THE LIVES OF WOMEN IN THE CITIES
The cities of the Rus confederation boomed in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. Many of them were little more than trading posts, but others, such as Kiev and Novgorod, grew into thriving communities graced by substantial churches and palaces. Historians have estimated the population of Kiev at the end of the twelfth century at forty or fifty thousand, which was roughly the size of Paris or London at the same time.1 In its crowded neighborhoods, artisans crafted weapons and tools, jewelry, enamelware, pottery, glass, and wooden goods. Merchants distributed all this, as well as luxury products brought from Byzantine and Arab lands. Some townspeople, women as well as men, could read, write, and do arithmetic, skills they used in managing their financial affairs. At the bottom of urban society, mostly working for the rich, were slaves, who had come into bondage by being captured in war.
As was common elsewhere in Europe during the medieval period, Rus cities were self‑governing, with their own local leaders, town meetings, and common law. When Kievan princes began to exert more control in the eleventh century, townspeople zealously defended their rights. Contemporary chronicles refer to abusive princes being overthrown and even lynched by angry crowds.
The women of the middle ranks of town society supervised housework, shopped, kept financial records, and conferred with their husbands on the management of the family business, as merchant women did elsewhere in Europe. Some owned property in their own names and lent and borrowed money. Their clothes may have been similar in design to those of rural folk, but rich merchant women could afford much finer fabrics, including silk brought in by traders. They also bought imported and locally made jewelry, especially intricately carved combs, silver brooches, necklaces, and gold and silver bracelets and rings. Less affluent women dressed more plainly and lived more simply, selling goods in the markets and working as artisans. Spinning was considered women’s work among the Rus as elsewhere in Europe. Some surviving spindles have women’s names carved on them.2
WOMEN OF THE RULING CLASS
The women of the Rus warrior elite had much in common with lower‑ranking women. They too married men of their parents’ choosing, for marriage was considered an alliance between families, not a private matter to be decided by the couple. Elite and poor women were expected to be dutiful wives who bore healthy children and worked to support their families’ well‑being. The women of the warrior class had more luxuries and status than poorer women, of course, and some additional obligations. They were supposed to set pious examples for their communities and to participate in their families’ jockeying for power and wealth, that is, in politics.
Elite women’s most passive involvement in politics was entering into the arranged marriages that helped establish and maintain good relations between powerful families. Daughters of the princes of Kiev became the brides of foreign kings, which attests to the fact that royalty abroad regarded Rus princes as their equals–and their daughters, therefore, as suitable consorts. Four of the granddaughters of Vladimir Monomakh (ruled 1113–25) married non‑Rus princes: Malfrid became queen of Norway, Evfrosinia queen of Hungary, and Ingeborg queen of Denmark, and Dobrodeia married the nephew of the Byzantine emperor.
Elite women were also actively engaged in their families’ affairs. This was not unusual in medieval Europe, where politics took place within families and clans. The female relatives of Rus warriors were expected to advise their male kin, and that obligation entailed staying on top of political developments so as to inform brothers, husbands, or fathers of impending treacheries. Indeed, in that turbulent age it might mean death to discount the value of a wife’s sharp eyes and attentive ears.3
Among the Rus, as among other Scandinavian and Germanic peoples, women were also valued for their peacemaking skills. The Primary Chronicle, a history of the Kievan princes written by monks in the twelfth century, tells of a princess trying to mediate between her warring sons. Identified only as Vsevolod’s widow, she was the mother of Vladimir Monomakh and grandmother of those four princesses who married foreign royals. In 1097, when her sons and their cousins were vying for the throne at Kiev, she went, with the head of the church, the metropolitan, to urge Vladimir to make peace. “We beseech you, oh Prince, and your brethren not to ruin the land of Rus,” she pleaded. Vladimir burst into tears and agreed. “Thus he obeyed her as he was bound to obey his mother,” the chronicler intones. She returned to Kiev to beg Vladimir’s cousin Sviatopolk, the reigning prince, to reconcile with his enemies. Sadly, her motherly appeals did not end the dispute.4
Princesses could not become rulers in their own right. This was the general practice across Europe, although the feudalism of the West did enable a few women who inherited fiefdoms to exercise considerable power. Far more common among the Rus and other Europeans was the custom of widows serving as regents for their minor children or taking up their husbands’ administrative duties when the men were away. Seals bearing the names of such Rus women have been unearthed in archaeological digs. We do not know how many regents or temporary administrators there were, but we can identify the one whose political career earned her the greatest fame.
