Site hosted by Build your free website today!


The Domostroi (meaning "house order") is an original mediaeval document from sixteenth century Russia. It was written sometime in the 1550s. There is a substantial amount of proof that its author was a man: the fact that the content is presented from a male point of view and the fact that generally women in mediaeval Russia could not write (Pouncy, p. 41). Most probably the author was the clerk Sil'vestr, a priest in the Kremlin Cathedral of the Annunciation. The Domostroi is a manual which lists the rules for an "idealized" household management. It addresses the elite Muscovite male society at the time. The majority of the Russian population in the middle of the sixteenth century had no access to the book, first, since the population was largely illiterate and second, since the document discussed issues concerning only the nobility.

Even though written by a man and for a male audience, the Domostroi talks exclusively about elite (boyar) women. What is the place of women in this mediaeval work and how are they represented, having in mind the one-sidedness and the subjectivity of the male-only viewpoint? Before examining this question, one should turn to the historical context of the period in which the book was written. Once situated in the appropriate contextual frame, the Domostroi's view on women will be more comprehensible.


The Domostroi was written approximately in the middle of the reign of Ivan IV, known also as Ivan the Terrible. He ruled Muscovite Russia from 1533 to 1584. The document was created during the first "good" part of Ivan the Terrible's rule. This was a time of general economic prosperity; Russia was no longer under the Mongol yoke and expanded its territory toward the Volga river and Siberia. She was a centralized empire with the monarch Ivan the Terrible at its head. He introduced some reforms of laws and new administrative procedures. It is natural that in such a situation of international preeminence and internal consolidation the Muscovite ruling class tried to prolong the time of its hold of power as much as possible. For this purpose maintaining order was vital. Keeping women in their place (at home) was considered a part of maintaining the overall order in the country.

Since following the tradition also implied holding on Orthodoxy, women were encouraged to be exemplary believers. Moreover, in the 1550s -- the time of the Domostroi -- Muskovy was the only pillar of Orthodox Christianity that had remained unharmed by the Turks' invasions. (Levin, p. 61) The future of Russia depended to a big extent on the orthodox education and moral virtues women would install in Russian children. Neglecting the sense of self-discipline and the righteousness of the woman would eventually mean betraying Muskovy. Thus, controlling women, even at the price of going into extremes, was not only "beneficial" to the empire. It was also vital for the country's best political interests.

Tradition most often unifies, while heterodoxy causes divisions. It would be foolish, Russian boyar men would say, to allow women too much liberty by letting them get exposed to external "heterodox" influences. Women from the high society were therefore confined in the so-called women's quarters called terems.. Everything foreign was most likely to be labeled heterodox and dangerous for the unity of the new Eurasian power. That is why all the new Western influences like the Renaissance trends and the Reformation remained hardly known to Russians women.


The Domostroi does not say much about the relationship between mothers and their new-born babies. More attention is given to instructions about disciplining older children. From her early childhood, the woman was put under her mother's guidance. Even so, boyar women did not breast feed their infants. Instead, they used the services of wet nurses since breast feeding was considered somehow harmful to women's bodies. As a result, many young Muscovite girls developed a strong attachment to their wet nurses. The same pertained also to little boys. A well known example is the strong affection of Ivan IV for his wet nurse Agrafena Cheliadnina. Later, the mother had to teach her daughter the basics of womanhood, how to cook and knit, how to clean the house and prepare for the winter, and how to conserve food for a big family. Noble women in reality were not required to know all this. Yet, the knowledge helped them exercise control on their subordinate servants (Pouncy, p. 28).

"The Domostroi condemns games and expression of tenderness as contradicting the principle of rearing children in fear." (Levin, p. 91). Also, it does mention ways in which mothers had to encourage their young daughters to do domestic tasks, but it fails to mention the fact that in reality work was not the only occupation of little Muscovite girls. Archaeological findings prove that boyar girls did spend some time playing games like all children do. Among the most popular games were seesaws, swings, and winter sledding (Levin, p. 90). As it seems to have been in practice, games were allowed but not encouraged since they were believed to distract the minds of the future women and men from more serious tasks such as obedience to the parents and hard work.

As far as obedience was concerned, young boys and girls "were forbidden, on pain of public flogging, to complain about their parents' cruelty ("to air arguments outside the home")" (Levin, p. 91). In cases of children's disobedience, the Domostroi advises that they be beaten with measure. It is very probable that in some families with despotic tendencies, punishment did not result in correction, but in child abuse. Thus, by emphasizing too much on chastisement, the Domostroi might have sanctioned "unconsciously" some forms of violence which endangered the safety and health of children.

