it's tough to be an aristocrat -- 5/7/14

Today's selection -- from Red Fortress by Catherine Merridale. Throughout history, from the Kremlin to the court of Louis XIV, the lives of aristocrats have often been filled with a never-ending pursuit of the attention and favor of the king, primarily through endless social nuance and otherwise pointless protocols calculated to demonstrate subservience and fealty. This was deeply intertwined with economic opportunity, since it was the king who granted economic concessions such as a salt monopoly or trade dispensation. Thus it was always accompanied by a pervasive fear of missteps that could doom an individual or family to demotion or banishment with significant economic consequences. Here we see the rituals of the court in Moscow:

"The court at Moscow had developed round a small group of clans, and any that endured and had escaped disgrace still featured in its upper ranks. Whenever a high office needed to be filled, the ancient families expected to receive their call. And these jobs mattered, for though genealogy had an obvious role to play, it was service at the privy council level that paved the way to real power and a seat beside those marvellous displays of gold.

Russian boyars in the 16th–17th centuries

"The rank of boyar was the most coveted of all, traditionally limited to about a dozen individuals at a time, and for these few, court life was a ballet designed to make sure that they and their clans remained unchallenged at the pinnacle of power. Some managed to reside within the Kremlin walls, others in mansions on the streets nearby, but it was vital to be present at the heart of government and to be seen to be there. After that, all advantage was relative, but it was essential not to lose status or to allow another clan to become disproportionately strong. In extreme cases, courtiers whose ambition exceeded reasonable limits could find themselves forced into exile by a jealous coalition of their peers. ...

"Usually, court politics was designed to prevent bloodshed, although the system also limited the sovereign's freedom to make appointments on the basis of mere talent. Though everyone was obliged to serve the grand prince, each role at court was ranked, and senior members of the leading families demanded to be given the most important ones. Ambitions could be shattered if a man accepted any office that was lower than his due, but since it was impossible for everyone involved to determine (or even to remember) the finer details of the hierarchy, especially at the humbler end, the system generated numerous disputes. Even the positions allocated to the diners at state banquets involved precise distinctions; if a courtier had been careless enough to accept the wrong seat at the dinner for Chancellor, for instance, he would have woken to a demotion that could drag on for years. The mistake could also taint the prospects of his heirs, for status ran along bloodlines, and a family that lost serious rank might struggle ever to regain it. Among the system's more sinister implications was the watchfulness it fostered within families, for since the dishonour of one affected every member of a clan, black sheep had to be penned -- or sacrificed -- at home.

"Newcomers were a regular irritant. Their rank was based (like everybody's) on the type of service that the prince had called them to perform. Since leading members of a rival court were best neutralized by bringing them to Moscow, providing them with lodgings and entrusting them with prominent roles, this meant that even refugee boyars from Lithuania had been known to jump straight to the top of the Kremlin hierarchy. As Moscow expanded, and more and more such outsiders arrived, resident families of longer standing began to insist that the details of each courtier's precise place on the seniority ladder should be entered in a permanent, binding record. There could still be movement -- people died -- but any accidental or capricious variation had to be forestalled before the dishonour became indelible. In its developed form, emerging in the sixteenth century, this system, with its ledgers and its crossings-out, was called mestnichestvo, from the Russian word for place. What started as a way of managing an expanding multi-cultural court was soon inscribed in leather-bound volumes, and it would remain a feature of Kremlin life for a century to come.

An assembly of nobility at the time of Catherine the Great

"A politics based on families is also a politics of sex and motherhood, so Kremlin women generally led secluded lives. A careless marriage could disrupt the best-laid plans, for daughters were valuable only if they could be married to high-status heirs. Each time a royal boy needed a wife, therefore, there was an ugly contest and potentially a feud. The rivalry was so divisive that Moscow's rulers were eventually obliged to bypass the unmarried daughters of their own court clans and look beyond the capital. Ivan the Terrible, who married more wives than Henry VIII, was a case in point. By the time he was looking for his third (and in the absence of a willing European princess) the practice of sending agents to the provinces to select a collection of healthy but obscure young women had more or less become the norm. The girls were brought to the palace, where they were questioned, examined and probably frightened half to death. One by one, they were then paraded before the tsar in a so-called bride show. The point was that whichever girl the sovereign chose, there was a chance of healthy heirs, and at the same time it was unlikely that any boyar family would gain disproportionately from the marriage.

"The system left many noblewomen unmarried and prospectless. The tsar's own daughters, as well as his sisters and maiden aunts, were certainly too important for any ordinary marriage-market. No clan could be allowed to monopolize them. Some opted for the convent and a relatively comfortable religious life (there were several places where such women lived in discreet luxury), but many grew old in the Kremlin's own women's quarters."


Catherine Merridale


Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin


Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company


Copyright 2013 by Catherine Merridale


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