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19.12.07 Mikhailova, Property, Power, and Authority in Rus and Latin Europe, ca. 1000-1236

19.12.07 Mikhailova, Property, Power, and Authority in Rus and Latin Europe, ca. 1000-1236

Elegant writing always looks effortless and the same is true of persuasive historical research. Mikhailova merits such praise. Her work, Property, Power, and Authority in Rus and Latin Europe, brings together two major medieval historiographical themes usually treated in isolation from one another: western feudo-vassalic relations and the nature of power, authority, and land tenure in Rus (medieval Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia), in order to suggest that the latter had some similarities to the former. Navigating deftly between these two historiographical traditions, Mikhailova examines the scholarly assumptions that underpin both, succinctly drawing on recent contributions to the debate on the "feudal revolution" and the nature of "feudo-vassalic" relations, in particular the work of Charles West, Hélène Débax, Gerd Althoff, and Jonathan Lyon. She applies these approaches to her analysis of relations between the stronger and less powerful members of the upper social stratum of Rus, all of whom are called kniazi (singular: kniaz) in East Slavic sources, a title conventionally translated as "prince." Mikhailova advocates an ad fontes approach to determining the nature of political relations in Rus and its degree of similarity to that existing in Western Europe (called "Latin Europe" here) that has been traditionally described as "feudal." Property, Power, and Authority concludes that something similar to "feudo-vassalic" relations did indeed exist in Rus and even that something approaching a "feudal revolution" also took place in Rus around the year 1000.

Mikhailova's book grounds its arguments on careful attention to the language of the primary sources to describe relations between members of the upper social stratum in Rus and the French and Anglo-Norman worlds. By close reading of these sources, she seeks to find common ground between two "parallel universes" (15, 65, 71, 114) of historiography--the western one and the Rus one-- and to help rectify the "deep isolation of Rus studies from wider medieval scholarship" (25). That Mikhailova's scholarly intervention is sorely needed becomes apparent from the fact that, as she points out, the last study comparing politico-social organizations in Rus and Western Europe appeared in 1910 (2).

Medieval Rus with its frequent inter-kniaz struggles is usually assumed to be a completely different society from the supposedly more politically coherent kingdoms of Western Europe. This is not only a perspective shared by western medievalists, but also by Slavic historians, who often present Rus as following its own "special path" of historical development (1, 111, 195). Yet Mikhailova argues convincingly that the gulf of difference between the seemingly chaotic inter-kniaz conflict in Rus, on the one hand, and sporadic rebellions of nobles against European kings, on the other, are partly illusions formed by what the sources themselves tend to reveal or conceal and partly the result of different interpretative historiographical lenses applied to them by modern-day scholars (3, 64-65, 96, 102-103, 195-196, 198).

The book's argument that "feudo-vassalic" relations did indeed exist in Rus is developed in its introduction and four substantial chapters. The argument is built from a discussion of the traditional "master narrative" of Rus history and the terminology used by the sources to describe the political organization, titles, forms of land holding, and judicial rights of the kniazi in comparison to their closest equivalents in Old French and Anglo-Norman, and goes on to explore the appropriateness of the terms "banal lordship" and "feudo-vassalic" to describe the military-judicial functions and political relations between more and less powerful kniazi. The book gives a qualified "yes" to the latter two hypotheses.

Well-trodden historiographical debates on Rus history such as the influence of Byzantine institutions on Rus ones, or the so-called "Normanist" controversy (over the degree to which Scandinavians played a role in the political formation of Rus) (113), are treated with a light hand by Mikhailova. Instead, she devotes most of her attention to the reading of East Slavonic primary sources from Rus in conjunction and direct comparison with Aquitanian and Anglo-Norman sources. She focuses particularly on narratives describing alliances, conflicts, multiple ties of loyalty and layered land tenure among the elite of Rus in the twelfth-century Kievan and Suzdalian chronicles. Mikhailova employs additional examples drawn from the few surviving charters of Rus (118, 127-128, 130-131), law codes (130-131), more numerous though fragmentary birch bark letters (142-148), and even, on one occasion, epigraphy (144) to show that the relations of ties of obligation, power, and judicial rights of the kniaz described in the Kievan and Suzdalian chronicles do seem to find their echo in external sources as well. The Kievan and Suzdalian chronicles are, in turn, compared with sources from Western Europe that describe "feudo-vassalic" ties among western magnates.

