Writing historical fiction, even about a period one knows well, demands a lot of research. Many novelists, including myself, enjoy that part almost as much as plotting the story and creating characters. Of course, there are times when all I want is a quick answer: How much can you see through a mica pane? How would a sixteenth-century doctor treat an arrow wound? Exactly how do you store spider webs so you have them on hand to treat a future injury?
But establishing the broader picture can be important too. Each novel addresses different areas of life and therefore raises new questions that demand answers. For that situation, works offering comprehensive, in-depth examination of specific topics provide the perfect solution. This is when I put on my rather dusty historian’s cap and dive into the academic literature.
For my current work-in-progress, Song of the Storyteller (Songs of Steppe & Forest 5—and yes, 4 is still to come out, but it’s in the final stages), Russell E. Martin’s A Bride for the Tsar: Bride-Shows and Marriage Politics in Early Modern Russia has become a kind of bible. There are other books I turn to with every new addition to the series, but this one has a particular relevance for the current story. So it’s no surprise that I jumped at the chance to interview Martin for New Books in Russian and Eurasian Studies on the appearance of his latest study about what happened after the bride show, The Tsar’s Happy Occasion: Ritual and Dynasty in the Weddings of Russia’s Rulers, 1475–1725.
Just as I expected, he has a lot of fascinating things to say about the important political statements that could be conveyed by a royal wedding. And you thought it was all about heart-shaped confetti and gift registries.
So give the interview a listen. It’s a lot of fun. The book, too, is a great read, filled with stories of family conflicts, international intrigue, disgruntled nobles, and dirty tricks. But whether you have the mental energy to tackle a serious study after a long day at work or not, you can watch one of my heroines carrying the bride’s train a few books from now.
The rest of this post comes from New Books in Russian & Eurasian Studies.
The dominant impression of Russia in the news media and politics, even today, is that it is and always has been an autocratic power controlled by a single despotic ruler. But historians of the fourteenth through the eighteenth centuries have long realized that this vision was to some extent a myth projected by the central authorities to support a system that was in fact oligarchic but competitive in nature. A fundamental step in recognizing the gap between that myth and reality was the identification of marriages between aristocratic clans as a determinant in political alliances, followed by a new understanding of patron-client relations and other interpersonal connections within the elite.
In The Tsar’s Happy Occasion: Ritual and Dynasty in the Weddings of Russian Rulers, 1495–1745 (Cornell University Press, 2021), Russell E. Martin explores the ways in which the weddings of tsars and lesser members of the royal family worked to integrate brides and their families into the elite while moderating tensions among the nobility. The whole occasion was elaborately choreographed and developed over time as the needs of the original dynasty, the Daniilovichi, to extend and sustain the lineage by managing the number of heirs gave way to the new Romanov dynasty’s attempts to establish its legitimacy, followed by a squabble for power between two branches of the later Romanovs (Peter the Great and his descendants). And the stakes were high—the book is full of examples of poisoned brides, recalcitrant exiles, bridegrooms executed for failing to judge the balance correctly, and more. Through this in-depth but beautifully written study, we gain a new appreciation of the importance of ceremony and ritual in creating and promoting visions of how the world does and should work at specific points in time.