by Maksim Kovalevsky
MARRIAGE AMONG THE EARLY SLAVS 
THE earliest evidence which we possess as to the social relations of the Eastern Slavs, whose confederacy was the beginning of the Russian State, is contained in the so-called Chronicle of Nestor. Nestor is supposed to have been a Russian monk of the eleventh century.
Contrasting the mode of life of the most civilised Slavonic nations, the Polians, who were established on the banks of the Dnieper, with that of the more barbarous tribes of Russia, Nestor, or perhaps it is better to say, the unknown author of the Chronicle which bears this name, states as follows (I translate literally): “Each tribe had its own customs, and the laws of its forefathers and its own traditions, each its own manner of life ( nrav ). The Polians had the customs of their fathers, customs mild and peaceful ( tichi ); they showed a kind of reserve ( stidenie ) towards the daughters of their sons and towards their sisters, towards their mothers and their parents, towards the mothers of their wives, and towards the brothers of their husbands; to all of the persons named they showed great reserve. Amongst them the bridegroom did not go to seek his bride; she was taken to him in the evening, and the following morning they brought what was given for her.”
“Another Slavonic tribe, the Drevlians,” according to the same chronicler, “lived like beasts; they killed one another, they fed on things unclean; no marriage took place amongst them, but they captured young girls on the banks of rivers.”
The same author narrates that three other Slavonic tribes, the Radimich, the Viatich, and the Sever, had the same customs; they lived “in forests, like other wild animals, they ate everything unclean, and shameful things occurred amongst them between fathers and daughters-in-law. Marriages were unknown to them, but games were held in the outskirts of villages; they met at these games for dancing and every kind of diabolic amusement, and there they captured their wives, each man the one he had covenanted with. They had generally two or three wives.”
I have tried to give the nearest possible translation of this old Russian text, the interpretation of which, however, gives rise to certain difficulties not yet quite settled. I will now classify, to the best of my power, the various facts which we can infer from this text. First of all, it establishes the fact that marriage, in the sense of a constant union between husband and wife, was not a general institution among the Eastern Slavs. With the exception of the more civilised Polians, no other tribe is stated to have any notion of it. Of course this does not mean that all alike were entirely ignorant of the meaning of family life. It only means that their, mode of constituting a family did not correspond to the idea which the author, who, as we have said, was a monk, entertained as to matrimonial revelations. The Radimich, Viatich, and Sever captured their wives after having previously come to an agreement with them. This certainly is a method which would meet with the approval of a Christian, but nevertheless it is marriage. We have before us an example of what ethnologists have named “marriage by capture”.
The Drevlians were even less advanced as regards the intercourse between the sexes. They also had games at which women were captured, but not a word is said about any covenant entered into by the captor and his supposed victim. Neither is any mention made of these games being held on the boundaries or outskirts of villages—a fact which would point to the existence of a sort of exogamy forbidding unions between persons of the same gens . In the description which the chronicler gives of the Drevlians we have an instance of an almost unlimited licence, whilst in that of the Radimich, Viatich, and Sever, we find a picture of an exogamous people; contracting marriage by capture, and yet retaining from the period of almost unlimited licence a sort of family communism, which appears in the relations between fathers and daughters-in-law.
No trace of this either limited or unlimited promiscuousness is to be found among the Polians, who, according to our old chronicler, “conducted themselves with much reserve” towards daughters-in-law and sisters-in-law, towards mothers and fathers, towards fathers-in-law and brothers-in-law. They seem to have been an exogamous tribe like the Radimich, Viatich, and Sever, their wives being brought to them from outside their own gens . Unlike the tribes just mentioned, they did not, however, procure them by capture. It was not the custom for the bridegrooms to go in search of their wives; they received them from the hands of the parents of the women, and they then paid the sum of money previously agreed upon. This means that their mode of constituting marriage was by buying their wives. The words of the chronicler concerning these payments are far from being clear, and Russian scholars have tried to interpret them in the sense of “dower” brought by the relatives of the wife. But it has been recently proved that no mention of “dower” is to be found in Russian charters before the fifteenth century, and that the word veno used in mediæval Russian to designate the payment made on marriage, has no other meaning than that of pretium nuptiale , or payment made by the bridegroom to the family of the bride.  The words of Tacitus concerning the dos paid amongst the German tribes by the future husband to his wife’s father, give precisely the meaning of the old Russian “ veno ”, and throw a light on the sort of payment which the chronicle of Nestorhad in view when speaking of the matrimonial customs of the Polians.
