THE WOMEN OF THE RUS

900–1462

 

In 950, two peoples at the far‑eastern reaches of Europe were pooling their fortunes. They were the Rus, Scandinavians who had ventured south seeking riches, and the Slavs, farmers who had lived in the great expanses of steppe and forest for centuries. The Rus brought to this alliance their skills in warfare, trade, and manufacture; the Slavs provided food and furs. Off and on for decades the two groups made alliances and marriages that brought them into ever‑closer cooperation. By the year 1000, Slavs and Scandinavians were merging into one people, whom history would call the Rus, after their swashbuckling leaders.

Most Rus women spent their lives working. In the countryside, they harvested the fields and forests. In the cities, they participated in family businesses. Among the ruling elite, they managed households. Women of all classes also married, had children, experienced youth’s pleasures and hopes, and found ways to endure advancing old age. The Rus believed that men should rule women and that young women should obey their seniors. When women became seniors themselves, they required their daughters, daughters‑in‑law, and sons to honor and obey them. They also advised their menfolk, a custom that, among the elite, led to women becoming political advisers and, on a few occasions, regents.

Rus women’s work, family lives, participation in their communities, and spirituality were similar to those of women elsewhere in Europe, because the gender values that structured those practices were pan‑European. The differences in their history arose from their existence on Europe’s far‑eastern frontier. A powerful ruling elite and an omnipresent established church came to them later than they did to other Europeans. So for most of Rus history, the great majority of women were legally free farmers, living in small villages, moving to new lands at will, preserving their customs and their ancient faiths, and trying to stay out of the way of the warriors who lived to trade and fight.

 

The Kievan Period, Tenth Century to 1240

 

 

POLITICS

 

Most Rus warriors were fair‑skinned, blue‑eyed, and bearded, like their Viking cousins. In leather armor and pointed helmets, they navigated the broad rivers of their adopted homeland, pursuing a profitable trade in furs, honey, slaves, Persian silver, and fine manufactured goods from Byzantium. They made their capital at Kiev on the Dniepr River in today’s Ukraine and hailed the prince who ruled that city as their paramount leader. Though loosely organized, the Rus dominated the commerce of their region and even sent periodic delegations to Constantinople, the sophisticated capital of the Byzantine Empire, far to the south across the Black Sea.

The rules of Rus society were patriarchal. Family affiliations, titles, and property descended through male kin and men held all public offices, secular and religious. Age and social rank figured in the making of gender hierarchies, as they do universally, and so senior men had power over the junior men in their families as well as over all the men who ranked below them in the larger society. Older women had considerable authority over younger female kin and were supposed to receive the respect and attention of their sons and husbands. Widows may have been allowed more autonomy than married women; that was the case elsewhere in Europe and can be documented in later periods of Russian history. Elite women also commanded the obedience of the servants and slaves, male and female, who worked for them. This granting of power according to a woman’s age and her status in her family’s and society’s hierarchy extended to the lower‑ranking members of Rus society as well. It would endure throughout subsequent centuries in Russia and across Europe.

Prominent among the early rulers of Kiev were Olga (c. 915–c. 969), a princess who served as regent for her son, and her grandson Vladimir I (ruled 980–1015), later canonized for converting the Rus to Christianity. Vladimir also expanded his home city and increased his control over the hinterland that supplied him with food and trade goods. His successor Iaroslav (1018–54) promoted Christianity, issued the first written law code, and sponsored still more building in Kiev.

Iaroslav did not establish a method of passing power peacefully from one generation to the next. The Rus practiced lateral succession–that is, brothers could claim the title of a deceased brother, and only after all brotherly claims were exhausted did sons inherit. Since princely families were large, this custom often led to prolonged warfare. Shortly before he died, Iaroslav commanded his sons and brothers to promise to abide by a scheme he had devised, one that ranked Rus cities in a hierarchy from Kiev down, and dispersed them as dependencies to brothers and then their sons in order of seniority by birth. His kin duly swore, then broke their oaths after his death. Iaroslav and Vladimir before him had come to power through fratricidal war, and their successors did so as well.

Such violence was common in European monarchies in the medieval period, and primogeniture, the right of the first‑born son to inherit his father’s title and landed estates, even where securely established, did not guarantee peaceful succession. The special peril faced by the Rus was the presence nearby of nomadic tribes, such as the Pechenegs and Polovotsy, which were eager to take advantage of Rus disunity. Warfare among princes usually led to warfare with the surrounding peoples, disruption of trade, and the pillaging of Rus cities.

And yet, despite periodic eruptions of civil war in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Rus population grew and spread across a sprawling territory. This expansion testified to the people’s success in wresting a living from the land and trading with their neighbors, but it also exacerbated tensions that plagued the warrior class. As families grew, claims to titles multiplied. Princely families that had settled in towns far from Kiev developed local ties and consequently felt less loyalty to the center. Even politically skilled princes, who managed to rally their cousins’ support for defense and trade, could not reverse the consequences of the elite’s proliferation and dispersal. By the early thirteenth century, therefore, political bonds between the rulers were growing dangerously weak.

 








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