I read a very quirky article from The Atlantic about the economic import of engagement rings in years past. The Atlantic article basically makes the case that an engagement ring was a kind of insurance in the 19th and early twentieth centuries against the possibility that the marriage wouldn’t take place and would leave the female party at a social disadvantage. So I went looking for a few facts to get a better idea of what a Breach of Promise to Marry or Heart Balm as it was also called, implied.
Valid engagements could be broken without penalty by either party upon discovery of significant and material facts, such as previously unknown financial state, bad character, fraud, too-close blood relations, or the absolute physical or mental incapacity of the betrothed. In South Africa, engagements could be dissolved by mutual agreement. Impotence, sterility, criminality, and alcoholism also formed valid reasons to end an engagement. Additionally, the person refusing to marry was unable to sue for breach of promise.
Some of the original theory behind this tort is based on the idea that a woman would be more likely to give up her virginity to a man if she had his promise to marry her. If he seduced her and subsequently refused marriage, her lack of virginity would make her future search for a suitable husband more difficult or even impossible.
However, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the main factors were compensation for the denial of the woman’s expectations of becoming “established” in a household (supported by her husband’s wealth) and possible damage to her social reputation, since there were a number of ways that the reputation of a young, never-married woman of the “genteel” classes could be damaged by a broken engagement, or an apparent period of intimacy which did not end in a publicly announced engagement, even if few people seriously thought that she had lost her virginity. She might be viewed as having broken the code of maidenly modesty of the period by imprudently offering up her affections without having had a firm assurance of future marriage.
Also, the converse of this was seldom true; the concept that “it’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind” had at least some basis in law (though a woman might pay a high social price for exercising this privilege)—and unless an actual dowry of money or property had changed hands, a man was only rarely able to recover in a “breach of promise” suit against a woman, were he even allowed to file one.
I also remember hearing some years ago about the alienation of affection law. This intrigued me at the time due to its being a suit brought to court in the past decade. The suit concerned a woman who’s cheating husband thought he was getting away scott free. The disaffected wife however brought a suit against his lover for alienation of affection and won! I thought this was awesome personally. It put natural philosophy in a different light and raised the bar on family relations that I have always found valuable. So that is my bit of arcane wisdom today.
Do you know of any strange or intriguing laws that have a similar bent?
- Economics of Engagement Rings (clairesouchet.wordpress.com)
- How did the giving of engagement rings get started? (since1910.com)