The western sources most frequently used for this comparison are the "semi-vernacular" (196) early eleventh-century Aquitanian text, the Conventum Hugonis, written in a Latin close to oral idioms, and the late twelfth-century Anglo-Norman metrical chronicle of Jordan Fantosme. Vernacular texts, argues Mikhailova (including the "semi-vernacular" Conventum Hugonis), offer a closer depiction of the often-messy relations that existed between secular lords than the often-neat vertical hierarchical relationships present in Latin chronicles. Vernacular works display the same major elements that are central to the way political and property relations are portrayed in the Rus chronicles, namely a focus on "dispute, settlement, and orality" when depicting conflicts between the upper social echelon of society (4-5).

Mikhailova also applies the recent methodologies of the history of emotion to analyse the role assigned to emotions such as love, joy, and anger (79-82, 85-87, 159-165) in the way power relations are portrayed in Rus by East Slavic chronicles. She finds similar use of such language in western vernacular sources: in both cases political bonds are also expressed in the language of emotional bond, invoking notions of love and kinship between rulers (85-87).

In her discussion of whether or not "feudo-vassalic" relations existed in Rus, Mikhailova applies to the East Slavonic terms kniaz, volost, and dan the same methodology of close contextual reading that western medievalists since Elizabeth A. R. Brown and Susan Reynolds have applied when analysing the different meanings of key words such as feudum, fidelis, or vassalus in various sources, avoiding generalizations about what political relations are implicit in each term. Kniaz, for instance, argues Mikhailova, when referring to the kniaz of Kiev, can describe political functions similar to "non-administrative" charismatic kingship characteristic of the earlier Middle Ages in Western Europe, while kniaz could also describe a "noble" in other contexts (70). Although the Kievan and Suzdalian stress "horizontal" bonds between nobles and largely do not develop an ideological framework of kingship, this does not mean, concludes Mikhailova, that Rus did not have kings--a point that challenges traditional assumptions about the differences between Rus and Western Europe.

Mikhailova also stresses the differences between medieval usage of words relating to power relations and land tenure and their modern equivalents, noting that eliding the latter two can result in misunderstandings. For instance, she compares the interpretation of the word castrum in western scholarship and gorod in Slavic scholarship. Medieval sources use castrumand gorod to describe a fortified settlement of varying size, and often its surrounding countryside as well. But western historians tend to translate castrum as "castle," emphasizing its military qualities, while Russophone scholarship translates the term as "town," relating it to the modern Russian meaning of the word and stressing the fact that the gorod was also a centre of economic activity. Figures 5-6 clearly show the physical similarity between the twelfth-century wooden "castle" of Gloucester and the twelfth-century wooden fortified Rus "small town" of Sneporod (134-135). Mikhailova thus demolishes the myth that one of the elements that set Rus apart from Western Europe was its apparent lack of "castles" (136). She argues that a similar "spatial organization of power" (140) is another shared characteristic between Rus kniaziand western nobles. As a corollary she cautiously draws on the findings of P. S. Stefanovich who suggests that by the reign of Vladimir Sviatoslavich (d. 1015), the kniazi had monopolized control over such fortified settlements (141), while archaeology apparently has found that new such fortified settlements were being established around the year 1000 (141-142). Mikhailova indirectly suggests the existence of a kind of "feudal revolution" in Rus around the year 1000, while acknowledging the limits of the sources in proving such a proposal (142).

In investigating the existence of "feudo-vassalic" ties in Rus, Mikhailova comes to the bold and insightful conclusion that perhaps one of the most important markers of cultural differences between medieval Western Europe and Rus was not the Orthodox-Latin Christian dividing line but rather the general absence of classical literary models in Rus (3, 96 198). Rus never directly inherited the classical tradition of political thought in the same way that Western Europe did; there is little evidence for knowledge of Latin and even the degree to which Greek was known is debateable and was probably quite modest (3; citing especially the work on this topic by Francis Thomson). Classical ideas of rulership in Rus, Mikhailova shows, were more likely to appear mediated through Church Slavonic--which itself adapted and translated concepts and ideas of Roman imperium and Old Testament kingship from Byzantium--rather than in the East Slavic vernacular (3, 96-97). The significance of this claim becomes more apparent when Mikhailova discusses how the classical inheritance shaped the way in which authors in Western Europe presented political relations. Drawing on classical models, works of medieval Latin historiography often emphasize monarchical "vertical" power rather than more complex "horizontal" ties of co-rulership and layered land tenure, presenting even local magnates like William V of Aquitaine in "quasi-regnal" terms (102). She suggests that vernacular sources tend to "display less conceptual clarity than their Latin counterparts" (165) when describing relations between lords, and also reflect a greater ethos of aristocratic egalitarianism (89-93) than the "learned" languages of Latin and Church Slavonic. Anglo-Norman and Old French vernacular sources thus depict an image of political-social organization closer to the one painted by East Slavonic sources in Rus.

