Many people have an allergic reaction to the word “conventional.” Or, worse yet, “traditional.” They immediately sense the bonds coming to tie them down, the chains being readied to deny them their freedom. And yet…I think it could be argued that freedom without the moderating influence of tradition has landed us in the Donald Trump soup. (And in many other unpleasant soups, for that matter)
I like tradition and convention. They don’t limit so much as provide a healthy and necessary frame within which to live and create. The Rus understood this well. Russia today is starting to understand it as well, though haltingly.
In any case, today’s article (here’s the original Russian) describes the intense conventionality of the life of a prince in 12th century Rus. I found much to inspire me here. I hope you will as well.
The birth of a boy in a princely family was a milestone for the dynasty. It was the beginning of a new hope, expressed even in the choice of name. The new prince always received two names—his princely name (usually pagan) and his baptismal name. Both names were chosen by unwritten rules. For example, the name of a living direct ancestor (father, grandfather) could never be used, but the name of an uncle was fair game.
We’re all heard the stories of mothers giving birth in cabs on the way to the hospital. Well, old Rus was no exception. Except the cabs were caravans, and the trips took weeks, not minutes or hours. So, in 1174, we have written evidence that when Rurik Rostislavich traveled from Novgorod to Smolensk, his wife gave birth.
Rurik then gave the village where his son was born to his son as a birth-gift. He immediately commissioned that a church be built on the spot, in honor of the Archangel Michael. The founding of churches in honor of the heir’s birth was the prerogative of grand princes. Thus, for example, Mstislav the Great built the church of the Annunciation in Gorodishche. You can still see the ruins of that ancient church today, near Novgorod. The choice of the Annunciation was obvious—his son (Vsevolod) was given the baptismal name Gabriel, after the archangel who brought the good news to the virgin Mary.
Gabriel-Vsevolod, in his turn, built a church “in his son’s name” dedicated to St. John the Baptist.
The First Haircut
Tonsure (the ritual haircut) was a social practice found all over old Russia and other Slavic nations. We know from the chronicles that this ritual was performed at age two or three. Not only was this the first haircut, but it was also the first time the young prince was placed on a horse. Some historians also believe that the prince was also dressed in his first armor on this day.
Being put on a horse was symbolic. Now, the prince entered the adult life of the warrior. He symbolically demonstrated his physical ability, even at such a young age. It’s interesting that in the same chronicles, old age is symbolically described in similar terms. A man is old when he can no longer sit astride a horse.
In the Novgorod Chronicle, we read that in 1230, Archbishop Spiridon of Novgorod himself cut the hair of Rostislav Mihailovich, son of the prince of Chernigov. This rite was performed in the cathedral of the Holy Wisdom, the most important church of the city.
The “First Rule”
The young prince began to practice at ruling very early. The already mentioned Rostislav Mihailovich, who had just been shorn, remained in Novgorod under the watch of the archbishop. When his father returned to Chernigov, Rostislav’s presence in Novgorod was a sign of Chernigov’s power over Novgorod, and though the little boy did not rule, it was a de facto beginning of political life for him.
There is a moving account of Prince Vsevolod “Big Nest” (called this because he had LOTS of kids) sending his 17-year old to rule in Novgorod. The entire family, together with most of the city, accompanied him out of his home city. Prince Vsevolod gave him a cross (“the protector and helper”) and a sword (“a threat to frighten”), along with his parting words as father and Grand Prince.
The Son of the Prince as Hostage
It was not always pleasant to be the son of a prince. Sometimes, his childhood had to be spent in the military camp of a former enemy. This tradition was widespread in Western Europe as well, and is a constant plot point in good Medieval Fantasy literature.
The son of Vladimir Monomakh, Sviatoslav, was a hostage of the Polovetsian (an Asiatic nomad tribe) prince named Kitan. When Vladimir prepared to attack the Polovetsians, the most dangerous and urgent task was rescuing Sviatoslav first, because at the first sign of an attack, he would have been killed.
