Friday 4 December 2015

Women's Rights in Early Medieval Rus

The Ruirikid Dynasty ruled Rus lands during the eleventh century. This marks the early part of a Golden Age for the ruling cities Kyiv/ Kiev and Novgorod. These princes replaced many diverse local customs and created a Rus State that stretched from the Black Sea north of  Moscow and St Petersburg, which, if they existed at all then, were tiny hamlets. The ruling Ruirikid princes over the period of two centuries established a series of law codes known collectively as The Russkaia Pravda. These laws united various clans under the cultural and religious umbrella of the Byzantine influenced Russian Orthodox Church and established a common written language, Old Church Slavonic.
The Golden Gates of Kiev

The Princes controlled the judicial system to their own financial advantage. For instance, although vengeance was recognized as a legal response to crimes such as rape and murder, if the victim was a member of a prince's household the prescribed punishment was a fine, levied on the offender and paid to the prince. A portion of the fine went to the Church as well. Of course, for a woman's life the fine was half of that for the murder of a man.
Later Medieval Rus Princess

Women's property rights differed also. Women, like Anglo-Saxon women, could own property which they had received as gifts or as a dowry. If a woman's husband died and her sons inherited the estate, her sons had to arrange their sisters' marriages and provide their dowries. Noble daughters could inherit their fathers' estates and property if there were no surviving sons.
Later Medieval Rus Woman

 All women found protection in the law. At the end of the tenth century, relations and questions relating to family, and importantly women, came under church jurisdiction. Church literature divided women into 'good' women and 'bad' women. There were more of the latter, needless to say. Descriptions of the immorality of women were used as an excuse for setting forth an entire set of instructions on how men should avoid 'lustful' women. Women were admonished to be silent, to submit to God and to their husbands.
Map showing Kievan Rus Lands

Yet, feudal law gave women from the underprivileged social strata a modest role in society. If they were slaves and married a free man, they were set free; not so for the male slave who married a free woman. The honour of female slaves was protected. If they were raped, they were compensated, and if a slave was raped by a foreigner, she was freed. If a woman accused a man of rape, she would be protected by the law.

'If anyone kills a woman, he will be tried and if guilty pay a half-wergild, twenty grivney.' 
 But only half- is that fair?

The rights of women from all classes of society were severely limited. Women were less likely to serve as witnesses in legal disputes or in the drawing up of documents. Only ten per cent of land documents testify to women's rights. Even so, all women could defend their honour and property they owned independent of their husbands. Moreover, Medieval Rus possessed the institute of female guardianship at this time.
Nizhniy Novgorod- Did this Kremlin have a Terem?

Terem culture, that of the seclusion of noble women in their own part of a palace, is often dated from the sixteenth century. In fact, it most likely had its roots in much earlier traditions. Terem culture is being reassessed by historians. Separate living quarters for noble men and women were not unusual during the Rus medieval period, that dated from the tenth century. Elite women in Frankish culture also lived in separate quarters from their men. It is certainly now considered that the practice predated the Mongol invasions. The Mongols never segregated women. It is possible the concept and word Terem (not to be confused at all with harem) came from Byzantium to Rus lands long before the Mongol invasions. It is likely however that later Muscovite royal families strengthened this control condiderably over female members, maybe for marriage purposes which explains the highly developed Terem culture of the seventeenth century and the Muscovite era in Russian history. 

I have integrated some aspects of this research into the narrative of The Betrothed Sister. However, if you read it, do remember that my novel is fiction albeit researched as far it is possible with limited sources. Women's lives were hidden and largely went unrecorded during the Medieval period. All I could do was make a few, hopefully informed, guesses as to what Gita Godwinsdatter, the Anglo-Saxon princess encountered in the lands of the Kievan Rus. If anyone who reads this knows more about Terem culture in medieval Russia I would love you to comment here.

I am the co-ordinator for HNS Conference 2016  2nd-4th September in Oxford. Do look at:

Tuesday 17 November 2015

Medieval Russia, Fairytales and History

Most of The Betrothed Sister is set in medieval Russia where King Harold II's daughter Gita (Thea in the novel) is married off by her father's cousin, King Sweyn of Denmark, to a prince of the Rus ruling family, The Riurikid Dynasty, founded in the tenth century. What sort of land did Thea discover, circa 1070?