Her final conclusions, that relations between the kniazi of Rus resembled feudo-vassalic relations in Western Europe, are grounded in persuasive examples. For instance, the Kyivan Chronicle's portrayal of Vladimir Monomakh of Kiev's (d. 1125) "giving" Minsk to Gleb of Minsk after concluding peace with him, even though Gleb was already physically there (57-58, 182) is justly compared to the western practice of reprise en fief (182). But these conclusions are always tempered by a careful awareness of the limitations of the medieval sources at hand as well as the limitations of our own modern languages in adequately understanding the meaning of medieval terminology of the eleventh to early thirteenth centuries.

While it is difficult to criticize a work that offers such a fresh cross-cultural insight into dynamics of aristocratic and royal power in medieval Europe, more attention to the role of gender would have been welcome in the study. The book's genealogical tables, for instance, exclude all Rus women apart from the tenth-century princess Olga. Mikhailova briefly mentions women playing a role in power struggles in Rus throughout the book, but these mentions are not integrated in the overall argument in favour of the existence of "feudo-vassalic" relations in Rus. For example, when discussing a charter founding the bishopric of Smolensk by kniaz Rostislav Mstislavich (d. 1167), passing mention is made of the fact that a kniaz's wife (kniaginia; a title usually translated as "princess"), like her husband the kniaz, had some "judicial and administrative rights over some territories in the Smolensk principality" (147) in the twelfth century. In "Western" Europe aristocratic women sometimes could both hold fiefs and act as feudal lords. How similar was their position to that of female holders of power in Rus?

Likewise surprising is the decision to exclude the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from this comparative study. The book asserts that this chronicle is left out because it "covers the period when Rus did not yet exist" (5), even though the entries of the Peterborough Chronicle (the "E-text"; Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc 636) run to the mid twelfth century. Like the various regional Rus chronicles which all begin with the Tale of Bygone Years, the Anglo-Saxon regional chronicles also share a "common stock" narrative. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle offers precisely a similar type of vernacular source to the Rus chronicles that could have served additionally as a useful basis for comparison of power and property structures between Rus and lands traditionally considered part of the medieval "West."

Finally, the study does not fully address the question that if contractual relations of mutual obligation, military service, and counsel and land tenure developed between more and less powerful elites in Rus that can be broadly described as "feudo-vassalic" and that were similar to those that emerged likewise in Western Europe, then why was this the case? Clearly the impact of Carolingian institutions was non-existent in Rus. Mikhailova does suggest that "some deeper, pan-European processes" were responsible for the similarity of social development (11) and also that Rus marriage alliances with Western Europe could have led to cultural exchanges and familiarity with western institutions (197), but these ideas could have been explored further. Insights from sociology or cultural anthropology might perhaps have been helpful in crafting a possible hypothesis.

Nonetheless these are minor issues in a book that raises new and important historical questions. Its general thesis--that there are similarities between "feudo-vassalic" relations in Western Europe and the relations of kniazi in Rus--is convincing and demonstrated by detailed analysis of well-chosen examples.

It is almost a cliché to conclude a review by writing that "it should be read widely" but for Mikhailova's book this is indeed the case. The book applies recent conclusions and methodologies from the "feudal revolution" debate to our understanding of the upper political and social stratum of Rus society. Its findings bear important implications for the way medieval history is taught by bringing together two parallel historiographies and by suggesting that Rus should not be dismissed as a strange "outlier" from the rest of medieval Europe. The study therefore bears upon the way that historians conceptualise medieval Europe as a whole, and will be of especial interest to global historians engaged in such comparative work. The book's surprising finding that a kind of "feudal revolution" also took place in Rus around the year 1000 should certainly encourage all historians--whether of Rus or "the West"--to consider carefully before making any claims of exceptionalism for the institutions and social organizations that developed in their region of specialisation.