OLGA (c. 915‑c. 969)
Olga, the widow of Prince Igor of Kiev, was regent to her son Sviatoslav from 945 to the late 950s or early 960s. She is best remembered for the murderous revenge she took on the Derevlians, perennial enemies of the Rus, after they had defeated and beheaded her husband. The Primary Chronicle recounts that the victorious Derevlians proposed to Olga that she marry their prince and thus unite the two warring peoples. It was an offer they expected her, a vulnerable woman, to accept. This proved to be a fatal misunderstanding of her character. Olga buried alive the first group of Derevlian ambassadors who came to arrange the marriage. Then, on the pretext of accepting their offer, she went to the Derevlians’ capital, camped outside the city walls, hosted a great feast, and finished the celebration by massacring her drunken guests. She then laid siege to their city. When the townspeople sued for peace, Olga directed each household to give her an offering of three pigeons and three sparrows. They sent them to her, and she ordered her soldiers to tie matches to the birds’ feet and light them. Released, the terrified creatures took their flaming burdens home and set the city afire. Thus did Olga avenge Igor and defend the Rus lands from the Derevlians.
This bloody tale is probably a myth. Scandinavian folklore delights in stories of widows exacting hideous revenge. The monk who wrote about Olga’s life in The Primary Chronicle almost two centuries after her death probably told the story to illustrate her cleverness and courage, and her willingness to use those talents in defense of her people’s independence. These were the themes of the rest of his account of her life, which is more solidly grounded in the historical record. He writes about her conversion to Christianity, which is confirmed by Byzantine sources, and her wisdom as a ruler. Olga served as regent for her son for more than a decade, during which time she increased government revenues, improved relations with other princely families, and strengthened ties to Byzantium. The princess also led a delegation of priests and male and female advisers to Constantinople, where she negotiated trade agreements with the emperor and was baptized, with the emperor standing up for her as godfather.5
A modern copy of an ancient icon depicting St. Olga.http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Helga_Olga.jpg. Accessed June 27, 2011.
The Primary Chronicle provides the following account of Olga’s conversion:
“Olga went to Greece [Byzantium] and arrived at Tsargrad [Constantinople]. The reigning Emperor was named Constantine, son of Leo. Olga came before him, and when he saw that she was very fair of countenance and wise as well, the Emperor wondered at her intellect. He conversed with her and remarked that she was worthy to reign with him in his city….
When Olga was enlightened, she rejoiced in soul and body. The Patriarch [head of the Church], who instructed her in the faith, said to her, ‘Blessed art thou among the women of Rus, for thou hast loved the light and quit the darkness. The sons of Rus shall bless thee to the last generation of thy descendants.’ He taught her the doctrine of the Church, and instructed her in prayer and fasting, in almsgiving, and in the maintenance of chastity. She bowed her head, and like a sponge absorbing water, she eagerly drank in his teachings.”
SOURCE: SAMUEL HAZARD CROSS AND OLGERD P. SHERBOWITZ‑WETZOR, TRANS. AND EDS., THE RUSSIAN PRIMARY CHRONICLE, LAURENTIAN TEXT (CAMBRIDGE, MASS.: MEDIAEVAL ACADEMY OF AMERICA, 1973), 82.
