Women and Property

Did you know…

…that women in Russia could own property, even land? While they could not inherit the “patrimony,” or inherited estate, they were guaranteed a dowry, which their brothers were obligated to provide if the father died before he could do it himself.

Street in medieval Novgorod

Street in medieval Novgorod

The dowry was received by the bride, and she held it in her own right, independently of her husband. There was no community of property: the widow could become regent of her husband’s estate, but their sons inherited it in the end. If a widow remarried, she forfeited all rights (of guardianship) to her deceased husband’s property (according to the law — in practice, the situation was a little more complex, though).

In addition to her dowry, a woman could receive an inheritance from her mother. Mothers were not obligated to deed any of their property to any of their children, but they could dispose of it as they chose, so a daughter was just as likely as a son (or maybe more likely) to inherit some or all of her mother’s personal possessions.

Noblewoman. Illustration by I. Bilibine

Noblewoman. Illustration by I. Bilibine

All this property (dowry or inheritance) could be used by the woman as she wished, and invested wisely, it could grow. A woman could buy land as well as inherit it, and derive income from that land. She could sell any of her possessions, pass them on to her children, as we have seen, or deed it to whomever she chose. And a husband had no access to his wife’s property. In fact, a wife could sue her husband if he disposed of her assets without her consent. Of course, she could consent and invest her property in her husband’s ventures, or choose to buy him out of debt, but she was not obligated to do so. Indeed, a husband’s creditors had no lien on the wife’s assets.

And a final note: the wealthiest private person in the history of medieval Russia (that is to say, other than the ruling princes or the Tsar) was a woman: Marfa Boretskaia, the widow of a posadnik (mayor) of the northern city-state of Novgorod, and posadnitsa (mayoress) of Novgorod herself. She did not enjoy her wealth or her power very long, for she was defeated in her struggle to keep Novgorod independent of Moscow in the late XV century.