There were tragic stories as well. When Vsevolod “Big Nest” took Gleb, the son of Sviatoslav Vsevolodovich, as a hostage, Sviatoslav literally went mad. He began to attack many of his former allies to grab as many hostages for himself as he could. Luckily, the whole affair ended in the best possible way—a dynastic marriage.
Helping His Father Rule
Princes were not always shipped off at a young age. Some spent their youth next to their fathers, actively taking part in his rule and military campaigns, learning by example. Usually, this was the preferred method of raising sons in a time of war.
The Wedding and Children
A wedding was always hosted by an elderly relative—the father, uncle, or even grandfather. Old Russian weddings had this unique feature: they often happened in pairs. Two brothers, two sisters, or two other close relatives celebrated at the same time.
People got married at an age we would consider obscenely early. For example, the daughter of Vsevolod “Big Nest”, Verhuslava, married Rostislav, the son of Rurik Rostislavich (boy, the names get confusing, don’t they?) when she was eight years old! But this was an exception, even for that time. The chronicle mentions that her father and mother were crying at the wedding. Rostislav was seventeen.
If everything went well, after the wedding, the groom’s father-in-law would be as much his benefactor as his own father. Rostislav, for example, was a favorite of his father-in-law Vsevolod “Big Nest”, who would give him various trophies of war and come to visit him for days on end. Sometimes, the father-in-law was even closer than a father.
Children, of course, were a big deal. Not only did they continue the line, but they were political capital, in some sense. For example, Prince Viacheslav Vladimirovich was considered vulnerable by his enemies because he had no grown sons. For this reason, he was excluded from active political life. Some of the boyars even said of him, “He will not be able to hold Kiev.”
However, having too many sons was also a problem, especially since all sons had to receive land and power. It led to the period known as the Internecine Wars, when brothers killed brothers for a better city. This period is a big influence on the events of my second novel, The Garden in the Heart of the World.
The Death of the Father
This was a major milestone. Here are some of the important issues surrounding such a death:
- Did your father manage to spend at least some time on the Grand Princely throne of Kiev?
- Did he leave you a good reputation among his subjects?
- How do his brothers look at you?
- Who are your sisters married to?
Here’s an example: Isiaslav Mstislavich was not in the greatest position to inherit the Grand Princely throne because he was not first in line. However, his sisters and nieces were married to major players in Europe and Russia. This played a role in his eventually successful ploy to rule Kiev, Mother of Russian Cities.
Immediately after a prince’s father died, his father’s brothers would try to push aside their nephews. To prevent such a situation, another ritual was established. Sons were officially passed “into the hands” of their uncles, who had to give an oath that they would protect their nephews in the case of their brother’s death. When this was done, the uncle was effectively a second father, and he was even called “father” by his nephew.
The Last Will of a King
Princes often died in war or from disease. These deaths were often quick and unexpected. However, in those situations where a prince could predict his imminent death, he could do several things to try influence the fate of his lands and his immediate family. The great and powerful prince Vsevolod Olgovich did everything he could to pass Kiev to his brother, but he lost.
Another interesting story from the Chronicles: Prince Vladimir Vasil’kovich, who was a famed builder of cities, became fatally sick. He had no heirs, only an adopted daughter, Iziaslava. He didn’t like any of his other relatives, because they were friendly with the Tatars.
And so, Vladimir chose a single heir, his cousin, Mstislav Danilovich, after signing an accord that Mstislav would protect his family and marry Iziaslava only to a suitor of her choosing (very rare for that time!) Mstislav also began to treat Vladimir’s wife, Olga, as his own mother.
For agreeing to do this, Mstislav was given all of Vladimir’s lands, even though usually they were split among all the heirs. Surprisingly, no one disputed this inheritance, though that was probably because the Tatars approved.
Even though there were obviously many difficulties in the unsettled life of the Russian princes, many people were honorable and at least tried to live in a manner that would be worthy of their family, their city, and their faith. That is what inspires me most in these stories, and that is what I try to show in the stories that I write.
If you liked this post, and if you’d like to read more about Russian history and traditions, be sure to join my Readers’ Group. Members of my Readers’ Group will get exclusive opportunities to get bonuses from me when I launch my first novel, The Song of the Sirin, on July 1.