Medieval Russian Countryside

I always think of medieval Russia as a land of fairy tales, snow, castles, and sleighs. In fact over the years I have been so entranced by Russian fairy tales, that I constructed Thea, the heroine of The Betrothed Sister, as a teller of stories. Appropriately at the maiden's party just before her wedding to Vladimir Monomarkh, I introduce a competition for the telling of fairy tales since, with this story, I aimed for a 'fairy-tale' atmosphere. These events happened so long ago that finding out what happened to Thea was difficult. However, with imagination and a thorough investigation of the times, I constructed a possible history for her.

Rus Fairy Tales

Medieval Rus was very different to Anglo-Saxon England, another extremely cultured society. This said, many exiles from the Anglo-Saxon world wound up in Kiev and Novgorod after the Norman Conquest. If Moscow existed at all, it was a simple village, totally insignificant. Kiev, the centre of the Rus Kingdom, was cosmopolitan and wealthy from trade along the River Dnieper from Byzantium. Novgorod, too, was equally wealthy and the discovery of birch wood tablets with shopping lists and love letters in Novgorod dating from this period, suggests a high level of literacy that is often found in established rich societies.

Church of the Holy Wisdom, Kiev.

Thea sailed to a land where the Church had already become a second institution. As the ruling  Riurikid Dynasty gave shape to the emerging Rus State, rulers looked towards Byzantium for a range of cultural influences associated with Christianity. A perfect example is, therefore, the development of the Russian Orthodox creed and a literature very influenced by Byzantine styles.

A simple note from 11thC Novgorod

Writing and literacy existed within Rus lands during the tenth century. East Slavonic was used for practical, administrative and personal written application-type correspondence. With a Greek Orthodox influence, Church Slavonic drew on Slavic words and grammar and used them in Byzantine style, becoming the liturgical and formal literary language of the Kievan Rus. From the middle of eleventh century literacy and texts became more widespread. Clerics used Greek forms as models for their own compositions. Chronicles, recording the first written history of the Rus, were written in Church Slavonic. This gave the tribes that made up the Rus state a common cultural background. It also gave the Riurikid Dynasty an ideological foundation for exclusive rule over the Kievan Rus. Much of this literature is admired today. The Lay of Igor's Campaign is an epic poem, written in old Slavonic, describing Prince Igor's campaign against the Kumans in the twelfth century. It is unanimously acclaimed as the highest achievement in Russian literature of this Kievan era. Consequently, not to be kept in ignorance in her new land, Thea learned to read and write the literary language of her adopted country.

Imagined Medieval Novgorod

 According to the Russian Primary Chronicle, in part written down in Kiev during the years encompassed by my story, years of fratricide dominated the eleventh century, often linked with Rus battles fought against the Kumans, the collective name for Steppe tribes dwelling on Rus borders. Warring princely Rus brothers would seek support from these organised, sophisticated and militaristic border tribes. Thea's first decade in Rus lands was haunted by such rivalry between members of her husband's family. It was all about succession to the important throne in Kiev. The family member who was crowned Grand Prince of Kiev ruled the kingdom of the Rus.

The principal of succession to the Kiev throne was that the senior member of the Riurikid princes of their generation would inherit the throne. Thus, it could pass to an uncle rather than to the eldest son of the eldest son. Brothers and nephews soon disputed this order of seniority established by Prince Vladimir's great grandfather, another Vladimir. For instance, was seniority defined as chronological age or by the status of a wife? The Rus princes were monogamous, but despite warfare, it seemed that many of the Rus princes became widowers early in life and remarried, sometimes to Kuman princesses, never mind dynastic marriages into great European families.  Thea married into such a situation. In 1068 the senior prince, Iziaslav, her betrothed Vladimir's uncle was challenged by his cousin, Vseslav. This had a warlike outcome that lasted for a number of years. 
Women wrote love letters and even shopping lists

For the early part of Thea's marriage to Prince Vladimir, the son of a younger brother, there was a period of intense dispute over succession to the Kievan throne. Eventually, in 1078, Vladimir's father gained the throne but became embroiled in battles with his nephews who felt they should inherit the throne from their father, Vladimir's second uncle.

Prince Vladimir Monomarkh

Thea sadly died before her husband inherited the Kiev throne from his father in 1113. Thea's husband had become a pivotal figure in dynastic politics, greatly admired as a leader because he led a series of successful campaigns against the Steppe tribes, securing Rus southern borders. Thea's sons followed their father as Grand Prince, one by one, and became in their turn rulers of the Rus. Thea is, in fact, the great grandmother many times removed of the Romanovs, the Russian royal family that ruled Russia in the first years of the twentieth century. It could be said too that, although, the Godwin dynasty did not hold on to England in 1066, King Harold's elder daughter, Gytha/Gita/ Thea, gave them a long regal legacy.

 The Betrothed Sister is published by Accent Press for all e devices, and as a paperback. It is available from all good bookshops.


Thursday 10 September 2015

Medieval Women and the Merchant Class

I have a new novel that has just this past month been published in paperback.  The Betrothed Sister is about the marriage between Gita, King Harold of England's daughter and a Prince of Kiev during the latter half of the eleventh century. I am writing a new book. My work in progress will be concerned with a woman from the early Tudor merchant class. The heroine is a widow. She has a wonderful story.
Gita, Daughter of King Harold

There is a question over when the medieval period ends. Some historians, myself amongst these, believe that the medieval period really ends in England with the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. I actually believe it ends even later, around the mid sixteenth century, certainly not with The Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

A story set circa 1512 is, to my mind, a late medieval story. England was still Catholic. The monasteries basked contentedly for the most part amongst England's rivers and in towns and the countryside. Cathedrals with beautiful carvings, stained glass and great spires reached heaven-wards. The landscape of London looked much as it did in the previous century with a busy River Thames, medieval buildings, wood with tiled roofs and overhangs and many monasteries and churches. It is a delightful world to set a novel in, though, of course it has its underbelly. Life could be short, life could be hard and women struggled to find a voice, never mind any degree of independence.

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Medieval towns where the Church dominated the landscape

There were strong women in trade throughout the medieval and Tudor period. There were some women who achieved independence by amassing fortunes. These female merchants were, for the most part, widows. The Wife of Bath was one such lady.

In the late medieval era the term merchant sometimes meant a man or woman of mixed enterprise. Although he or she might have a dominant particular trade, the merchant often combined this with a number of other interests. Mercers, for example, traded in fine textiles. Grocers traded in spices. My lady trades in cloth, gorgeous cloths. Whilst a merchant might trade in wool and cloth they were often ready to deal in any other merchandise that came their way. Mercers often derived a considerable profit from a retail business in luxury fabrics. My protagonist, for example, is anxious to get her hands on a variety of what was known in 1512 as New Draperies, fabrics that consisted of long combed out woollen threads mixed with silk or linen so that they were light textured. Cyprus gold thread might be sold alongside lace from Venice even though the merchant's stock also included good English products such as Cornish blanket cloth, London silk, Bury napery, stained or painted cloths and fine linen towels.

When cloth was king

Merchant companies did have a few associated female members. They also divided their membership into those who were entitled to wear official clothing or livery in company colours and those who were not. The group excluded from livery were mixed. Some never succeeded in launching themselves into wholesale trade. This group depended on retail shopkeeping for their living. In all merchant companies there would be a group of young men, called yeomen, with capital and influence who were prepared to enter the livery. First they must serve under an older merchant to gain experience. Hopefully, later they could set up in business independently. Around the age of thirty they might be accepted into the livery.

A busy merchant's workshop

Livery men discussed company affairs in quarterly meetings. The yeomanry or rather these young trainees did not attend. Young merchants in service were similar to poorer shopkeepers. The companies were well established by 1512. By the fifteenth century they had acquired pleasant halls that served as club premises as well as administrative headquarters. Members dined apart from the yeomen at quarterly dinners. They threw lavish entertainments for friends and patrons such as lawyers and noblemen and government officials.

As well as companies there were also the fraternities. Fraternities were Parish based. They looked after the church and the poor. They collected alms to help members in trouble and elected wardens to run the show. They had annual banquets and processions. For example the skinners liverymen organised a solemn procession on the feast of Corpus Christi to which their fraternity was dedicated. The fraternities could have members from outside the company. I think they were more diverse and colourful and more inclusive. Often the trades belonged to both, their company and a fraternity. The fraternity might include shear men, pewterers, bakers and so on. To give an example, the Fraternity of St Katherine at St Mary Colechurch in Cheap was supported by ironmongers, drapers and armourers amongst others.
The busy medieval street

The Gild was a third kind of organisation. Gild regulations expressly excluded women from participation in a trade but they made exceptions for wives and daughters. Wives assisted their husbands in his trade, and, as pointed out already, a large number of widows carried on their dead husband's trade. Sometimes gild regulations allowed them to do so. There is strong evidence for this because men often stated in their will that their apprentices should serve out their term with the widow. They often left widows implements belonging to their trade. Trades carried out by women ranged from that of merchants on a large scale trafficking in ships and dealing with the crown to that of small craftsmen/women. Even as far back as The Hundred Rolls of 1274 there is mention of the great wool merchants of London widows who make a great trade in wool and other things. At least one woman is referred to in lists as a Merchant of the Staple, an exporter of wool to Calais.

