The Lives of Elite Women
The homes in which the slaves labored belonged to a Muscovite elite made up of wealthy noble families and a growing cohort of non‑noble court servitors and merchants. In the cities, these people lived in substantial walled compounds containing residential buildings; outbuildings such as kitchens, stables, storage sheds, and smokehouses for curing meat and fish; gardens devoted to vegetables and fruit trees; and wells. Geese, chickens, goats, and pigs wandered around the barnyards and through the trees; the family’s cattle and horses grazed on nearby pastures in summer and joined the other livestock in the compound in the winter. The human inhabitants of these mini‑farms included the head of household and his wife, their minor children and unmarried adult ones, perhaps a few relatives too poor to live independently, and a household staff of slaves and servants. Working together, they produced most of their food and clothing, tended to their medical needs, and reared their children.
The major contemporary source on these households is The Domostroi, a book written by a highly placed priest or government bureaucrat in the 1550s to instruct male family heads in managing their domestic affairs. This was no trivial matter, for the anonymous author believed, as did most Europeans of his era (and of ours, for that matter), that the family was the cornerstone of the social order. The welfare of the family, in turn, depended on its being run by a loving, mutually respectful husband and wife, a pair united in work and life. The “master” was the boss, and the author of The Domostroi devoted a lot of attention to his tasks. He also believed that the “mistress” made a crucial contribution to family success, and so he painstakingly laid out an idealized pattern of character and behavior for her as well. The resulting book became a classic of Muscovite literature that was still being consulted by Russian readers in the twenty‑first century.10
The author of The Domostroi believed that the mistress should be chaste, obedient, and loving to her husband, stern and commanding to other members of the household, and modest in her dealings with acquaintances. Obedience to her husband was her most important obligation. “Whatever her husband orders, she must accept with love; she must fulfill his every command,” the author declared (124). She should also strive to live with him in amity. “A wife should not get angry at her husband about anything, nor a husband at his wife” (143). But the lady of the house was to take on quite other qualities when supervising her female servants. In that role she was required to be a no‑nonsense manager. “The wife should… teach her servants and children in goodly and valiant fashion,” the author wrote. “If someone fails to heed her scoldings, she must strike him” (143). This was not an unusual admonition; physical punishment of disobedient subordinates, be they children, employees, soldiers, or slaves, was widely accepted across Europe. As widespread was the ideal of the elite woman who submitted humbly to her husband’s authority and that of others who outranked her, while unflinchingly exerting her own authority over inferiors.
The mistress also had to be competent and hard‑working. She had to know how to perform all the tasks of the household, from raising chickens to making clothes, for it was her job to teach younger women and to supervise their work. She had to value cleanliness, in both her personal hygiene and the running of her home. She had to keep a close eye on expenditures. The author of The Domostroi had a positive horror of servants’ stealing, so he advised the mistress to count leftover fabric scraps at the end of the day before locking them up for safekeeping. He also urged the mistress to set a good example for the servants by getting up before them in the morning, rather than letting them wake her. At the end of the day, he advised, “She should even fall asleep over her embroidery (after she has first said her prayers)” (127).
The mistress’s duties included maintaining her reputation outside her family. Wealthy families in Muscovy were as deeply concerned as their Rus ancestors about preserving their honor, that is, their standing as morally, politically, socially, and financially respectable people. The honor of the mistress depended on her behaving correctly in polite company, and so the author of The Domostroi provided detailed instructions. “When she visits or invites people to her house, she must still obey her husband’s commands. While entertaining guests or visiting, she should wear her best clothes. During meals, she should not drink alcohol. A drunk man is bad, but a drunk woman is not fit to be on the earth” (132). In conversation she must stick to uncontroversial subjects. “With her guests she should discuss needlework and household management, discipline and embroidery. If she does not know something, she may ask the advice of a good woman, speaking politely and sweetly” (132). She should never gossip. These admonitions, it should be noted, were quite similar to those made to elite women elsewhere in Europe.
