del codice civile", di Saverio Benoit. - Nuova versione italiana con la corrispondenza degli artt. del codice civile pel regno delle Due Sicilie. - Palermo: Salvatore di Manzo, 1862. - X, 558 p.