Marriage and Brotherhood in Muscovite Russia

Change log
Mayhew, Nick 

In Russia today, conservative views about gender are often promoted through reference to the past, to show that supposedly ‘traditional’ gender roles are intrinsic to Russian history. Frequently, this idea is upheld in scholarship. My work explores the historicity of commonly held assumptions about gender.

This dissertation focusses on gender and sexuality in Russia from the sixteenth to early eighteenth centuries. It shows that ideas about what constituted a virtuous marriage were established by reference to ideas about brotherhood. Brotherhood here refers not to biological siblings, but to a church rite of ‘spiritual brotherhood’ known in Russian as bratotvorenie. This rite has not been studied in any depth before. Based on archival work, this dissertation offers a detailed account of the tradition in Russia until its ban in 1650, when it was prohibited by leading ecclesiastical figures for being too like marriage. One churchman complained: ‘The priest, joining together these two men, unites them in matrimony’. The dissertation shows that bratotvorenie was conceived of in premodern Russia as a form of same-sex union, and that it was through banning this tradition that churchmen came to express in a coherent way which kinds of partnership were legitimate and why.

The first chapter challenges the idea that marriage was always a monogamous union between a man and a woman for the creation of children, an idea that is often encountered in academic literature on Russian marriage history. It shows that the church rite of marriage was edited in Russia during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when ideas about the sacramental nature of marriage changed. The second chapter builds on these observations, suggesting that marriage and ‘spiritual brotherhood’ were understood as analogous in the premodern period.

The final two chapters look at depictions of marriage and brotherhood in hagiography and iconography respectively. They focus on Petr and Fevroniia, the first married couple to be canonised in Russia in 1547. In 2008, their feast day was reworked into a state festival called the ‘Day of Family, Love and Fidelity’, now widely celebrated across Russia. Petr and Fevroniia have been cast as the patron saints of so-called ‘traditional moral-spiritual values’.

This view is generally upheld in existent scholarship on the saints. This dissertation responds to the way the saints are being represented today, arguing that they were initially venerated for subverting normative ideas about gender and sexuality—that they were queer. What is more, their veneration paralleled the veneration of holy brothers. Their hagiography seems to have been based on the Life of a monastic brotherhood, and icons depicting Petr and Fevroniia standardly showed them in monastic robes.

Focussing on marriage and brotherhood in premodern Russia, each chapter of this dissertation challenges a preconceived idea about the immutability of supposedly ‘traditional’ gender roles in Russian history.

Franklin, Simon
Russia, Muscovy, History of Sexuality, History of Gender, Orthodoxy, Marriage, Queer
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge