medieval russian mating patterns

following up on this post — mating patterns in medieval eastern europe — i thought i’d get more specific on the mating patterns of the medieval russians.

first of all, russians did not adopt christianity until 988 a.d., so that puts them something like 400 years behind western europeans with regard to cousin marriage proscriptions from any christian religious authorities. like the roman catholic church, the orthodox church in the east did ban different types of cousin marriages at different times, but the timing was different from that of the catholic church.

the first question is: did the pre-christian russians inbreed/marry endogamously?

in Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs, 900-1700, eve levin says [pgs. 136-37]:

“The Slavs abhorred incest long before the introduction of Christianity. Authors condemned outsiders, usually unjustly, for their incestuous customs. The traditional definition of incest, however seems to have been a sexual relation between members of a family living as a unit. In-laws were included, but not more distant relatives who did not share the same household, especially through the female line. Thus Slavic notions of propriety in matters of consanguinity did not coincide in all respects with the dictates of canon law.”

it’s likely, although debatable [pgs. 7-8], that the pre-christian russians lived in patrilineal extended family households (they certainly did at later points in time — see below — as did other slavs like the poles), so paternal first- and perhaps even second-cousin marriage probably didn’t occur given the pre-christian slavic ideas on incest, although this is just a guess on my part. cousin marriage with maternal cousins would not have been ruled out, though, and since it is the most common form of cousin marriage in the world, i wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the pre-christian russians practiced it. in any case, they likely practiced some form of endogamous marriage since nearly all peoples everywhere and at all times do/did. again, just a guess.

later in the medieval period we start to be on more solid ground with historical records and such.

1100s-1400s: Code of Jaroslav – bans on close incest (parents and children, siblings, etc.) but not on cousins specifically. just a vague ban on “marriage within the clan.” to me that doesn’t sound very different from the pre-christian slavic ideas on incest, i.e. avoiding whomever lives in the household, nuclear family members out to possibly paternal second cousins. so, perhaps, not much of a change in mating pattern from pre-christian russia right up to the 1400s. that’s another 400 years of in-marriage compared to all of the out-marrying northwestern europeans were doing. levin suggests (see below) that during this time russians did not the consider marriage of cousins to be incestuous.

end of 1400s/1500s+: first, second and third cousin marriages banned, both paternal and maternal. this is the restriction that western europeans had to follow for 700 years from the 1200s through the 1800s — some (northwestern europeans) did more than others — and western europeans had already had first and second cousin marriage banned starting in the 400s, and out to SIXTH cousins in the 1000s-1100s. this restriction may not have been seriously implemented in russia until the 1500s, though (see below).

i don’t know what the russian orthodox church’s regulations have been in more modern times — or what the regulations may have been in the soviet union or in russia today. if the russian orthodox church’s regulations are similar to the greek orthodox church, then there ought to be a ban on marrying first cousins. don’t know when this started for the greek church, or the russian one if that’s what they follow.

in any case, looking away from other sorts of endogamous matings, it seems as though the russians had a ban on consanguineous marriages (first and second cousin marriages) for just about 500 years, whereas (north)western europeans have had such a ban for almost 1600 years. that’s an 1100 year difference. if we calculate generations at 20 years, that’s a whopping 55 generations difference. whoa.

here are some more excerpts from levin [pgs. 137-39, 142-43]:

“Orthodox canon law recognized four types of consanguinity: by blood, by marriage, by adoption, and by spiritual bond. Slavic hierarchs recognized restrictions on intermarriage and extramarital intercourse for all four cases….

“Changes in Russian versions of canon law on incest coincided with changes in family structure. The proto-Slavic zadruga fell into disuse as a residential system in twelfth-to-fifteenth century Russia, although landholding continued to be communal. There the residential household usually consisted of a nuclear family, occasionally joined by an elderly parent or a young bride. The lists of peasant family units in wills of this period and the archaeology of aristocratic residences all point to the nuclear family as the dominant familial structure in this period. The rules on incest in the Code of Jaroslav reflect this familial arrangement. They prescribe fines for relations between parents and children or children’s spouses, brother and sisters, and brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law. More distant relatives are not named specifically, but are subsumed under the vague category of ‘marriage within the clan.’ This categorization implies that marriage was forbidden if a familial relationship was known to exist, but the exact degree of kinship was not an issue.

