The Ketubah, an Ancient Marriage Contract

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The Wedding. Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1861)

Marriage is a contract. In terms of religion, a couple that marries enters into the default contract defined by their faith. When two people agree to marriage in the absence of a written contract, they also accept the default contract provided by the state and its laws.

The state’s contract is essentially economic, despite the romantic glow in which modern culture dresses marriage. Anyone who does genealogical research quickly realizes that the recording of marriage followed closely on the recording of deeds and wills, which are among the earliest recorded personal contracts. Other records—birth, death, even divorce—came much later. Marriage and property are deeply enmeshed in law, impacting inheritance and ownership. In our modern era, other economic factors impacted by marriage laws include tax breaks, benefits, and entitlements.

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A ketubah from 1740.

These laws and customs have not always been kind to women. Not long ago, English Common Law, under the doctrine of coverture, held that a married couple was one person under the law. That person, of course was the husband. A woman gave up all legal right—even the right to her own children—when she married. In that arrangement, it isn’t difficult to understand the need for marriage settlements, particularly among the property classes. A contract designed to assure a woman and her children would have some financial means of support in the event of widowhood provided at least some protection where the law didn’t.

In our own day, pre-nuptial agreements spell out property rights, particularly among the super wealthy in a similar manner. Couples also may establish contracts that spell out everything from the division of labor to the custody of pets.

Long before any of that, the Jewish marriage contract, or ketubah, provided all married women with the security of certain financial arrangements. The earliest know example of a ketubah dates to 440 BC. Because such documents were legal rather than religious, they were written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew, and this one is no exception. It outlines settlements paid to the bride’s father and the amount both families contributed to the dowry. It explicitly names the wife as the beneficiary in the case of the husband’s death.

At no time in history has the ketubah had anything to do with purchasing a bride. In Judaic law husbands did not have property rights over their wives. The ketubah is a “charter of women’s rights in marriage and men’s duties.” A ketubah is not, actually, a contract between husband and wife. It is traditionally a document in which witnesses verify the groom has met his obligations and may marry, and that the bride has freely accepted his proposal. The witnesses testify that the groom will meet all human and financial obligations, “as Jewish husbands are wont to do.”

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A ketubah from Gibraltar, 1826.

The elements in a traditional ketubah are:

  • Date, place and names
  • Testimony that the proposal has been made
  • Promise of basic support to “honor, provide, and support.” The promise of food, clothing, and conjugal rights are a woman’s right and a husband’s obligation and considered so fundamental to marriage they would be required even without a contract. This is the heart of the contract.
  • Promise of specific amounts to the wife in the event the marriage terminates (designed as a deterrent to divorce in a male dominated society)
  • Testimony that the bride has accepted the proposal as outlined above.
  • Promise of a dowry given to the bride by her father including such items and valuable she might bring to her new home. The groom’s acceptance is noted and he provides and additional gift to the bride.
  • Testimony that the groom agrees to a mortgage or lien on all his belongings including “the mantle on my shoulders,” to meet the obligations of the contract should it become necessary.

The promise of the woman’s conjugal rights is interesting because of the contrast to other religious traditions. In Jewish tradition marriage is holy, and not entirely, or even primarily, intended for procreation. The Torah Genesis 2:18 states “it is not good for man to be alone,” indicating companionship as the goal of marriage. Refraining from marriage is frowned upon in the Jewish tradition.

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A Persian ketubah, 1879.

In “An Open Heart,” my contribution to the Bluestocking Belles’ 2016 holiday anthology, Holly and Hopeful Hearts, Adam proposes to Esther privately first to make sure she is willing. She accepts his proposal publicly when it is put to her by a matchmaker, but begins to question the elements of the ketubah. To the horror of the matchmaker and her elders, she and Adam agree to add clauses about the education of their daughters. Esther demands that they receive equal opportunity for at least Judaic learning within the family, while the two of them continue to support women’s education more broadly.

Now couples routinely modify the traditional text to reflect their beliefs going much farther than Esther and Adam. One site lists texts for Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Interfaith, Same Sex, Secular Humanist, and Sephardic marriages as well as a “write your own” option. Couples generally sign the ketubah shortly before the wedding, as do two witnesses. The document becomes a family treasure, often a work of art in fine calligraphy that is framed and hung in the home.

holly-and-hopeful-hearts-2Caroline Warfield grew up in a peripatetic army family and had a varied career (largely centered on libraries and technology) before retiring to the urban wilds of Eastern Pennsylvania. She is ever a traveler and adventurer, enamored of owls, books, history, and beautiful gardens (but not the act of gardening). She is married to a prince among men.

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Sources

Encyclopaedia Britannica: Coverture

Ketubah.com: The Origins of the Ketubah.

Lamm, Maurice. The Marriage Contract (Ketubah). Chabad.org.

Rich, Tracey. Marriage. Judaism 101.

Child Trafficking in the Nineteenth Century

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Child workers in Newton, NC. Lewis Hine.

News organizations and documentary producers have made us all too aware of the horrors of trafficking children. The fate of women and girls of any age coerced and trapped as sex workers horrifies. Boys are not immune. This evil isn’t new, and may in fact be as ancient as the oldest profession. This article will concentrate on the nineteenth century, one in which it has been estimated that over half the prostitutes in Paris were minors, and London brothels notoriously traded in virgin girls.