When puberty and adulthood came, in most cases the Russian woman had to enter a new family -- the family of her husband. The Domostroi does not talk about any emotional ties between the husband and wife because mutual love was not a necessary prerequisite for marriage in sixteenth century Russia. Lack of love was not considered a problem in a family as long as both the wife and the groom loved God and raised their children in a God-fearing way.

Marriage was a political and economic strategy. The parents of the young woman to be married chose her future husband according to their clan's political and economical needs. Women had rarely any say about the choice of their partners in life. The maidens of the elite were kept in the terems. Virginity was highly appreciated in Muscovite culture. The terem was a way of protecting the honor of young unmarried women. The practice of female imprisonment was seen as a privilege and was reserved only to the wealthy elite. The common people could not afford to seclude their wives and daughters.

The terem was not exclusively for the unmarried. It was the living place of all women and had additional functions also. It kept women out of men's sight and thus -- out of the possibility to abscond with the man they wanted to marry. It kept women for the "right" husband and it secluded the unclean -- those menstruating and those who had recently given birth to a child.

The idea of the terem was most probably borrowed from the tartars. One theory states that its primary purpose was to physically protect women from nomad attacks and another one talks about the terem as an expression of the misogynist attitudes of the Orthodox Russian church at the time (Levin, p. 91). One thing is certain -- the terem disregarded women's rights and underscored only their responsibilities and obligations.

Women from the nobility were expected to have as many children as possible. Boyar children were the future Russian governors and Russia needed them. Women married extremely young, in their early teens, and while still children, they had to take care of their own children. Sons were the source of bigger pride than daughters for a mediaeval Russian woman from the high society. The child mortality was relatively high and women avoided, as much as possible, to stay emotionally detached from their children for fear of loss (Pouncy, p. 23).

The woman had to be chaste, righteous, pious, hard-working, and knowledgeable. Her biggest possible virtue was chastity and after that -- being a good mother and teacher to her children, a wise wife, hospitable, loving, kind, and providing. She was not supposed to be given to gossip spreading, but she was expected to abhor witchcraft and any other sort of evil. The wise woman had to manage the house with self discipline, to entertain guests, and raise her daughters in a righteous way. The Domostroi only instructs. It does not state how much Muscovite women followed these directions of conduct or whether they deviated from them.

Wives and husbands in the noble Muscovite circles seldom saw each other since men were often out waging wars. During the short periods of time which they spent under the same roof with their wives, they were often separated. Men ate first and women afterwards. Only during weddings and similar festivities could they gather together around the same table. The separation of husbands and wives meant that some mediaeval Muscovites were susceptible to resort to extramarital relationships. Thus, the system that was created to preserve virtue was vulnerable to vice because of its excessive rigidity.

Whenever a wife committed a transgression of any kind, her husband had to punish her. This is what the Domostroi recommends: "Husbands were admonished not to use wooden or iron rods on their wives, or to beat them around the face, years or abdomen, lest they cause blindness, deafness, paralysis, toothache, or miscarriage." (Kaiser, p. 220) It is interesting to note that wives had no right to punish their husbands for having committed the same transgressions. Authorized beating, accompanied by feelings of revenge, could result into more serious forms of violence like rape and sadism. The Orthodox Church castigated such practices and used to grant divorce permissions to maltreated wives, especially if they were innocent. Incest was another crime severely condemned by the Church.

As far as divorce was concerned, the Church authorities avoided granting it for religious reasons. A husband could divorce his wife much more easily than a wife could divorce her husband. A man "could divorce for offenses other than adultery" (Levin, p. 116). "Once the husband's infidelity had stopped, the wife had no further grounds for divorce." (Levin, p, 117). She "could be granted a divorce if her husband committed treason against the emperor (or prince) or if he tried to murder her." (Levin, p. 117). According to the Church, divorce was likely to give way to future sins for both partners since divorce undermined one's sense of commitment and responsibility. The maximum of divorces allowed for a single person were four since five divorces reminded of the Samaritan woman's sinfulness in the Gospel.

The Russian society of the sixteenth century believed that health was an indicator of beauty and integrity. Some ecclesiastical texts taught that the words blednost (paleness) and bliadstvo (harlotry) shared a common root and therefore a common meaning. (Levin, p. 114). The righteous women were often believed to be those who enjoyed good health (those who were not pale) and vice versa.