The testimony of our oldest chronicle concerning the different forms of matrimony among the eastern Slavs deserves our closest attention, because it is, in all points, confirmed by the study of the rest of our old written literature, of our epic poems, of our wedding-songs, and of the matrimonial usages and customs still, or lately, in existence in certain remote districts of Russia. The Drevlians are not the only Slavonic tribe to which the mediæval chronicles ascribe a low state of morality. The same is asserted of the old Bohemians or Czechs, in the account given of their manners and customs by Cosmus of Prague, a Latin annalist of the eleventh century, who says:
Connubia erant illis communia. Nam more pecudum singulas ad nodes novos probant hymenaeos, et surgente aurora . . . . ferrea amoris rumpunt vincula”
This statement is directly confirmed by that of another mediæval author, the unknown biographer of St. Adalbert. This writer ascribes the animosity of the Bohemian people towards the saint to the fact of his strong opposition to the shameful promiscuousness which in his time prevailed in Bohemia. It is confirmed, also, by the monk of the Russian Abbey of Eleasar, known by the name of Pamphil, who lived in the sixteenth century. Both speak of the existence of certain yearly festivals at which great licence prevailed. According to the last-named author, such meetings were regularly held on the borders of the State of Novgorod on the banks of rivers, resembling, in that particular, the annual festivals mentioned by Nestor. Not later than the beginning of the sixteenth century, they were complained of by the clergy of the State of Pscov. It was at that time monk Pamphil drew up his letter to the Governor of the State, admonishing him to put an end to these annual gatherings, since their only result was the corruption of the young women and girls. According to the author just cited, the meetings took place, as a rule,the day before the festival of St. John the Baptist, which, in pagan times, was that of a divinity known by the name of Jarilo, corresponding to the Priapus of the Greeks. Half a century later the new ecclesiastical code, compiled by an assembly of divines convened in Moscow by the Czar Ivan the Terrible, took effectual measures for abolishing every vestige of paganism; amongst them, the yearly festivals held on Christmas Day, on the day of the baptism of Our Lord, and on St. John the Baptist, commonly called Midsummer Day. A general feature of all these festivals, according to the code, was the prevalence of the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes. How far the clergy succeeded in suppressing these yearly meetings, which had been regularly held for centuries before on the banks of rivers, we cannot precisely say, although the fact of their occasional occurrence, even in modern times, does not tend to prove their complete abolition. More than once have I had an opportunity of being present at these nightly meetings, held at the end of June, in commemoration of a heathen divinity. They usually take place close to a river or pond; large fires are lighted, and over them young couples, bachelors and unmarried girls, jump barefoot. I have never found any trace of licentiousness; but there is no doubt that cases of licence used to occur, though seldom in our time. That a few centuries ago they were very frequent has been lately proved by some curious documents preserved in the archives of some of the provincial ecclesiastical councils, particularly in those existing in the government of Kharkov. According to these documents, the local clergy were engaged in constant warfare with the shameful licentiousness which prevailed at the evening assemblies of the peasants, and more than once the clergy succeeded in inducing the authorities of the village to dissolve the assemblies by force. The priests were often wounded, and obliged to seek refuge in the houses of the village elders from the stones with which they were pelted. These evening assemblies are known to the people of GreatRussia under the name of Posidelki, and to the Little Russians by that of Vechernitzi.
The licentiousness which formed the characteristic feature of these meetings throws light on the motives which induce the peasants of certain great Russian communes to attach but small importance to virginity. Russian ethnographers have not infrequently mentioned the fact of young men living openly with unmarried women, and, even in case of marriage, of giving preference to those who were known to have already been mothers.
However peculiar all these facts may seem, they are very often met with among people of quite a distinct race. The Allemanic populations of the Grisons, no longer ago than the sixteenth century, held regular meetings which were not less shameful than those of the Cossacks. The “Kilbenen” were abolished by law,  but another custom, in direct antagonism to morality, continued to exist all over the northern cantons of Switzerland and in the southern provinces of Wurtemberg and of Baden. I mean the custom known under the name of “Kilchgang” or “Dorfgehen”, which, according to the popular songs, consisted in nothing else than the right of a bachelor to become the lover of some young girl, and that quite openly, and with the implied consent of the parents of his sweetheart. May I also mention a similar custom amongst the Welsh, known as “bundling”? I am not well enough informed as to the character of this custom to insist on its resemblance to those already mentioned. The little I have said on the German survivals of early licence may suffice to establish this general conclusion: that the comparative immorality of Russian peasants has no other cause than the survival amongst them of numerous vestiges of the early forms of marriage.