More extensive rules on incest appeared toward the end of the fifteenth century. Marriages between persons more closely related than fourth cousins were prohibited. If a union was contracted unknowingly between third cousins, it was allowed to stand only with great reluctance…. The reemergence of the extended family in late-fifteeth-century Russia made expanded incest regulations pertinent. Land cadasters, especially from Novgorod, reveal that peasants had switched to extended family living units akin to the South Slavic zadruga….

“According to most ecclesiastical authors, consanguinity up to the eighth degree [third cousins] precluded marriage, although some would permit a marriage between relatives in the seventh degree [second-cousins once removed, i think – h. chick], contracted unknowingly, to stand, albeit with a penance. Relationships through the male and the female lines were treated identically….

“Specific prohibitions on sexual intercourse between distant relatives by blood appeared only sporadically. Incest with cousins was more likely to be mentioned in Serbian penitential questions and trebnik nomokanony than in Russian or Bulgarian ones….

Russian codes earlier than the sixteenth century tended to omit specific regulations concerning illicit intercourse or marriage between second and third cousins, although descriptions of degrees of kinship forbade intermarriage between individuals so closely related. Apparently Russians from the eleventh century to the fifteenth century did not regard unions between cousins as incestuous. Even clerics who tended to be exacting in regard to the letter of the law, such as the Greek-born metropolitan Ioann II, had to make concessions to native attitudes. Ioann permitted marriage between third cousins, with a penance. The terms in which he outlawed marriage between second cousins make clear that such unions took place….

“Cousin marriages had a practical application: reconsolidation of ancestral lands. Because the Slavs practiced partible inheritance, the ancestral lands became fragmented after a few generations. While communal ownership by the zadruga mitigated the effects of partible inheritance for a time, eventually holdings became subdivided. When a daughter-heir could be married to her male cousin, the ancestral estate could be reconstituted, at least in part. That might have been the motivation in an instance of marriage between cousins in fifteenth-century Novgorod. Agrafena, an heiress of the boyar class, married her second cousin, Fedor Onkifovic. Together they possessed a large portion of the entailed estate of their common ancestor, but there were still other heirs, especially Agrafena’s sister’s son, who kept their shares separate. Incidentally, there is no evidence to suggest that the marriage was considered improper. Inheritance of landed property by daughters was a relatively unusual phenomenon among the medieval Slavs; it developed most fully in northwestern Russia in the fifteenth century. Consequently, there would not have been much community pressure on the church to reinterpret regulations on consanguinity to permit marriages between cousins.”

previously: mating patterns in medieval eastern europe and traditional family systems in medieval and modern poland

(note: comments do not require an email. hbd day’s coming up!)



  1. I did not know there was a disappearance and then reemergence of the extended family in medieval Russia. Why did that happen?


  2. Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs, 900-1700? That’s quite a title. (Who says dry academic research doesn’t sell?) (Or maybe it still doesn’t, even with a title like that?)


  3. Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox canon law is largely the same, since most of the laws were passed by ecumenical, i.e. universal councils of the Church. There are some differences, though, due to different measures by different local councils of bishops. I’m not sure where the canons regarding consanguinity stand.

    You also need to distinguish between canon and civil law, which may treat these issues differently. Levin’s book might clarify that.


  4. @jgress – “You also need to distinguish between canon and civil law, which may treat these issues differently.”

    absolutely! the civic codes in western europe during the middle ages largely followed the canon laws, but i don’t know about eastern europe.

    i also don’t know how enforceable any of these laws were in eastern europe. in western europe, it sounds like the catholic church’s regulations weren’t all that enforceable until around 1100 (iirc) ’cause that’s when marriages started happening in the church. the civic laws may have been more effective, especially for people living/working on manors.


  5. So in the 15th century the civil law in Russia finally banned first cousin marriages? That’s interesting, and suggests many Russians were not obeying the church in this matter.


  6. @jgress – “So in the 15th century the civil law in Russia finally banned first cousin marriages?”

    those 15th century regulations on cousin marriage were actually church regulations. don’t know what the civil code looked like at this time.


  7. @ihtg – “I did not know there was a disappearance and then reemergence of the extended family in medieval Russia. Why did that happen?”

    i have NO idea! (so i wrote a post about it. (~_^) )


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