traditional family systems in medieval russia

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

good question! i dunno. (^_^)

szopeno suggested: “maybe they [the zadrugas or extended families] are not reflection of distant past, but rather a common reaction to reappearing problem (external dangers, scarcity of resrouces etc).

that makes a lot of sense to me. perhaps family types — nuclear or extended — are just populations’ responses to their environmental/economic conditions. if there are plenty of resources — plenty of land for all — perhaps families can be small ’cause everyone can spread out. but if population density is high and there’s a shortage of resources/land, perhaps families band together. certainly cousin marriage generally seems to be a way of keeping wealth or resources (land, goats, whatever) in the family, so maybe keeping the extended family physically together is another sort of response to difficult-ish circumstances. keep the labor force together along with the wealth. and keep everyone nearby the family’s resources so that they can benefit from them, provided there’s enough to go around.

i’m going to hypothesize right now, though, that it’s probably easier for families in inbred populations to clump together than in outbred populations — or it would come more naturally to them anyhow.

ihtg was responding to this quote from that racey book, Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs, 900-1700 [pg. 138]:

“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.”

twelfth-to-fifteenth century “russia” seems to cover (if i’ve got it right) the latter part of the kievan rus’ principalities [882–13th century], the first part of the muscovy days [1283–1547] and all of the novgorod republic [1136–1478] (and other polities?).

note that although nuclear families seem to have been living on their own in russia during these centuries, “landholding continued to be communal.” (this sounds rather like the medieval men of kent.)

anyway. about the kievan rus’, we’ve got janet martin in Medieval Russia: 980-1584 telling us [pg. 65]:

“The vast majority of the Kievan Rus’ population, who both materially supported the Riurikid princes and depended upon them, were peasant farmers (smerdy). Despite variations derived from tribal background, geographic location, and other factors, the peasants of Kievan Rus’ shared many characteristics and were regarded as a single undifferentiated social stratum. Among the free members of society, peasant men and women had the lowest social status.

Peasants lived in their own huts with their nuclear families, and farmed their own plots of land using their own tools and livestock. Their households were grouped into rural villages and organized into communes (vervi or miry), which had their roots in the tribal and clannic ties among the population. By the Kievan era, however, the communes had a territorial identity as much as a clannic one. Members of each commune shared common pasture lands, meadows and forests, and fishing and hunting rights. They also, importantly, shared responsibilities for tax payment and other legal obligations.”

so these kievan rus’ communes were clan or tribal based. nuclear families may have been living in their own, independent houses, but extended family bonds were clearly still there.

in Lord and Peasant in Russia: From the Ninth to the Nineteenth Century, jerome blum suggests [chapters two and three] that the change over from slash-and-burn farming techniques — which required a lot of labor — to a two- or three-field agricultural system resulted in the breakdown of extended families in medieval russia. maybe. both he and martin also talk about the kievan rus’ opening up new areas of forest for settlement, so maybe that right there offered an outlet for the apparently expanding population. maybe you didn’t have to stay at home with mom and pop and everyone else anymore if you went off and moved to some unsettled area of the dnieper valley. i dunno.

in Peasant Farming in Muscovy, robert smith (no, not THAT one) talks about that population expanding out into new territories as well, so again maybe that’s the key to the nuclear families in russia during these centuries. maybe. smith also claims that, at least in the 1400s, there is no evidence for extended family living arrangements [pgs. 80-83].

i don’t know anything about the family types in the novgorod republic (yet!), so i’ll have to leave it there for now.

todd categorized the russian family type as an exogamous, patriarchal community family. he was talking about the 1500s-1800s. dunno if he had that right or not, but it certainly seems as though for the four hundred preceding that period, russians were not living in extended family groups — at least not in the same household. it’s likely they lived in the same neighborhood — hamlet, village, commune — though since land was still held communally in the clan-based communes.

previously: medieval russian mating patterns and mating patterns in medieval eastern europe

(note: comments do not require an email. traditional timber house, novgorod.)


  1. As an aside, does anyone think that a new border that puts Kiev outside Russia is stable? When will Putin or his successor correct this historical error.

    For that matter, is there a single border in Europe that i stable?


  2. @jayman – “The temporary disappearance of communal living in Russia seems to be timed with the appearance of the Mongols…”

    i thought that was perhaps it, too, but the switch to nuclear families — if the historians are right — seems to have started before the mongol invasions: 1100s vs. 1237+. although certainly perhaps the ongoing mongol invasions/presence of the tartars/mongols maybe had an effect. maybe in decreasing the size of the population?


  3. @bob – “For that matter, is there a single border in Europe that i stable?”

    heh. not that i can think of.

    but then, most animals’ (creatures’) territories fluctuate depending upon who’s got the upper hand (paw, flipper, root system…).


  4. @jgress. Just for starters, Southern Crimea was inhabited by non Slavs -Tatars. Large chunks of Eastern Ukraine were Russian and transferred to Ukraine by Stalin.

    Modern Russia’s quite matriarchal because of recent traditions of single motherhood.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s