Women and Class Structure

Women were active, but not equal, players in Novgorodian society. An idea of their status can be found in the expanded version of the Pravda: "If anyone kills a women he is tried in the same way as if he killed a man. If he is found guilty he shall pay one-half of bloodwite [wergild] 20 grivna."(1) Wergild for a man was 40 grivna.

Women could make contracts and receive inheritances. They managed estates and acted as executors and wards.(2) Documents show not only that women were literate, but that they conducted trade, participated in negotiations and legal actions, and supported the churches.

The Orthodox Church regarded women as inherently more sexual, and therefore more sinful, than men.(3) Harkening back to Eve, women were considered a threat to men's salvation. Church laws punishing adultery and limiting divorce fell much more heavily upon women.(4) On the other hand, false accusations of adultery against women were severely punished.(5) Unsurprisingly, courtly love, as practiced in the west, did not exist in Russia.(6)

The community's need for stability underlay the rules governing marriage and sexuality. Marriage formed the basis for economic and political alliances.(7) Pairings were arranged by parents or other responsible elders. The legal age for matrimony was 15 for boys and 12 for girls. (8) Divorce was restricted, but allowed in cases of incompatibility, female adultery, male financial irresponsibility, and in cases where a man became a slave.(9)

Illicit sex was treated differently in different situations. For men, premarital sex was a minor crime. The same was true for sex between a married man and a prostitute, widow, or slave.(10) Married women, in contrast, lived under serious restrictions. This was doubly true because privacy in sexual behavior was alien to medieval Slavic society.(11) Interestingly, extant church records show that incidents of male homosexuality were considered no more serious than a married man's promiscuity. Lesbianism was nearly ignored.(12)

Moral life, as regulated by the Orthodox Church, seems wildly inconsistent to the modern mind. A widow could be fined severely for visiting a tavern or dancing. On the other hand, the Rus' saw nothing sinful in mixed sex-bathing. Cross-dressing was strongly punished, not because it was perceived as a sexual aberration, but because of its pagan connections.(13)

There is great debate about whether the class structure of Novgorod could be described as a feudal society.(14) At the top-most rung of society were the princes and their retinues. Below them came landowner with estates, the boyars. Then came freemen, indentured laborers, some type of serfs, and slaves. Certainly great stratification existed in wealth, as can be seen in the range of size and quality of houses in Novgorod. Legal codes assigned different financial penalties for the murder of different members of society, a strong clue as to the social structure. The fine for the murder of a member of the prince's retinue was 80 grivna, a citizen 40 grivna, for an elder of the prince's village 12 grivna, a field overseer 12 grivna, a slave-nurse 12 grivna, a peasant 5 grivna, and a slave 5 grivna.(15)

Slavery was a fact in Novgorod. Evidence is found in treaties with the Hanseatic League.(16) Russian law codified conditions allowing enslavement, defined rules for identifying and returning runaway slaves, and specified fines for theft of slaves. People could be enslaved by birth, through debt, by marrying slaves, or by selling themselves. The only reference to beating in early Russian law relates to the penalty for a slave hitting a freeman.(17) The chronicles and The Song of Prince Igor identify a class of slave, the temporary war captive, who was ransomed or exchanged in negotiation. It is probable such war captives were subject to less harsh conditions than the common run of slaves.

Novgorod had its poor, sick and crippled. Charity was the duty of the community and the guild. Giving to the poor was enjoined by church teaching and the best of princes were praised for it.(18) The testament of one prince read:

"...Above all things, forget not the poor, but support them to the extent at your means. Give to the orphan, protect the widow, and permit the mighty to destroy no man..." (19)

The clergy existed as an almost separate society. In the Orthodox church, the black clergy were monks living celibate in monasteries. The white clergy-priests and deacons-were expected to marry and live in the community. The clergy was subject to a separate and stricter code of laws and courts. Large monasteries were nearly self-sufficient. Monasteries and convents also served as refuges for those who had no other place in the society.


(1)Vernadsky, Russian Law, p. 51.


(3)Levin, p. 53.

(4)Ibid, p. 188.

(5)Ibid, p. 184.

(6)Ibid, p. 76.

(7)Ibid, p. 81.

(8)Ibid, p. 96.

(9)Ibid, p. 102-118.

(10)Ibid, p. 188.

(11)Ibid, p. 34.

(12)Ibid, p. 197.

(13)Ibid, p. 195-197.

(14)Between Western scholars and those in the former Soviet Union. I find no definitive evidence, therefore what follows is deliberately open-ended.

(15)Dmytryshyn, pp. 44-50.

(16)Levin, p. 229.

(17)Dmytryshyn, pp. 46-47.

(18)Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, p. 195.

(19)Dmytryshyn, p. 75.

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Slavic Interest Group 1