THE LIVES OF NOBLEWOMEN

 

We know more about the daily lives of noblewomen in the Appanage period than in Kievan times. They grew up under the care of servants, most of whom were slaves, and their education consisted of learning household management. They and their menfolk were far less likely to be literate than were contemporary nobles in central and western Europe. As teenagers, noblewomen married men chosen for them by their parents. A girl’s parents considered themselves successful if they found a groom who was a strong, healthy young man from a wealthy family. Ever mindful of the importance of their daughters’ having spotless reputations, parents permitted them little contact with people outside their family circle, so often girls met their fiancés for the first time at their weddings. This practice made a mockery of the law’s requirement that daughters consent freely to the grooms chosen for them. Newly married wives moved in with their husbands’ families and learned the tasks of managing slaves, overseeing expenditures, and getting along with in‑laws.

Women of the princely class were involved in the dangerous politics of their time in the same ways as Kievan princesses had been. Some became victims, captured, ransomed, or killed during the incessant warfare. One of these unfortunates was Konchaka, sister of the Mongol khan Uzbek. In 1316 or 1317, she married Iuri, prince of Moscow and candidate for the supreme title of grand prince of Vladimir. By giving his sister to Iuri, the khan signaled his desire that Iuri become grand prince. Iuri’s chief rival, Michael of Tver, laid claim to the throne also, and soon he and Iuri were at war. Michael prevailed and captured Konchaka, perhaps to intensify Iuri’s humiliation or perhaps to hold her hostage in order to extract concessions from Iuri. The stratagem backfired: Konchaka died in his custody and Iuri accused Michael of poisoning her. The two princes then headed to the Mongol capital of Sarai to explain to Khan Uzbek what had happened to his sister. The khan believed Iuri. Declaring Michael guilty of the murder of Konchaka as well as other crimes, Uzbek executed him. Iuri became grand prince.

Most of the women active in politics in the Appanage period had happier fates than poor Konchaka. As they had done in the Kievan period, they advised the men in their families, particularly their sons, and participated in arranging marriages for their children. The authority that some achieved is documented in the last testament of the Moscow prince Dmitri Donskoi (ruled 1359–89), a hero of Rus history because he was the first prince to score a major military victory over the Mongols. When he dictated his will in 1389, Donskoi charged his wife Evdokia, a princess from Suzdal, with keeping the peace between their five fractious sons after he was gone. “I commit my children to my princess,” he declared. “And you, my children, live as one and heed your mother in all things.” He also bequeathed considerable property to his wife and charged her with far‑reaching administrative powers over the family patrimony. At the end of his will, Donskoi admonished his sons yet again: “And you my children, heed your mother in all things, and do not go against her will in anything. And if any one of my sons does not heed his mother and goes against her will, my blessing shall not be upon him.” Evdokia appears to have been more successful than some of her predecessors; her son Vasili ascended the throne in 1389 without major internecine conflict. She also made a reputation for herself as a woman of great piety and spent a fortune building monasteries and churches.18

 

SOPHIA VITOVTOVNA (1371–1453)

 

Evdokia’s son Vasili was also married to an influential woman. She was Sophia Vitovtovna, the daughter of Grand Duke Vytautas of Lithuania. Although a foreigner, Sophia established herself as an important figure at court, by relying on her own political skills and the reputation of her father, who was a far more powerful and assertive man than her husband. Vasili, it is said, governed in Vytautas’s shadow and under his patronage. He demonstrated his respect for his wife by appointing her, in his will, regent for their young son, also named Vasili. So, after her husband’s death in 1425, Sophia governed the Moscow lands, advised by female relatives, church leaders, and allies among the boyars at court. After eight years of lobbying and over the objections of Prince Iuri, brother of the dead Vasili, whose claim to succeed was stronger than the young prince’s, Sophia and her supporters managed to persuade the khan to appoint Vasili grand prince.

Shortly thereafter, in February 1534, Sophia Vitovtovna presided over the wedding of her son. Iuri’s son Dmitri Shemiaka attended, wearing a gorgeous golden belt that he had received as a gift from his father‑in‑law. Sophia took this as a deliberate insult, for the belt, she had heard, should have been Vasili’s. The reasons why are convoluted; Sophia’s response was not. She went up to Dmitri and ripped the belt off him. This still graver insult set off a quarter century of civil war between the feuding clans, during which Sophia was captured three times by Shemiaka. Each time he released her unharmed, perhaps because he feared that killing the dowager princess would alienate his supporters. Vasili, on the other hand, he blinded after capturing him in 1446.19

Other women came to Vasili’s aid. A female servant named Poltinka, who worked for his sister Anastasia, provided intelligence about the disposition of Shemiaka’s forces, which were occupying Moscow in 1446. His aunt Juliana then traveled to the city on Christmas Eve, requesting entrance so that she could worship there. When the gates were opened, Vasili’s men flooded in and retook the city. In 1449, Shemiaka gave up and went into exile in Novgorod. He died four years later, poisoned, some say, on Sophia’s orders. What is clear is that the relentless politicking of Sophia and the occasional assistance of other female relatives helped Vasili become the pre‑eminent grand prince.20

 








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