ELITE WOMEN IN THE COUNTRYSIDE
The laws were affected, as we have seen, by the important part noblewomen in the countryside played in the management of estates. Their service appears to have increased in the Muscovite period because their husbands were often away. Many cavalrymen were on duty every year from summer through fall, with the result that some couples spent as much as half of their marriages separated from one another. When the husbands were gone, the wives ran the estates, for only the very richest landowners could afford to employ estate managers. This meant that all over Muscovy, noblewomen were in charge during the growing season, when the workload was the heaviest and the need for good management the greatest. These women did not live secluded inside their houses nor did they veil themselves when out of doors, though they usually did stay close to home. Once again, we are not dealing with an exclusively Muscovite phenomenon. Increasingly onerous service obligations for noblemen were increasing elite women’s responsibilities and authority elsewhere in Europe in the early modern period.23
In the seventeenth century, Kallistrat Druzhina‑Osoryin, the son of a provincial cavalryman, wrote a portrait of his mother, Iuliana, that sums up the life’s work of such a woman: “She occupied herself diligently with handiwork and managed her house in a manner pleasing to God. She provided her serfs with sufficient food, and appointed each of them a task according to their strength. She cared for widows and orphans, and helped the poor in all things.”24 The author rarely mentioned his father’s activities on the estate, and although he stressed his mother’s humility and piety, he did not include obedience to his father as one of her cardinal virtues. It was her competence and benevolence that impressed him.
Monasteries for women flourished in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The largest of these institutions were substantial walled establishments, containing hundreds of residents and supervised by abbesses, councils of nuns, and administrative officials such as cellarers, who were in charge of food provisioning. Convents also owned estates outside their walls; the land belonging to the Pokrovskii Convent in Suzdal extended across five counties (uezdy) and contained twenty‑two villages.25 The female leaders of these convents ran the affairs of their enterprises as secular women ran their households, that is, they remained within the walls, assigning business that required travel to monks who worked for them.
In its organization, Muscovite monastic life was little changed from Kievan times. There were still no highly structured religious orders such as existed in Catholic Europe. Within individual convents, discipline was looser than in the West, allowing more scope for individuals to structure their lives. A woman entering a convent could bring servants to live with her; she could have her own quarters built within the compound; she could do her own cooking and her own washing or have her servants do it. Indeed, a widow could live out her life in a convent without ever becoming a nun.
Women wishing to enter the community did have to pay a fee, as did Catholic women, with the consequence that most of Muscovy’s nuns came from the propertied classes. The nuns who performed the physical labor may have been poorer widows who could not support themselves on their inheritances and dowries, daughters from city or countryside whose parents could not find husbands for them, and perhaps also the mentally or physically disabled. From time to time, a few women were banished to convents because they had fallen out of favor with the tsar. But most nuns were widows, in keeping with tradition since Kievan times. Once a woman had fulfilled her familial duties–married, served her husband, supervised the rearing of her children–she was entitled to choose a quiet life of religious devotion.
Was monastic life a little too pleasant? Church fathers occasionally charged that discipline in the convents was lax. They complained about nuns eating expensive food and drinking too much; they hinted at sexual liaisons. Similar complaints were made about monks when clerical reformers attempted to enforce asceticism in prosperous institutions, and the reports of Catholic inspectors to the West bemoaned the same sorts of straying from the abstemious monastic ideal. Undoubtedly there were miscreants, but, sadly, we will never know how much partying was going on in Muscovy’s convents. It is clear that most nuns kept up their daily devotions, ran their establishments, and produced beautiful handcrafts, particularly embroidery.
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