Gender, Body and Parenthood in Muscovite Russia

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Finlinson, Rosemary 

In Muscovite Russia, political power was often articulated through the image of the ruler and his family. Ideologies of family were crucial to the cultural envisioning of dynastic legitimacy and social order. Beginning from the sixteenth century, under the cultural influence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, conventions for representing the body and human reproduction in Russian literature underwent a transformation. There was a proliferation of scientific and medical literature, on the one hand, and poetry, on the other hand. As a result, ideologies of family came to be expressed across a new range of textual genres. Focussing on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this thesis explores how ideological constructions of parenthood shape and are shaped by changing forms of conceptualising and representing the gendered body. In so doing, it underscores the need to interrogate modern assumptions about sex to recognise the variable signification and significance of the body in early modern Russian gender ideologies. The first chapter is broadly theoretical. It destabilises the modern relationship between anatomy and gender by looking at the construction of sex in Muscovite medical discourse. In this writing, anatomy is depicted as being in communication with social forces. Correspondingly, visions of bodily difference are formed in the interaction of the body with existing social norms and hierarchies: namely, masculine authority and feminine subservience and responsibility for childrearing. This social gender hierarchy was maintained through the regulation of bodily practices (breastfeeding and growing a beard) rather than by an idea of sex as a fixed anatomical binary. I demonstrate the instability of the body in Muscovite definitions of masculinity and femininity by exploring how breastfeeding was consolidated as a gender marker and the beard was lost in seventeenth-century ecclesiastical debates about gender. The remaining chapters demonstrate the importance of literary factors in shaping the construction of parenthood and the gendered body over this period. The second chapter analyses the sixteenth-century Stepennaia Kniga, a royal genealogical history which utilises depictions of parenthood to embed patriarchal authority in the dynastic and ecclesiastical establishments. The text does not clearly differentiate between mothers and fathers in terms of anatomy or behaviour. Instead, the behaviour of both parents is aligned with that of ruler and priest, and their competence as parents is expressed in how well they embody those patriarchal roles. The mother’s subordinate position is established through her inability to perform regal and ecclesiastical tropes associated with parenthood and as a result mothers do not play a central role in the text’s depiction of parenthood. In the Stepennaia Kniga, parenthood is embodied primarily by fathers. The third chapter examines how parenthood came to be embodied by mothers in seventeenth-century poetry about the family. It posits that the figurative language characteristic of emergent Baroque verse cultivated novel relationships between body and gender. Although the principle of feminine subservience did not change, it was now embedded in the flesh of the mother through the development of a discourse of maternal suffering. Through metaphor, allegory and emblem, ideas of parental love, sacrifice and caregiving were tied to maternal body parts and processes specifically: the utroba, childbirth and breastfeeding. The maternal body thus came to represent both parents, creating a new and distinctly gendered vision of parental love. As the century developed, this gendered vision of love was extended beyond the context of parenthood. The suffering maternal body was cast as an emblem of Christian sacrifice more broadly.

Pevny, Olenka
History of Gender and Sexuality, History of the Body, Muscovy, Russian Literature, Russian History, Early Modern History, Early Modern Literature, History of Medicine
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
AHRC (1589210)