Norwich was a town involved with the Staple

Here is an interesting fact to finish on before I go back to working on my new novel. Girls were often apprenticed to trades the same way as boys. A father in an urban occupation will leave a daughter money in his will to wed her or he will leave the money to put her in trade!
Women in the cloth trade

Women may have been the footnotes of history. It was often the aristocratic women who might just get a line or two. However, just like Gita from The Betrothed Sister and my merchant widow in my WIP, women had more power than we often realise back in the Medieval period. 

Thursday 2 July 2015

The River Thames in Medieval Times

The River Thames features in The Handfasted Wife and briefly in The Swan-Daughter. What do we know about the Thames from the eleventh century? It rose then as it rises today in Trewsbury Meade beside a Roman Camp and a mound known as Trewsbury Castle. The name of the neighboring village derives from the old Anglo-Saxon word for spring or source. It is called Ewen. The path of the early river is marked by a line of straggling ancient thorns. The Lydwell along the birth course is known as Lyd Well, meaning loud spring.
At the Source or Close to it!

The river has many many tributaries. Close to where I live in Oxfordshire there are two interesting tributaries, the Cherwell and the Windrush. By the time the river reaches London there are buried tributaries such as the Fleet, a river that would have been navigable in the Anglo-Saxon era.

Abingdon , a location on the river in The Handfasted Wife
The Fleet is the greatest of all forgotten tributaries. It flows into the Thames under Blackfrairs Bridge. Its name may have derived from the Anglo-Saxon term for a tidal estuary or from the fleetness of water that gathered from it into the wells north of the city. Tributaries came together near Clerkenwell and Turnmill Street widening at Holborn where a bridge once crossed the Fleet. According to John Snow's Elizabethan survey of London the waters of The Fleet were so wide that ten ships with merchandise could use it at one time. It had also by the sixteenth century become in parts an open sewer that frequently needed cleansing.
Along the Thames in London

The river Thames acted as a boundary in Anglo-Saxon times between Wessex and Mercia. At Cookham on the border between the two kingdoms there was a monastery that kept changing hands between the two. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Wessex is written as The Kingdom South of the River, a poetic concept but one reinforcing the notion of the river as a boundary. In the seventh century London was known as Lundenwic. London quickly became an important port with trade links to continental Europe. When it was an Anglo-Saxon settlement, the early Saxons preserved commercial links with the Rhine. Imports of timber and resin came to Lundonwic by river and corn and wool were exported. Tolls were charged at Billingsgate and vessels were also charged fourpence to rest in the wharf.
Lambeth Bridge over the Thames

During the early medieval period Hiths and Quays were constructed along the riverbank within the protection of a wall built to shield London from invaders. In fact, the invasion of the Thames did happen in 893 AD. A Danish army landed in the Thames Estuary because if they had control of the river this would result in control of the country nearby and then they could attack both Mercia and Wessex from this river sanctuary. They were counter-attacked in 895. The attacks continued throughout this period until Canute gained control of the Thames and took the throne of England from 1016-1035.

The Danes are Coming

Peter Ackroyd writes that, according to the monastic chronicler Gildas, the Thames was always the river of boundaries, the guardian river. The Thames enters ancient charters from the seventh century on.  From it we discover the existence of dene holes by the river which were vast underground tunnels that were likened to vase-shaped structures with narrow necks. Ackroyd describes these as having a vertical shaft with a bell like chamber below that led to other chambers. Some historians suggest that these were grain pits or refuges from invaders. They may have been constructed by the Anglo-Saxons for chalk mining although no one knows. I wonder if there could be treasure hidden in undiscovered dene holes on the banks of the Thames. It is an interesting thought. Perhaps I  need to go looking.
Cheapside and the Fleet

You can find out more about the significance of the river in Peter Ackroyd's Thames: Sacred River. The river Thames and its tributaries features strongly in The Handfasted Wife and during a visit to London in The Swan-Daughter when a group of characters have difficulty crossing the crowded London Bridge on their way south to Canterbury.

Sunday 14 June 2015

Cathedrals and Abbeys in The Handfasted Wife and The Swan-Daughter

The ruins of Abingdon Abbey
Winchester Cathedral rebuilt between 11thC and 15thC
As well as castles, Cathedrals and Abbeys feature as locations in The Swan-Daughter, The Handfasted Wife and the shortly to be published The Betrothed Sister.
Westminster Cathedral on The Tapestry to the left. You can see a weather vane being placed on the top.