In our day we generally assume that trafficked women, girls, and, yes, boys have been kidnapped, or are runaways who wandered into the clutches of their keepers unaware. Occasionally, we hear something even worse: the story of parents who’ve sold a child as a sex slave. Child selling was much more common two hundred years ago.

It is helpful to look at laws surrounding custody as a background. In Europe, and in England in particular, children were regarded as the property of their father to do with as he chose. English Common Law regarded wives as having no property rights partially on the theory (with biblical echoes) that a married couple became one person. That person, of course, was the husband. Because they had no property rights, women had no “ownership” of their children. Custom assumed that a man would cherish his wife and children and manage their lives wisely and benignly, but of course that wasn’t always the case.

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A Virgin. Abbott Handerson Thayer, 1892.

The property rights of the father were absolute up to the passage of The Custody of Children Act of 1839, which provided non-adulterous mothers with rights to custody of children under seven and access to older ones. It is considered the first feminist law. Testimony during the debate includes heart-rending examples of fathers using children for financial leverage or to cow their wives into submission in various ways. The case of Caroline Norton, who was brutally beaten throughout her marriage, found innocent of adultery after she left her husband, but denied access to her children (one of which died in the place his father had hidden him), rallied public support. A step forward, yes, but one that largely impacted the upper classes. In the grinding poverty of the industrial revolution era, poor families had no recourse but to view their children as an asset.

The most lurid form of child selling refers to sale to brothel keepers, pimps, and individuals. It has been estimated that in the mid-1800s prices to buy girls ranged from 20 pounds for a working class girl 14-18 to over 400 for an upper class girl under twelve, clearly a rarer commodity. While much less well documented, traffic in boys also went on. Josephine Butler, a Victorian Social reformer addressed parliament and is supposed to have accused the very men she addressed as “being willing to pay twenty-five guineas for the pleasure of raping a twelve year old.”

In the early 1800s press-gangs, state sponsored thugs charged with forcing young men into naval service were active. They weren’t above paying a bribe. They were legally entitled to impress boys as young as 15, it is easy to imagine some bending of that to meet quotas, particularly because ships of that era used very young boys as powder monkeys and servants. The navy encouraged this as a way of training up future seaman. Eleven or twelve were the commonly expected ages for boys to go to sea (Lord Nelson was ten) and boys were supposed to be at least 4’3″ tall. Research indicates many of them were orphans and/or had been in trouble with the law. Some of them undoubtedly went involuntarily and some were younger than expected. It is difficult—but not impossible—to imagine the impressment of a boy as young as seven. Could a father sell his son to a merchant ship? It seems likely if the man was hateful enough and the ship disreputable enough.

While prostitutes and powder monkeys make lurid and dramatic images, by far the most common form of child selling in the nineteenth century was for labor. Desperately poor parents often needed children to work as soon as they could be hired, relying on pitiful wages. They might also sell them as “pauper apprentices” to masters who could work them fourteen hours a day/seven days a week and beat them at will. The phrase “work them to death” is not unrealistic. If a family or orphaned children were placed in a workhouse, the house could and often did force the children to work or could sell them outright as pauper apprentices. The most notorious of these were children trapped as miners and those sold as climbing boys for chimney sweeps. The latter had to be quite young because climbers were forced to climb chimneys as narrow as eighteen inches. Stories of children killed or maimed in the mines, dying of lung disease, or mutilated in factory injuries are legion.

I began with the question, could a father sell his son in 1832. The answer, appallingly, is a resounding yes.

14551082_10154467181880833_776311429_o-2Caroline Warfield has degrees in history and library science. She has been at various times been an army brat, a librarian, a poet, a raiser of children, a nun, a bird watcher, an Internet and Web services manager, a conference speaker, an indexer, a tech writer, a genealogist, and, of course, a romantic. Having retired to the urban wilds of eastern Pennsylvania, she is now a writer of historical romance, enamored of owls, books, history, and beautiful gardens, who sits in an office surrounded by windows and lets her characters lead her to adventures in England and the far flung corners of the British Empire. She nudges them to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart. You can find her at www.carolinewarfield.com.

A vile abusive father attempts to sell his son in Caroline Warfield’s The Renegade Wife, out now.

Selected resources
Cossins, Anne. Masculinities, Sexualities, and Child Sexual Abuse. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Feb 16, 2000, pp. 6-7. (Accessed via Google Books September 30, 2016)

“Custody of Infants,” Commons and Lords Hansard, the Official Report of debates in Parliament, HL Deb 18 July 1839 vol 49 cc485-94. (Accessed September 30, 2016)

“Custody Rights and Domestic Violence,” UK Parliament: Living Heritage. (Accessed September 30, 2016)

Pietsch, Roland. “Ships Boys and Youth Culture in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” The Northern Mariner: Online Edition, Canadian Nautical Research Society. (Accessed October 1, 2016)

Venning, Annabel. “Britain’s Child Slaves,” The Daily Mail, 17 September 2010. (Accessed September 30, 2016)