The most largely used cosmetics were red lipstick, white face powder and red powder for the cheeks, black pigments for delineating the eyes and eyebrows and a mercurial black substance for painting the teeth. The latter was used to cover up tooth cavities. Many Western travelers of the time wrote about the bizarre habit Russian women to use excessive make-up and black mercury tooth pigments. The excessive use of make-up proves how dependent women were on the superstitious beliefs of the period, mainly on the belief that the resemblance of two completely different words had the power to label women's lives as righteous or blamable.

The Domostroi is firm in its condemnation of witchcraft and sorcery. These practices were mainly within the scope of female business. Why such an emphasis on sorcery and witchcraft? In June 1547 half of Moscow was destroyed by a great conflagration. The fire left only the Anna and Mikhail Glinskiis' home out of harm. (Levin, p. 68) Because of this purported miracle, the two were accused of sorcery and arson. If one supposes that the Domostroi was written at the very end of the 1550s, it will be logical to assume that this specific event built up social repugnance toward sorcery. For this reason, women were ardently advised by the author of the Domostroi to keep away from such dark "womanly" occupations.

The position of women at home, as it is described in the Domostroi was "anomalous" (Pouncy, p. 27). The woman was neither a complete slave, nor a complete master. She was as well a "servant" to her husband or father, as a "mistress" to her servants. Overall, her status was that of a subordinate in a patriarchal nuclear family. An example of the ambivalence of women's status is found in Chapter 15 of the Domostroi: "If God sends anyone children, be they sons or daughters, then it is up to the father and mother to care for, to protect their children, to raise them to be learned in the good." (Pouncy, p. 93) We see here that the boyar woman is given a certain amount of power and decision making together with her husband. A certain equality between the man and the woman was at play because they were both responsible to God and the community (the clan) for raising their children in the right way. In other texts, one sees that women had not equal opportunities compared to men: they were not allowed to go out of the house without their husband's permission, while men were allowed to do so at anytime; they could not exercise public and political roles of leadership, and they did not have enough economic influence in society.


The Domostroi does not address women directly. It does not discuss how women felt about their status in sixteenth century Russia, either. The document was written exclusively for husbands and fathers as a guideline for perfect household management. Men, and not women, were responsible for the salvation of their homes and for the integrity of their households. The goal of reaching heaven with all their family and the desire to strengthen their clans motivated men to follow the rules of the Domostroi as closely as possible, even if violence was required. The end justified the means.

It would be a mistake to overestimate the influence of the Domostroi. Its public was restricted (a limited number of boyar men had access to the book since the printed press had reached Russia only about a century prior to the document's creation), but it expressed widely spread social conventions that were known to everybody. It would be a mistake also to present sixteenth century Muscovite women as the constant victim of a patriarchal society. Many women enjoyed a significant economic safety at their homes. Having in mind that women were underqualified (they were neither educated, nor trained to wage wars), one should be aware of the fact that they could not live safely by themselves. The patriarchal society protected women considerably from many dangers.

The years that followed the 1550s did not change the status of women. A turning point in Ivan the Terrible's emotional stability occurred and the second, "bad" period of his rule started in 1560. This change was a consequence of the interplay of complex phenomena: his personal tragedy (the death of his loved wife Anastasia Romanov), the belief that she was killed by his closest advisors among whom was the supposed author of the Domostroi Sil'vestr, and the threatening international political situation at the end of the sixteenth century. The condition of women remained the same also in the seventeenth century in which Russia "Europeanized" herself under the progressive Peter the Great. The mandatory education for all women was the only means to their liberation and independence from the established social stereotypes but it was yet to come.


KAISER Daniel H. (ed.), Reinterpreting Russian History, readings 860 - 1860, Oxford University Press, 1994;

LEVIN Eve, Sex and society in the world of the orthodox Slavs, 900-1700, Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1989, p. 326;

POUNCY Carolyn Johnst (ed.), The "Domostroi" : Rules for Russian households in the time of Ivan the Terrible, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994, p. 266;

PUSHKAREVA Natalia Lvovna, Women in Russian history: from the tenth to the twentieth century, translated by Eve Levin, Armonk, NY, M. E. Sharpe, 1997;

RIASANOVSKY Nicholas V., A History of Russia, fourth edition, Oxford University Press, 1984, p. 695;

ZENKOVSKY Serge A. (ed.), Medieval Russia's epics, chronicles, and tales, E. P. Dutton & Co., 1974.