The Slavic farmers on whom the warriors depended for food and taxes lived in small, stockaded villages scattered across the rolling grasslands of Ukraine and through the forests of today’s Belarus and western Russia. These country folk, like peasants elsewhere in Europe, were self‑sufficient, feeding themselves by hunting, fishing, keeping livestock, gathering wild foods, and growing grains and vegetables. They made their clothes of flax, wool, and fur, their houses of wood, and their tools and weapons of wood and metal. To clear land for cultivation, they chopped down bushes and trees, burned the brush, and spread the resulting ash to enrich the soil. Then they planted seeds in shallow holes dug in the cleared land. This slash‑and‑burn agriculture quickly exhausted the soil’s fertility, but there was so much land that when the productivity of one field declined, the farmers could move on to another.

The rural folk of the Rus confederation were not serfs, as were so many peasants in Western Europe at the time. Instead, they were free to run their own lives, so long as they paid their taxes. They could even dodge that obligation by relocating to places beyond the reach of the warriors. There were no local landlords, adjudicating disputes and managing agriculture, as in Western Europe, because Rus warriors, true to their Viking roots, spent most of their time at war or on trading expeditions. The farmers only saw them or their representatives once a year or so, when they came around to collect taxes, paid mostly in furs and honey. The rest of the time the men in armor left the peasants alone.

The peasants’ relationship to the church was similarly remote, which was another major difference from the situation in Western and Central Europe. The Rus warrior elite began converting to Christianity in the eleventh century, but because the rulers had so little contact with the farmers and because their territory was so immense, it took centuries for the clergy, which worked under warrior sponsorship and with warrior funding, to extend their influence into rural areas. So the peasants kept on worshipping their nature gods and goddesses and lived free of church supervision for most of the Rus period. The church’s ability to enforce its will on the countryside would remain weak for centuries thereafter.

Women in the countryside spent most of their time producing the food and clothing that sustained their families. Dressed in homespun linen and wool, they cared for small livestock, grew vegetables, gleaned the fields after the men had reaped the grain, and gathered mushrooms, berries, medicinal plants, and wood for fuel. In their smoky cabins (chimneys were not common until much later), they made clothes, prepared food, and tended babies and young children. Midwives attended births, casting spells to keep evil spirits at bay and welcoming newborns into the world with potions, amulets, and lullabies. Men did the heaviest work–constructing tools and houses, chopping down trees and chopping up firewood, digging wells, plowing, and caring for cattle and horses. This division of labor, an ancient one among the tribes of Europe, was built on the differences in physical strength between men and women and on the fact that women spent much of their adult life pregnant or nursing. By Rus times, it was seen as the natural way of things across Europe. Plowing was men’s work, gleaning women’s.


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