Westminster Abbey features in The Handfasted Wife. King Edward the Confessor, called so because he was so pious, was responsible for the rebuilding of St Peter's Church on the site of today's Westminster Abbey. This is not the Abbey Church or Cathedral we see now because it was rebuilt again by Henry III in the thirteenth century in a Gothic style popular in the High Middle Ages. King Edward's new abbey was built in Norman Perpendicular style and was consecrated on Holy Innocents' Day, 28th December 1065. Edward was described as tall, dignified with rosy cheeks and a long white beard. He was regarded as a saint long before he was canonized by Pope Alexander III in 1161. He was no martyr but he demonstrated sanctity in the face of worldly temptations. Interestingly, he had no children with Earl Harold Godwin's sister Edith leading to speculation that he was 'pure' and monk-like. After his death miracles were attributed to him. He died a few days after the new abbey was consecrated leaving a critical succession crisis. Edward, the Abbey Church and the succession crisis that led to The Norman Invasion feature in The Handfasted Wife. King Edward's Westminster Abbey is shown on The Bayeux Tapestry. He was buried in his new Cathedral.
King Edward's Death is a central scene on The Tapestry. You can see the dying king, Queen Edith holding his feet and her brother Earl Harold in the top vignette

Winchester Cathedral has a long history stretching back to King Alfred. Even today the Cathedral contains the bones of England's early medieval kings. This Cathedral is a major location in The Handfasted Wife after the Battle of Hastings in October 1066. It was to the royal palace of Winchester that King Edward's widow Edith Godwin retreated when her husband died and her brother, Harold, was crowned king in January 1066.  She was pragmatic and handed over the keys to the city and the Royal Treasury to the Norman invaders once they arrived at Winchester, without complaint. This is recorded in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Much of the central section of The Handfasted Wife takes place in Winchester. The building we see today, however, was founded in 1079 shortly after the Conquest. The new Cathedral was not built all at once. It demonstrates the main phases of English church architectural styles from the 11th century to the early 16th century. As a consequence, styles ranging from Anglo-Norman to late Gothic are beautifully preserved within this Cathedral. The crypt  is 11thC Romanesque with low massive pillars, heavy round arches, vaulting without ribs or bosses and narrow windows with rounded heads. The Old Anglo-Saxon Minster had stood for 450 years! Today, if you visit Winchester, you can still see the remains of its great monastery, St Swithun's Priory and the 14th C Pilgrim's Hall.

By the tenth century the Old Minster was the priory church of a community of Benedictine monks. In this century, the bones of St Swithun were dug up and housed in a new shrine inside the minster. St Swithun soon became the object of pilgrimage which continued throughout the Middle Ages. All around his tomb at the time of The Handfasted Wife, the walls were hung with the crutches of people he had healed.

The Anglo-Norman Crypt, Winchester Cathedral

Wilton Abbey features in both novels, The Handfasted Wife and The Swan-Daughter. Its first foundation was built in wood as a college for secular priests in 773. Around 802 it was changed into a convent for twelve nuns. King Alfred founded a spacious new convent on the site of the royal palace at Wilton and added it to the older foundation.  The concubine/wife of Edgar of the English, King 959-75, was abbess of Wilton in the early 960s. She brought substantial property to the abbey and used her wealth to increase Wilton's relic collection. She also brought her daughter Edith to the abbey. Edith died at the age of 23 but since miracles were attributed to her, her mother later promoted her cult as a saint. I believe she may be associated with The Bayeux Tapestry, connected to the vignette 'where a priest and Algeva...' This, however, is a story for a future post.The abbey had suffered during early 11th C Danish attacks. Queen Edith, wife of Edward the Confessor, who was educated there as a girl, rebuilt the abbey in stone. At the time of The Handfasted Wife it housed a school for aristocratic young ladies and embroidery workshops. It is likely that some panels of The Bayeux Tapestry were embroidered at Wilton. According to various primary sources Gunnhild, King Harold's younger daughter who was in Wilton Abbey in the early 1070s with her Aunt Edith, eloped with Alan of Richmond, a cousin of William the Conqueror. The story of their elopement forms the basis for my narrative in The Swan-Daughter.
Wilton Abbey, rebuilt in stone by Queen Edith in 11thC

Other religious places referred to in my first two novels in The Daughters of Hastings series include Abingdon Abbey, Bangor Abbey in Ireland, Exeter's Minster and St Benets in Suffolk.

I enjoyed visiting and researching all of the locations used in both historical novels. They are amongst my background locations. Both novels are filled with page turning historical adventure and many references to women's daily life before and after Conquest.