SECLUSION AND WOMEN’S HONOR

 

The Domostroi does not talk directly about one of the major aspects of elite women’s lives in the Muscovite period: their seclusion from public view. The highest‑ranking women wore veils when outside their residences, sat behind screens in church, and moved around Moscow in closed carriages or sledges. These customs arose from the notion that elite women should avoid being seen by males who were not members of their families. In large households, women slept in their own separate quarters and were supposed to be very careful about how and whom they entertained. Consequently, foreign men visiting a Muscovite boyar or merchant in his home rarely laid eyes on his wives or daughters. If they appeared at all, it would be to greet their guests in highly ritualized ceremonies, after which they returned to their rooms.

The seclusion of elite women grew out of the Muscovite belief in the importance of shielding high‑born women from contact with people who might sully their honor. This concern was not unique to Muscovy. One of the most famous statements of Western European patriarchal values, the instructions of the Goodman of Paris to his young wife, written in the 1390s, declared, “You ought to be moderately loving… towards your good and near kinsfolk… and very distant with all other men and most of all with overweening and idle young men, who spend more than their means and be dancers.” Muscovites, who were even more anxious about women losing their good names than was the Goodman, extended the circle of threatening outsiders to include virtually everyone outside the walls of their well‑guarded homes.13

Seclusion was also a marker of a family’s status. A wealthy upper‑class woman did not have to work in the fields or move around the city to make her living. Instead she stayed home, consulting with her husband, supervising her slaves, saying her prayers, and finally, at day’s end, falling asleep over her embroidery. “Their chief employment is sewing,” declared a befuddled German diplomat named Adam Olearius, “or embroidering handkerchiefs of white taffeta or cloth, or making little purses or some such toys.”14 Olearius had never seen the mistresses at work running their households. He believed that the ladies of the ruling class sat quietly stitching all day–which is just what the author of The Domostroi and the elites of Moscow wanted him to believe.

A less restrictive and more widespread expression of the Muscovites’ concern about women’s honor was their practice of permitting women who felt that they had been dishonored to take their complaints to court. This practice, begun in Kievan times, was unusual in Europe. In many Italian city‑states, for example, insults to a woman were treated as insults to her family, and her male relatives brought suit and received compensation. Muscovite law, by contrast, permitted women to sue in their own names, awarded the fines to them as their property, and assessed higher fines for insults to women than for insults to men. A wife who had been insulted received double the fine her husband would have received, and their daughter four times as much.

These differences reflect the fact that women whose reputations were damaged suffered social ostracism greater than that inflicted on insulted men. If they were of marriageable age, their prospects of finding a good match were diminished. To defend themselves against such dire consequences, women of all social classes went to court, bringing complaints that ranged from verbal slander and minor physical assault, such as knocking off a headdress, to major attacks, including rape. Women were complainants in perhaps one‑third of honor cases brought before Muscovite courts. Judges took the charges very seriously, investigated assiduously, and often awarded considerable damages to the injured women.15

 








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