The People of Novgorod

At the top of the social scale, of course, was the prince, about whom a few brief comments should suffice. In 1036, we see the role of the prince beginning to be transformed from the military-based model of a chieftain surrounded by his retinue (or druzhina) to one whose position depended as much on inheritance as on military prowess. However, those princes who were also good military leaders usually prospered at the expense of their not-so-gifted brothers and cousins. All males of the house of Rurik were considered to be princes. This status did not, however, give them claim to lands or riches. These were either gifted to them by the Prince of Kiev (now beginning to be known as the Grand Prince) or seized by force of arms. By 1036, it was becoming customary for the Grand Prince to designate his heir by appointing him Prince of Novgorod, which was the second most important city in Rus'. This was subject to the approval of the citizens of Novgorod-- which in later years became more and more difficult to obtain as the power of the boyars and richer merchants of Novgorod grew and the power of the burgeoning Rurikid family began to be diluted. By the thirteenth century, the prince held only nominal power in the city.



The boyars occupied the rank just below the princes and were considered to be nobles. The dividing line between boyars and rich merchants is quite fuzzy -- their dwellings, rights, and outward appearances were probably similar. But boyars tended to own large estates outside the towns which were worked by bondsmen, though they kept their own main residences in towns and were often engaged in operations closely connected with merchant activity, such as banking, trade, and usury, using the proceeds from their agricultural operations to fund these activities. Military roles were also important, though perhaps not so much as for the noble classes in Western Europe. Boyar sons were often connected directly with a princely retinue and would use this early patronage to help build their own fortunes before settling into a town-based life. As noted before, the line between boyar and merchant was blurred, and many could and did move up or down in the ranks. The interests of boyars and merchants often coincided, and these two groups together likely controlled the veche in Novgorod.



Merchants are generally those engaged in trade who are not involved in the manufacture of the items they are trading. Rus1 merchants fell into three categories: the kupets, or local merchant; the gost, or foreign merchant; and the torgovets; or petty merchant. Whether one was a kupets or a gost depended only on where one was at a given moment: If one were in one's hometown, than one was a kupets; otherwise, one was considered a gost.

Under Russian law, merchants were treated with a great deal of respect. In case of calamity causing loss of goods, the merchant could defer payment. In the case of repayment of debts, a person1s first duty was to repay out-of-town merchants. Merchants also had a fair bit of leeway in dealing with thieves. Political activity also became the norm for the merchant class; along with the boyars, they are often mentioned in records of negotiations, treaties, revolts, and other such activities.



The majority of the population of Novgorod would have been craftsmen, either free or kholops (bondsmen) indentured to princes or boyars. Besides being the base of the urban economy, the craftsmen served as its militia in times of crisis. Here follows a list of craftsmen which have been conclusively identified by Tikhomirov as having existed in Rus1:

Whitewashers, Nail-makers, Potters, Fortification builders, Woodworkers, Locksmiths, Architects, Goldsmiths, Iconographers, Stonehewers, Stonemasons, Hood-makers, Tanners, Shipwrights, Boilermakers, Smiths, Silversmiths, Coppersmiths, Bow-makers, Bridge-builders, Tinsmiths, Weavers, Painters, Scribes, Carpenters, Catapult-makers, Sempsters, Spinners, Saddlemakers, Silverers, Glaziers, Quiver-makers, Bootmakers, Shield-makers, Butchers, Bakers, Brewers

Also mentioned in sources are entertainers such as minstrels, actors, tumblers, and psaltry-players and other musicians.

Craftsmen, depending on their status (free or unfree) and the size of their business could range the wealth scale from barely subsistence-level all the way up to considerably wealthy. Bondsmen, unlike free merchants, mainly produced items for those they served. Many of them were engaged in the production of luxury goods.



Both merchants and craftsmen eventually formed trade-specific guilds. In 1036, these guilds were in their infancy in Novgorod. The merchant guild was perhaps furthest along at this time. In general, a person who wished to enter a guild had to pay a very high entry fee, along with a deposit which was kept in the guild treasury. However, once in the guild, one1s descendants automatically became members, which became more important as the guilds moved to monopolize their particular trades. The guilds also acted as patrons in the towns, funding the construction of churches and monasteries.



The clergy of the Rus' is divided into two categories: the white, or secular, clergy; and the black, or regular, clergy. The former category was by far the larger and included not only parish priests, but also deacons, sextons, scribes, servants, and their wives and families (remember, Orthodox priests were not required to be celibate). Various "unfortunates" (widows, beggars, the blind) who were attached to churches were also considered to be "church people".

The majority of the white clergy came from a similar economic background as their parishioners and were usually closely associated with them in most matters, which made them a target of invective from their superiors and from the black clergy, who deprecated their lack of morals, drunkenness, indulgence in usury, and lack of learning.

The black clergy (monks and nuns) were also closely associated with towns. Aristocrats interested in a religious vocation usually chose to enter a monastery, and thus many monasteries became richly endowed in both land and goods. Monasteries also became centres of learning and production of icons, chronicles, and church goods. Conditions at the various monasteries varied in their harshness. The famous Monastery of the Caves outside of Kiev shows the extreme ascetic side; those wishing an extreme discipline sometimes chained themselves inside their underground cells for literally years.

Bishops could be drawn from either the black or white clergy, but usually came from the former. Cathedral churches gradually became local centres of learning, as well as the focus of considerable political activity. In Novgorod, the appointment of the archbishop eventually became one of the perquisites of the veche.



Anyone who has ever read accounts of the Muscovite period would have a clear picture of the status of women in that era: Women were completely subjugated, hidden away in the terem, completely isolated from outside life; their husbands could legally beat them at any time for any reason. Was this true for the Kievan period as well? The answer is no; it is not even the complete picture for the Muscovite era. The picture of subjugation presented as the norm for Muscovy refers in actuality only to the boyar classes; women of lower classes, while still subjected to the same legal constraints as their wealthy sisters, were of necessity more involved in public society.

And a look at the legal codes for the Kievan period shows that in actuality, the status of women was considerably higher in the eleventh century than it would be in the sixteenth. Women could own property in their own names, even if they were married; women also retained the rights to the things they made, such as woven fabrics. Upon the death of her husband, the widow became the head of the family and entrusted with the management of the estate; the heirs were obligated to support her when they came of age. Both sons and daughters were entitled to a share in the inheritance. Surviving birch bark documents reveal not only that women could read and write, but also took part in legal negotiations, commercial transactions, and patronage. On this last note, upper class women were important as patrons of churches, schools (for both boys and girls), and as arbiters of disputes among quarreling men. However, as in the rest of Europe, Rus' society was largely patriarchal, and there were the usual stereotypes of women as temptresses (in the mould of Eve), gossips, or witches -- in other words, men should be wary lest they fall astray.



How literate was Rus' society at this point? It is difficult to say decisively how many in Novgorod of 1036 could read and write, but by a hundred years later, we have considerable evidence, in the form of birch-bark letters, that a surprisingly large segment of the urban population was literate, and enough evidence from the eleventh century survives to demonstrate that writing began to become commonplace with the introduction of the Cyrillic script to Rus1, which occurred as the Rus' began to convert to Christianity. The aforementioned birch-bark letters occur in the hundreds, including children1s alphabet exercises, love letters, records of business transactions, details on lawsuits, and tax records. Also extant is graffiti from the walls of St. Sophia's Cathedral and inscriptions on craftsmens1 wares. The population of Novgorod seems to have recognized the uses of literacy very early.

Copyright 1997 Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.