When her son reached his majority, Olga became a powerful royal mother. During Sviatoslav’s incessant wars, she governed Kiev and oversaw the rearing of her grandchildren, among them the future Vladimir I. The Chronicle portrays Olga as begging her son to convert to Christianity, which he refused to do on the grounds that his men scorned the faith as a woman’s religion. “He did not know that whoever does not obey his mother shall come to distress,” the chronicler declares.6 Sviatoslav, ever the valiant and enthusiastic warrior, was killed in combat sometime after Olga’s death. Vladimir, who grew up under his grandmother’s supervision, did convert, and he decreed that all the Rus should become Christians too.
Many elite Rus women were converting to Christianity in the tenth century, and probably many of them persuaded their male relatives to be baptized. Elite women across Europe had played this role in the spread of Christianity since Roman times. In the centuries after Olga’s death, the new faith slowly spread among the elite, then moved out into the countryside, merging with the pagan beliefs the Rus had inherited from their ancestors. As it became a part of Rus culture, Christianity brought new institutions into women’s lives and shaped the gender values of their world.
Vladimir’s conversion officially affiliated the Rus with the eastern branch of Christianity. When he converted, disagreements between the church authorities in Constantinople and those in Rome were dividing Christendom into a Catholic West and Orthodox East. The Catholics and the Orthodox agreed on the basic articles of the faith, but differed on a few theological issues, as well as on matters of church organization. These differences would affect the development of Christianity among the Rus, and the hostility between Catholicism and Orthodoxy would also sour the relations between Catholic Europe and the Rus and their successors, the Muscovites.
From Olga’s time onward, elite women figured prominently among the converts. They became generous patrons, donating money to build churches and monasteries and to purchase precious liturgical objects such as chalices. Some high‑born women also participated, as did men of their rank, in the selection of church officials. A twelfth‑century princess, Verxoslava, wrote to the Metropolitan Simon, the head of the Rus church, “that she would like [Polikarp] appointed bishop… ‘even if I have to spend a thousand pieces of silver’” to get the prelate to agree. Simon quoted Verxoslava in a letter he wrote to Polikarp. He frankly told the latter that he had refused the princess’s request because Polikarp was too ambitious. Simon did not, however, condemn Verxoslava for making the nomination. Rather, he considered her efforts to be part of the normal scheme of things.7
Not content to influence the church from the outside, women entered it as well. Hundreds, perhaps thousands became nuns in the first few centuries after conversion. The Rus believed it desirable for all their daughters to marry, and therefore they did not enroll young girls in convents, as did the western Christians. Instead, most Rus nuns took up the religious life as middle‑aged widows. Because Rus monasticism followed the Eastern Orthodox model in being decentralized, and because the Rus elite did not practice feudalism, which granted fiefs to monastic communities, large and powerful convents led by abbesses did not develop in the Rus lands. Rather, Rus nuns lived in small compounds and were supervised by monks from nearby monasteries.
Women were also present in the Rus church as priest’s wives. Orthodox priests were required to marry, for church authorities believed that having wives would help priests control their sexual urges.8 By the end of the Rus era, there were priestly families living and working in some villages, where there was little to distinguish the wives officially from other women. They had no liturgical role. Perhaps they held a slightly higher status in the community of village women by virtue of being married to priests.
As Christianity spread, it absorbed some of the older religious ideas of the Rus in a blending process known as syncretism. This merger, often encouraged by Christian missionaries, took place all over Europe as people converted, and among the Rus, as elsewhere, it went on for centuries. In Kiev, Vladimir ordered statues of Perun, the sky god who spoke in thunder, thrown into the rivers; the Rus later attributed thunder to the Old Testament prophet Elijah. Across Europe, people did the same, transferring legends of dragon‑killing warriors to a mythic saint named George, for example. The Rus kept on wearing amulets to repel evil spirits too, only now the amulets were crosses or the likenesses of saints.
