PROPERTY AND INHERITANCE LAW. Muscovy retained the property‑ownership customs established for women during Kievan and Appanage times


Muscovy retained the property‑ownership customs established for women during Kievan and Appanage times. As in the past, women received most of their property as dowries and inheritances from their parents and they retained full rights over it after they married. Widows often held “life estates” that they managed and from which they received income. When they died, the land passed either to their sons or to other male members of their husbands’ families.

Over time, Muscovy’s landholding practices became more diverse, requiring jurists to reconcile women’s property rights with the new developments. Chief among these was the spread of pomeste. This term describes an arrangement whereby the tsars granted land to the men who served them, primarily to the cavalrymen who made up their armies. When pomeste began, the grants were provisional, that is, they lasted only so long as the service. If a man left the tsar’s employ, the land reverted to the tsar’s control. Over the sixteenth century, pomeste grants and service obligations became hereditary within families. Many nobles also owned land that they had inherited (called votchina) and they bought land from other landlords. The Herculean task of adjudicating property disputes in such a complex system was made still more difficult by the expansion of both the nobility and Muscovy’s borders. Fitting women into the mix was yet another complication. In 1562, Ivan IV’s advisers attempted to simplify matters by decreeing that pomeste and votchina land could belong only to men, and that all men owning such land had to do military service. Women could not receive either type of land in their dowries or inheritances.

This law proved impossible to enforce, because of Ivan’s demented behavior. His wars and his purges of the nobility created thousands of widows who needed the income from all their husbands’ land to survive. For their part, government officials realized that they needed the widows to keep the estates going in order to sustain the economy. The government therefore suspended enforcement of the ban against women inheriting pomeste and votchina. The importance of elite women’s work to the economy had been demonstrated in a particularly brutal way.20

The Romanov governments of the seventeenth century were more successful in defining women’s property rights. In 1627, Filaret, patriarch of the Orthodox Church and co‑ruler with his son, Tsar Michael, renewed the prohibition on widows’ inheriting pomeste or votchina estates, but he declared that a husband could bequeath to his wife and daughters land that he had purchased. The decree also contained the generous provision that a wife was entitled to one‑quarter of the couple’s moveable property. Filaret further ruled that childless widows could receive a share of the income from their marital family’s pomeste land and reaffirmed women’s long‑standing rights to their dowries. His grandson Alexis expanded these provisions in the Ulozhenie of 1649, the law code that also defined serfdom. The Ulozhenie permitted daughters to inherit both votchina and pomeste land if the family had no surviving sons. It also granted life estates to all widows and unmarried daughters of nobles who had held pomeste land. The effect of these Romanov codifications was to continue the limitation on women’s right to votchina land but to expand their claims on estates gained through service or purchase, estates which made up the great majority of land held by the nobility in the seventeenth century.21

Assessing how these changes affected elite women is difficult. As yet, historians have been unable even to agree on whether Muscovites obeyed the new regulations and whether the government enforced them. It is easier to assess the laws in the context of contemporary Europe; seen that way, the property rights of elite women in Muscovy were liberal, as Rus laws had been. They were similar to the rights contemporary Spanish women enjoyed, more limited than those granted women in the Ottoman Empire, and far greater than those possessed by women in England, France, the German states, and Scandinavia. Furthermore, rights in these last countries were shrinking as central governments issued new, increasingly restrictive laws governing women’s property holding.22


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