Another feature of the matriarchal family, the lack of any prohibition as to marriages between persons who are sprung from the same father or grandfather, is also mentioned more than once by early Slavonic writers. Such marriages were not prohibited by custom among the old Bohemians or Czechs. “Populus miscebatur cum cognatis,” says the biographer of St. Adalbert. They are also frequently mentioned in the epic poems of our peasants, the so-called bilini , of which the late W. R. S. Ralston has given to English readers an accurate and profound analysis. I will quote certain passages from these poems to give you the facts on which my theory is based.
One of the most celebrated heroes of our popular ballads, Ilia Mourometz, encounters one day a freebooter named Nightingale (Solovei Razboinik). “Why”, asks the hero, “do all thy children look alike?” Nightingale gives the following answer: “Because, when my son is grown up, I marry him to my daughter; and when my daughter is old enough, I give her my son for a husband, and I do so in order that my race might not die out.” Another popular ballad, representing the evil customs of former days, describes them in the following manner:
“Brother made war upon brother,
Brother took sister to wife.”
Endogamous marriages still occur in a few very remote parts of Russia. Such is the case in certain villages in the district of Onega, and especially in that of Liamika, where the peasants do their best to infringe the canonical prescriptions which disallow marriage between blood relations to the fourth degree inclusively. The same has also been noticed in certain parts of the Government of Archangel, quite on the shores of the White Sea, where the peasants are in the habit of saying that marriages between blood relations will be blessed with a more rapid increase of “cattle”—the word “cattle” standing in this case for children. In some provinces of Siberia, and in the district of Vetlouga, which belongs to the government of Nijni Novgorod, endogamous marriages, though contrary to the prevailing custom, are looked upon with a favourable eye. 
Another fact which deserves the attention of all partisans of the theory of the matriarchate, first promulgated by McLennan , is the large independence enjoyed by the Slavonic women of old days. Let me first quote the words of Cosmus of Prague, which relate to this subject, and then show you what illustration they find both in written literature and in popular ballads and songs.
“Non virgines viri, sed ipsæmet viros, quos et quando voluerunt, accipiebant.”
This freedom of the Bohemian girls to dispose of their hearts according to their own wish, shows the comparative independence of the Bohemian women at that period.
The oldest legal code of this people, the “ sniem ”, seems to favour this independence, by recognising the right of the women to be free from any work, except that which is connected with the maintenance of the household. 
Confronted with the facts just brought forward, the popular legend, reported by Cosmus in his chronicle, of a kind of Bohemian Amazons, who took an active part in the wars of the time, appears in its true light. Free as they were from the bonds of marriage, not relying on husbands for the defence of their persons and estates, the old Bohemian Amazons were probably very similar to those warlike women who still appear in the King of Dahomey’s army, and who in the time of Pompey were known to exist among certain autochthonic tribes of the Caucasus. A fact well worth notice is, that the memory of these bellicose women is still preserved in the traditions of the Tcherkess, who call them by the name of “emcheck”. Giantesses, wandering by themselves through the country, and fighting the heroes they met on their way, are also mentioned more than once in our popular ballads, or bilini. The name under which they are known is that of “polinitzi”, the word pole meaning the field, and in a secondary sense the battle-field.
Like the Bohemian girls described by Cosmus of Prague, these Russian Amazons chose their lovers as they liked.
“Is thy heart inclined to amuse itself with me?” such is the question addressed to Ilia Mourometz by one of these Amazons, the so-called beautiful princess. “Be my husband and I will be thy wife,” says another of these polinitzi , Anastasia the Beautiful, to the paladin, Theodor Tougarin. It is not the freebooter Nightingale who chooses his wife, nor the paladin Dobrinia who is going in search of a bride; both are represented as accepting the offers of betrothal made to them by the Russian Amazons Zaprava and Marina. 
Evidence of still greater importance is that of the French writer, Beauplan, who, speaking of the manners and customs of the inhabitants of Little Russia during his time, the latter half of the seventeenth century, states as follows:
“In the Ukraine, contrary to the custom of all other nations, the husbands do not choose their wives, but are themselves chosen by their future consorts.”
I hope I have now given an amount of information, sufficient to answer the purpose I have in view; which is no other than to show that, in a low state of morality, communal marriage between near relations and endogamy went hand in hand, amongst the early Slavs, with a considerable degree of independence among the weaker sex.