Friday, September 13, 2013

The Kremlin Beauty Pageant

I have spent the last week and then some reading about marriage politics in the Kremlin—no, not Vladimir Putin’s affair with the gymnast, but the political and administrative heart of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Moscow. As a result, my friends on Facebook and GoodReads barely hear from me, the unhappy side-effect of my having agreed to write an academic review of Russell Martin’s wonderful A Bride for the Tsar.

No matter. Soon I will have written the review and can return to social media. In the meantime, I am collecting stories to enliven future books in the Legends of the Five Directions series. The Vermilion Bird (4: South) looks like the best candidate.

But marriage politics already rears its head in The Golden Lynx, where it is in fact the central element driving the story. You might even say that marriage politics was the reason I set out to write Legends of the Five Directions in the first place. When historians recognized the importance of marital alliances and royal wedding ceremonies in early modern Russian society, it revolutionized our understanding of how the political system worked in the centuries before Peter the Great came to the throne in 1682 (or 1689, depending on how you count). But since that understanding has yet to find a reflection in most textbooks, I thought that writing a series of novels would be a great way to show marriage politics in action.

So what is marriage politics? Those of you who enjoy reading books about the Wars of the Roses, such as Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen—now a television miniseries—are probably aware that Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of King Edward IV of England and heroine of Gregory’s book, created a huge scandal by taking advantage of her position to benefit her relatives. She advanced the careers of the men and arranged good marriages for as many relatives, male and female, as she could. Her brother-in-law, the future Richard III, was supposedly so put-off by this behavior (and Edward’s lax morals) that he high-tailed it for the North and didn’t come back until appointed Lord Protector after Edward’s unexpected death. The Woodvilles did not rejoice at his return.

In an English setting, Elizabeth’s behavior was unusual, not least because English kings usually married foreign princesses—or at a minimum high-ranking aristocrats whose male relatives were already ensconced in power. But Russians would have greeted such behavior with a shrug. Political power in Muscovy (a common name among specialists for Russia from the fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries) can best be envisioned as a series of concentric circles, with the grand prince (after 1547, tsar) at the center. The closer you could get to the grand prince, the more influence you wielded—and marrying your daughter to the current ruler put you closest of all. This was the ultimate prize, and every family (boyar clan) in the inner circle competed for it. The family that won controlled all the goodies in the state; play its cards right, and it could continue to marry its daughters into the royal family for several generations—leaving the other clans out in the cold.

Constant squabbling does not make for good government. So in 1505 Grand Prince Vasily III (father of Ivan the Terrible) came up with a new idea. (Actually his Greek adviser, who just happened to have a marriageable daughter of the right age, seems to have suggested the idea, but Vasily grabbed it and ran with it.) This idea was the bride show. Rather than marry a girl from any of the insider families, Vasily sent a summons throughout the land demanding that his gentry servitors produce their daughters for his inspection. The insider clans then vetted the prospective brides for looks, general health (i.e., fertility), virginity, and—most important—genealogy. They wanted a girl from a good background but not so exalted that her relatives could challenge the clans at court, and one who came from healthy stock but not so healthy that she would arrive with a host of hungry male relatives looking for sinecures. Once the courtiers had narrowed down the available candidates to a dozen or so, the grand prince/tsar had his pick.

This system took a while to get off the ground. Vasily had to send out three or four rounds of stern letters saying things like, “I know you have daughters, so produce them pronto or I’m going to have do something mean.” Eventually he scared up enough candidates to choose a suitable bride, and he was happy enough with the results that when things didn’t work out with that one and he forced her into a convent, he used the same procedure to select his second wife, Elena Glinskaya—who, as the mother of and regent for Ivan the Terrible, appears in The Golden Lynx. By the end of the sixteenth century, it had become the usual means of selecting a bride for the tsar—and his male relatives, too.

Marriage politics Kremlin-style had a number of interesting features. First, women played a big part in the winnowing of candidates. The wives of high-ranking courtiers and the ruler’s female relatives were the ones who examined girls to be sure they were virgins, commented on their health and personalities, and so on. Elite women in Muscovy lived secluded in their households and did not associate with unrelated men of their own class, so the male courtiers and even the grand prince/tsar would see a candidate for a few minutes, perhaps an hour. If an aristocratic or royal woman announced that a particular bridal candidate was unhealthy or bad-tempered, that girl was out. The brides had no say in the process, but the older women had plenty.

Second, with the stakes so high, marriage politics gave rise to scenarios usually restricted to fiction. Favored candidates developed mysterious illnesses, died within weeks of their selection, fell victim to smear campaigns and accusations of epilepsy caused by their hair being braided (or their tiaras attached) so tightly that they fainted. Michael Romanov, first of the famous dynasty, saw the betrothed he had selected sent away in disgrace because she began vomiting, an illness that cleared up two days after she left the court. When he recovered enough from that experience to order a second bride show at what was then considered the ripe age of twenty-seven, his wife fell ill at the wedding and died four months later. He then held a third bride show, only to endure a screaming row with his mother before he finally acquired a wife who pleased him. Thus the limitations on the tsar “having his pick” of the candidates.

Yet the system endured until the gradual Westernization of the court in the late seventeenth century made it obsolete. The bride show became a symbol of Muscovy (if under-appreciated until Russ Martin came along), and as such it attracted the attention of some of Russia’s finest painters. I’ve attached two examples here by Konstantin Makovsky, whose work I’ve featured before on this blog. The one at the top, Choosing a Bride (1886), shows an actual bride show (the grand prince/tsar is the young man standing by the chair, with one of the candidates bowing during her presentation). The one below (1884) shows preparations for a wedding—not necessarily a royal wedding, but the bride having her hair combed looks so much like my Nasan that I just had to include her.

And if you want to know why Russian grand princes (tsars) didn't just marry foreigners as the English did, I will take that up next week.

Images: Konstantin Makovsky, Choosing a Bride (1886), and Preparations for a Wedding (1884), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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