Sixteenth-century domestic handbook.
The term domostroi, which literally means "domestic order," refers to a group of forty-three manuscript books produced in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Less than a dozen copies explicitly contain the title: "This book called Domostroi has in it much that Christian men and women, children, menservants, and maidservants will find useful." All, however, share a basic text that is clearly recognizable despite additions, deletions, and variations.
Where Domostroi came from, who wrote it—or, more probably, compiled it—and when, remain matters for debate. So does the process by which the text evolved. Traditionally, it has been linked to the north Russian merchant city of Novgorod and dated to the late fifteenth century, although significant alterations were made until the mid-sixteenth century. This view attributes one version to Sylvester, a priest of the Annunciation Cathedral in the Kremlin, who came from Novgorod and supposedly had a close relationship with Ivan IV the Terrible (1533–1584). Sylvester has proven to be a shadowy figure, his authorship of Domostroi is unlikely, and his friendship with Ivan the Terrible has often been questioned. Nevertheless, the possibility that Domostroi could somehow explain the Terrible Tsar continues to fascinate.
More recent research suggests that Domostroi was compiled in Moscow, probably in the 1550s, a period when Russian society was undergoing re-form and reestablishing its links to Europe. One manuscript refers to an original written in 1552. Two copies (representing different versions) have watermarks from the 1560s or 1570s; and information in Sylvester's letter to his son, usually found at the conclusion of the type of Domostroi associated with him, suggests a date for the letter of approximately 1560. One copy of the Sylvester type also includes a reference to Tsaritsa Anastasia, Ivan the Terrible's first wife, who died in 1560. Therefore the text was probably circulating in the capital by the late 1550s.
This early period produced four major variants: a Short Version (associated with Sylvester), a Long Version, and two intermediate stages. All cover the family's obligations from three angles: its duties toward God, relationships between family members, and the practical tasks involved in running a large household. "Family," in Domostroi, means not only a husband, a wife, and their children but also dependent members of the extended family and servants, most of whom would have been slaves in the sixteenth century. Although slaves often had their own homes and practiced a craft, they were still considered dependent members of the family that owned them.
Domostroi seems to address not the highest echelon of society—the royal family and the great boyar clans—but a group several steps lower, particularly rich merchants and people working in government offices. In the sixteenth century Russia underwent rapid change; its social system was relatively fluid, and these people had quite varied backgrounds. Whereas boyars could learn essential skills from their parents, groups lower in the social hierarchy required instruction to function successfully in an environment that was new to them. The prescriptions in Domostroi are best understood from this standpoint.
The chapters detailing a household's responsibilities before God were mostly copied from standard religious texts and are remarkable primarily for their unusually practical approach. Men were to attend church several times each day, to supervise household prayers morning and evening, and to observe all religious holidays (which in preimperial Russia exceeded one hundred). The text also supplies instructions for taking communion and behavior in church ("do not shuffle your feet"). Women and servants attended services "when they [were] able," but they, too, were to pray every day.
Within the family, Domostroi defines sets of hierarchical relationships: husbands, parents, and masters dominate (supervise); wives, children, and servants obey. Disobedience led to scolding, then physical punishment. The master is counseled to protect the rights of the accused by investigating all claims personally and exercising restraint; even so, this emphasis on corporal punishment, the bestknown admonition in Domostroi, gives modern readers a rather grim view of family life.
This impression is partly undercut by the third group of chapters, which offers rare insight into the daily life of an old Russian household. Exhaustive lists of foodstuffs and materials, utensils and clothing, alternate with glimpses of women, children, and servants that often contradict the stern prescriptions. Wives manage households of a hundred people and must be advised not to hide servants or guests from their husbands; children require extra meals, dowries, training, and other special treatment; servants steal the soap and the silverware, entertain village wise women, and run away, but also heal quarrels and solve problems. These are the stories that won Domostroi its reputation as a leading source of information on sixteenth-century Russian life.
See also: ivan iv; novgorod the great
The Domostroi: Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible. (1994). Ed. and tr. Carolyn Johnston Pouncy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994.
Khorikhin, V. V. (2001). "The Late Seventeenth-Century Tsar's Copy of Domostroi: A Problem of Origins." Russian Studies in History 40(1):75–93.
Kolesov, V. V. (2001). "Domostroi as a Work of Medieval Culture." Russian Studies in History 40(1):6–74.
Pouncy, Carolyn Johnston. (1987). "The Origins of the Domostroi: An Essay in Manuscript History," Russian Review 46:357–373.
Carolyn Johnston Pouncy