The author of The Domostroi believed that embroidery was a fine public way for a woman to demonstration her mastery of feminine virtues. “If her husband invites guests or his friends, they should always find her sitting over her embroidery,” he wrote. “Thus she will earn honor and glory, and her husband praise” (126–27). Perhaps the art of fine sewing seemed particularly feminine, because it produced linens and clothing that were delicate, beautiful, and decorative. Embroidery was also something wealthy women could do while entertaining, thereby demonstrating their industriousness and artistry to their guests. Poor women also embroidered, and in their circles, the ability to produce beautiful things out of humble materials was highly valued as well.
Last in the author’s list of the mistress’s tasks came mothering. This ordering of priorities was common in Europe in the early modern period because childrearing had to be subordinated to the endless labor of providing for material needs. The necessities of daily existence had less influence over the thinking of church leaders, but they too, when they commented on family life, said very little about parenting. They concentrated instead, as did the author of The Domostroi, on the relationship between husband and wife and the good family order that derived therefrom.11
When he did address parenting, the author of The Domostroi treated both parents as equally involved in their offspring’s upbringing. Here he parted company with other sixteenth‑century Europeans; most contemporary works on family life portrayed fathers as stern enforcers of discipline, mothers as more tender‑hearted nurturers. There is a bit of this in The Domostroi, but in his general statement of parenting principles, the author minimized gender distinctions. “If God sends anyone children, be they sons or daughters, then it is up to the father and mother to care for, to protect their children, to raise them to be learned in the good. The parents must teach them to fear God, must instruct them in wisdom and all forms of piety. According to the child’s abilities and age and to the time available, the mother should teach her daughters female crafts and the father should teach his sons whatever trade they can learn” (93).
The author adds that girls should be impressed with the importance of preserving their reputations as virtuous maidens and advised parents to begin saving for their daughters’ dowries when the girls were infants. In return for this care, the children were to obey and honor their parents throughout their lives and take care of them in their old age.
Spending so much time discussing The Domostroi ’s treatment of women reflects our priorities, not the author’s. He addressed his book to male readers and devoted the lion’s share of his attention to portraying the ideal “master.” The foundational principles he laid out were similar to those he enjoined for women: “Be obedient and submissive to your superiors, loving to your equals, welcoming and kind to inferiors and the poor” (103–104). As head of household, the master had to serve as guardian of his home, “protect[ing] his people faithfully” (122) and dealing fairly with neighbors and friends. He should practice “good deeds and wise humility,” as all Christians should (138). He should be sober, sexually abstemious, hospitable, and charitable. These were ancient masculine virtues; we have seen them prescribed for Rus leaders. The author added a newer emphasis on the importance of service to the monarch that reflected the increasing power of the Muscovite crown. “Fear the tsar and serve him faithfully…. Obey the tsar in all things,” he enjoined his readers (71).
Within his household, the master’s primary obligation was to be a wise patriarch, “teach[ing] and lov[ing] your wife and children” (92). Above all, he should instruct them in Christianity by leading family prayers and attending church “every day” (86). Protestantism and Catholicism were also stressing the religious obligations of the family head in the sixteenth century; the notion had ancient roots in the faith, stretching back to the church fathers. When family members disobeyed, the master was obliged to discipline them, beating them if necessary, in private and without losing his temper.12 The Domostroi, like other such works published across Europe in the early modern period, gave instructions on how to whip disobedient wives and servitors without doing them serious bodily harm.
Also important were the managerial skills of the paterfamilias. He had to be a good organizer of domestic work, a frugal steward of resources, and a smart consumer who bought when prices were lowest. He should not go into debt but rather “live according to his means, thinking ahead, acquiring and spending according to his own true income” (123). If he was a merchant, he should be honest in his business dealings. The master could be pleased with his “justly acquired property,” for it was virtuous to “amass property according to Christian law.” Indeed, the manual went so far as to state that creating a prosperous household “merit[ed] the life eternal” (122).
This stress on sobriety, thrift, piety, and assiduous husbandry was popular in Muscovy, particularly among the merchants and clergy, to whom the author probably belonged. Such people did not care much for the swashbuckling masculinity of the Rus warrior, and hence the warrior is absent from the pages of The Domostroi. Instead there is the homey, comforting vision of a harmonious household headed by its benevolent, diligent patriarch and matriarch. These ideals had widespread appeal, even among the warriors, and so The Domostroi quickly became an influential synopsis of Muscovy’s gender ideals.
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