An important part of this syncretism was the blending of Rus and Christian gender ideas. Identifying Christian influences on pre‑existing Rus beliefs is difficult, because Christian monks wrote the historical documents. That said, there is some evidence that Christianity may have stressed women’s sinfulness more than did pre‑Christian Rus patriarchy. Orthodox and Catholic churches taught that women were prone to the sin of Eve–that is, that they readily succumbed to temptations, particularly sexual ones, and then seduced men to sin also. Scholars now debate whether Catholicism obsessed more about Eve’s fall than did Orthodoxy. What is clear is that Rus monks, like their Western counterparts, excoriated women for leading men astray. In an essay on female vice and virtue written in the eleventh century, an anonymous monk declared, “Small is all wickedness compared to the wickedness of a woman; may a sinner’s lot befall her. A wicked woman is a wound to the heart. From woman is the beginning of sin, and because of her we all die.”9
Christianity paired these wailings about women’s wickedness with instructions to women on how to be good. The monk quoted above also wrote, “A virtuous and wise wife is a blessed lot and will be given as a portion to those who fear the Lord.” Women who chose sin, often defined as sexual licentiousness and/or rebellion against authority, were evil, dangerous, and far too numerous, he declared, but those who practiced virtue, particularly chastity and service to their husbands, were to be treasured. The best women of all–loving mothers–should be venerated and obeyed. Indeed, there was persistent emphasis throughout Rus writings on the obligation to revere mothers. “Give honor to your mother,” the monk advised, “and do her all good so that with joy you will see the Lord and rejoice in this forever.”10
Closely allied to this veneration was praise of the saints and the Virgin Mary. The Virgin, the most important of the female spirits, was the perfect mother, always merciful, forgiving, long‑suffering, gentle, and protective. The Rus came to see her as a powerful figure, ever willing to intercede for her children with the deity. Over the centuries, Mary and the female saints became central to women’s faith in Russia, as they were across Europe. There were fewer female saints in the Rus pantheon than in Western Christendom, but those women that were recognized for their sanctity made women feel welcome in the faith and gave a focus to their worship. Their example also reminded the Rus and their descendants that women, despite their frailties, were just as capable as men of receiving the gifts of God’s grace and eternal life.
Christianity may also have appealed to women in Rus lands and across Europe because it enjoined men and women to cultivate virtues that were seen as more feminine than masculine. The church declared that both sexes should be pious, kind, selfless, dutiful, contemptuous of worldly riches and ambitions, and non‑violent. This meekness did not appeal to the military men who were Europe’s political leaders. From Roman times onward, they denounced the faith as a religion for women and cowardly men. Sviatoslav was typical of the warriors in thinking that conversion would make him seem effeminate. In response, the church, ever adept at fashioning compromises to win converts, came up with a set of masculine values tailored for the warriors. The Christian soldier, priests declared, could and should be a ferocious fighter, hunter, and leader of men. But when he came home to his family, he should put away his weapons and his warrior swagger and become a dutiful husband and father, a defender of the poor and weak, a generous patron of the church, and, perhaps above all, the humble servant of all those men, clerical as well as lay, who had power over him. These were the values preached by the Orthodox missionaries who converted the Rus; Vladimir found them persuasive. There was always and everywhere a good deal of space between the ideal and the reality of warrior behavior, but the priests were at least preaching a kinder, gentler masculinity.
The Rus also adopted Byzantium’s legal system and thereby laid a foundation for Russian law that would endure until the 1917 Revolution. The law codes, drawn up by monks working for the princes, defined women’s property and inheritance rights as well as men’s, set the penalties for crimes against women, and regulated women’s access to the courts. The foundational principle of these codes was patriarchal: senior men should rule their families justly and should care for and protect their dependents.
Rus authorities followed the European custom of dividing the laws into two general categories: secular, which included property and criminal law and fell under the jurisdiction of the princes; and ecclesiastical, which included regulation of the clergy, marriage (which was a religious sacrament), sexual behavior, and religious conformity, and was controlled by the church. Some Rus laws that addressed women were more liberal than the laws of other Europeans; some were stricter. Overall, the differences are less significant than the similarities. Unfortunately, the records of Rus courts have not survived, so we know very little about how laws were applied in specific cases. The courts probably concentrated on disputes among city dwellers and their reach into the countryside was probably confined to areas around the cities.
