Earlier this week, I shared a blog post about the amazing things Russians Tsars did on Christmas day. It struck me as an afterthought that perhaps the post didn’t do a good job of explaining the Moscow of the time. To better appreciate what the city looked and felt like in the 16th and 17th centuries, here is my translation of “5 Amazing Facts about Medieval Moscow.” The original article was published in the Russian magazine Foma, written by Marianna Andreicheva.
Who lived in the Kremlin? Would you believe that in some parts of Moscow swearing (that is, using foul language) was prohibited by law? Where in Moscow did lions walk around (true story)? Here are some of the strangest facts about Medieval Moscow, presented with some whimsical original illustrations by Ekaterina Gavrilova.
- “Kremlingrad”—the residential center of the city
Nowadays, we’ve become accustomed to think about the Kremlin as the seat and the personification of Russian power. Most of the buildings in today’s Kremlin are either museums or actual government buildings. However, that was not always the case.
It’s not by accident that in the Middle Ages foreigners called the Kremlin “Kremlingrad” (or “Kremlin the city”). In those times, the most important fort of the country was a kind of “city with the city.” In fact, only a small part of it was dedicated to the Tsar’s court. The greater part of the Kremlin (14-16th centuries) was filled with crowds, monasteries, churches, large houses belonging to important boyars, and even houses of guildsmen and clergy.
- The Tsar’s court was a place free of foul language and weapons
The heart of the Kremlin—the Tsar’s court—was a holy place for the subjects of the Tsar. Therefore, special rules of behavior preserved the honor of the house of the ruler of Russia. Entrance into the court was strictly prohibited except for boyars, servants of the Tsar, or certain members of the clergy.
Boyars had to dismount from their horses or walk out of their sleds (in winter) at some distance before the entrance to the courtyard. Servants had to dismount even farther away than the boyars—at the square near the bell tower of Ivan the Great (III). Within the courtyard, no foul language was allowed. All weapons were to be left outside the courtyard. If someone were to accidentally bring in so much as a dagger, he would be immediately arrested and probably tortured as a suspected conspirator against the Tsar’s life.
- The Loud Square
There’s a saying in Russian – “to scream over all Ivanovksoe” (see my post on unusual Russian sayings). The meaning should be obvious enough, but it came from a geographical section of Medieval Moscow.
The Tsar’s peace and quiet was strictly guarded within his court. Meanwhile, only a few hundred steps away, the Square of Ivan was loud and full of people. In the 14-17th centuries, the square next to the bell tower of Ivan the Great had a complex of various government buildings. Here, from morning to night, people came with their various needs and complaints. Not only that, but in front of the main building, various corporal punishments were administered almost daily.
The most common form of corporal punishment was beating with rods. The screams and moans of the criminals filled the square until the moment of the day when the priests offered the Bloodless Sacrifice at the liturgy. This moment was always preceded by a special peal of the bells, and all corporal punishment ceased until the end of the liturgy. In early Medieval Moscow, the Tsar’s decrees would also be publicly decried by a sexton. This is the source of the Russian phrase “to scream over all Ivanovskoe”.
- The Lion Gates—the Tsar’s personal zoo under the walls of the Kremlin
In the beginning of the 16th century, a moat filled with water separated the walls of the Kremlin from the expansive marketplaces in the Red Square. Ivan the Terrible had the moat drained. In the space next to the Arsenal Tower, he and his successors kept lions and other exotic animals (gifts by emissaries from foreign countries).
Therefore, the adjoining gates to Kitai-Gorod (“Chinatown”) were called “the lion gates.” Today, they’re known as the “Iveron Gates,” named for a 17th century chapel which contained a copy of the Iveron Icon of the Mother of God from Athos. They are also known as the “Resurrection Gates,” because in 1689 an icon of the Resurrection of Christ was hung on the main tower of the gates.
- Crossroads “belonged” to the poor
All crossroads in Moscow, which were called “little crosses” in older times, were often centers of public life. The most famous of these were:
- the “little cross of St. Nicholas,” the intersection between Nikolskaia and Bogoiavlenskaia Streets
- the “little cross of the Saviour,” at the Spasskie Gates of the Kremlin
Here, from the early morning, an “assembly” of the lower classes gathered. These included:
- minor merchants with various wares to hawk (from hand-written books to pancakes and kvass)
- clergy with no place to serve
- workers waiting to be hired
- the poor, maimed, and the fools for Christ
Completing this chaotic picture were the inhabitants of local poorhouses who asked for alms. Sometimes these professional beggars would include “props” to more effectively move the passers-by. One of these could be baskets with babies that were left at the doors of the poorhouse by starving mothers. But the most effective was an open casket with the dead body of a wanderer who had no money for a proper burial.
Whatever Medieval Moscow was, it was certainly not boring!
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