Women’s property and inheritance rights were defined in the secular codes. The lawmakers worked with two guiding principles: men were to own most property and women were to be provided for. The codes they drafted required that women receive dowries, which would remain their property after they married, rather than being folded into the marital family’s property, as was common in contemporary England and elsewhere. They also stipulated that sons were to inherit the lion’s share of their families’ holdings. Should a father not will anything to his daughter, her brothers were obliged to provide her a dowry. For their part, husbands were enjoined to leave their wives enough moveable property–precious objects, money, clothing, livestock, tools–and the income from sufficient land to support them for the rest of their lives. They could give them whatever else beyond the minimum that they chose. Widows possessed some discretionary power to determine which of the male heirs would inherit the family patrimony. These laws, which were very similar to those of other Scandinavian and Germanic peoples, were more restrictive than Byzantine rules, which granted sons and daughters equal inheritance rights, and which set definite percentages regarding the inheritances of widows. On the other hand, Rus law compared favorably with that of such Western European cities as Avignon, where daughters were banned from inheriting anything.11
The church’s marriage laws followed the same principles of asserting the power of fathers and husbands and requiring that that power be limited by regard for the welfare of wives and children. To that end, the law charged parents to obtain the consent of their children to the marriage partners they had chosen for them. This was an improvement over Rus common law and that of other Scandinavians, which did not have such a requirement.12 Parents who forced their daughters or sons to marry against their will were subject to fines. If a young woman did herself bodily harm rather than submit, the fine was substantial. (Rus criminal law followed the Scandinavian practice of fining wrongdoers rather than imprisoning them.)
Once married, the Rus were to stay that way, for the Orthodox church considered monogamy a commandment from God. Concubinage, common before conversion, was outlawed and remarriage after the death of a spouse was frowned upon. Husbands could request divorces from the church if their wives had committed sexual indiscretions, whereas wives could only petition on grounds that their husbands had done them great injury or attempted to impoverish them. Adulterous husbands were liable for fines. These were also the general principles of Catholic marriage law, but the Western church was less insistent on the “till‑death‑do‑us‑part” requirement. Catholic courts would grant annulments if they found that parents had coerced their children into marriage, if the husband was impotent, if the couple were close relatives, or if either partner had another spouse. Catholic law also occasionally permitted legal separation, as Rus law did not, and took a less censorious attitude toward remarriage than did Orthodox authorities, the Rus included.13
Rus criminal law mentions women rarely, perhaps because the drafters of the codes assumed that most crimes would be committed by men and perhaps also because female lawbreakers were customarily punished by their male relatives. The jurists did consider crimes against women serious offenses; the first two articles of Prince Iaroslav’s Church Statute concerned rape and the abduction of a woman by a man. These crimes were addressed also in the secular codes because they were considered crimes of violence as well as sexual offenses. A man found guilty of sexual assault had to pay a fine. There were Europeans, such as those in the Germanic lands and Iberia, who imposed physical punishments for rape, including execution; many others, including the English and French, did as the Rus and levied monetary penalties. The fines varied with the rank of the rape victim. A man who attacked the wife or daughter of a boyar (a warrior just below the prince in the social hierarchy) owed the substantial sum of five gold grivnas to the victim, and the same to the bishop. The lower‑ranking the woman, the lower was the fine.
It is noteworthy that Rus rape statutes required that the fine be paid to the woman herself, rather than to her family, as was common elsewhere. Rus jurists believed that the victim was the most injured party in a rape, for she had suffered great damage to her reputation in addition to psychological and possibly physical trauma. This view grew out of the censorious attitude the Rus took toward sexual indiscretions by women. So important was it to them that a woman be known as virtuous that they considered spreading tales that a woman was promiscuous to be as grave an offense as raping her. So they leveled the same fines for slander as for rape. This concern about reputation and the provision for innocent women to receive restitution themselves were not common across Europe. They would be preserved in the revisions of the Rus law codes for hundreds of years.
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