A Sixteenth Century Will

Translated by Paul Wickenden of Thanet (1)

A will is an interesting historical document. It tells us a great deal about people's lives: what they believed as well as what they owed. Soviet archeologists and historians were obsessed with them for ideological reasons (part of the duty of a communist archeologist was to prove the economic conditions of various stages of history and thus confirm the Marxist-Leninist theory of material dialectics) and, as a result, large numbers have been reproduced. But wills tell so much more about everyday life.

I originally discovered this will while trying to document female sarafans to period (see my article "Are Sarafans Period?") but the entire text proves particularly interesting. For people more familiar with Western Europe, the most striking thing about this will is that it is from a woman and that she is giving her possessions to her granddaughter. Some random male relatives (her "descendent" [son?] Ivan) pick up some land, a few tubs and heavy implements, but the sheer bulk of her goods are being transferred in a matriachal line.

One can only guess at the reasons for this. Perhaps Mavra had tirelessly nursed her ailing grandmother and thus won the elder's favor. Or perhaps Mavra had been given an insufficient dowry by her parents and granny was trying to augment Mavra's appeal as a marriage prospect. Regardless, there is undoubtedly a juicy family story here. It seems unlikely, for example, that Ovdotia could be anything other than a paternal grandmother to Mavra (if Ovdotia had a living daughter, it would be quite a slap in the face to bypass her daughter in favor of her daughter's daughter for receipt of the family linens and kitchenwares). But again, we can only guess.

We can tell, however, that Ovdotia was a moderately rich widow. She has a moderate amount of real estate, including a fairly substantial homestead (called a dvor [court, palace] in the will) and she can afford servants -- both inside the home and in the fields. She possesses a rather large wardrobe of clothes (both hers and her [presumably deceased] husband's), fabric, kitchenwares and goods, and several acres of cultivated and uncultivated land.

But what really gives an indication of her standing is the audience of two priests, a sexton, and a scribe (as well as some incidental witnesses) that attend her recording of this will. The Church's interest is not purely altruistic (if it was, the attendance of her personal priest and a scribe probably would have been sufficient). They had a financial interest in this document. Not only does she bequeath fairly significant amount of land directly to the Church, but she also has included a clause that grants everything to the Church should her granddaughter Mavra pass away before she can inherit.

One question that is fair to ask is how much of this will was dictated in the words of Ovdotia? It is fairly likely that Ovdotia would have been able to write and read on her own, but it is more traditional for legal documents of the time to be drafted by a special ecclesiastic scribe. Such scribes knew the proper flourishes and formulae necessary in such documents and we can safely assume that the words are primarily his. The disorganized listing of items in the document, however, suggests a hastily created will. The most probable combination of events is that while Ovdotia lay on her death bed, these men drafted down her wishes as they popped into her head ("Give Mavrushka two towels. And give Vaniushka those old tubs. Oh, yes, and give Mavra my favorite shuba" etc etc). It lay with the scribe to record all this accurately and give it some semblance of order at the same time.

As for the translation provided here, I must humbly plead forgiveness for its failings. Sixteenth century Russian is not exactly taught in standard Russian classes. Even with extensive help from my colleague Predslava Vydrina (Masha Holl) and the use of both Dal's and Sreznevskii's dictionaries, I frequently had to wing it and guess a meaning. For one thing, sixteenth century Russian scribes apparently did not consider verbs to be very necessary and frequently omitted them. And many of the words used are archaic and/or have changed their meaning.

The Text:

30 December 1577

In the name of the father and the son and the holy ghost. Know that I, servant of God, Ovdot'ia Ivanova doch' Goluba, write this testament (while departing from this world) in sound body and mind, of to whom I give what and from whom I have taken what. Give to Iurii Cheliadnia in order to pay off a debt [kabala] (2) one and a half rubles of money, and give to Ushak, servant of the Solovetskii monastery, a ruble of money to pay off a debt [kabala].

The goods and chattels in my possession are as follows: in storage are ten barrels of barley malt, and in Pertnem in the lands of Ermoshinskoi are a half-obzha less one osmina of arable earth (purchased by deed), and a duck glade in the marsh in Pertnem itself and the field in Shermokshia (in all one osmina). (3) In Rakhnov there is a quarter obzha by deed with Kornoukh, and with Kostarii, and with Voronets in keeping. In Pertnem, there is a homestead with an entire estate in the Ermoshinskoi county (in which I live). And it is my wish to give this homestead and lands to the miracle worker of Solovka Spas, and to have them remember me in prayers and to write [my name] in the prayer book [senanik]. The value of these lands and homestead is twenty rubles.

Three puds (4) of rye have been planted in the earth at my Ermolinskoi lands, and this rye is to be given to my granddaughter Mavra Agafonova doch' in the summer. And with Senka Novoselov, I have lands, and a field, and arable earth which are without structures, and these arable lands and fields I give to my descendent Ivan Stepanov syn. And of the planted rye there I give a portion to Ivan, and a remainder of one and a half puds to my granddaughter Mavra. And a gelding, a spotted cow, and two calves I also give to my granddaughter Mavra.

A blue single-breasted caftan [odnoriadka] (worth forty altyn) (5), a necklace given to me by Mikhail Diatlev (worth twenty altyn), buttons (worth twenty altyn), a pair of earrings, two sarafans decorated and couched with white, thirteen woman's shirts [rubashka], a hat [shapka] of crimson damask linen, a boiar's shuba under cover, a featherbed, pillows, some venison, and all the utensils (both iron and copper), all this I give to my granddaughter Mavra. And six silver pins, some beads [proniski], and two silver crosses, all this I give to my granddaughter Mavra. And shoes (worth ten altyn) I give to my granddaughter Mavra. And three boxes and two towels [ubrus] I also give to Mavra.

And if the death of Mavra should serve God, and if my granddaughter should be without heirs, then these goods and chattels of which are written here in this testament (and those things which are placed on the altar after Mavra's death) should pass on to Solovka.

And to my descendent Ivan, I give an oven-door, a large vat, and two tubs. And a sledge, a travelling rug [polost'], and a horse's collar I give to my granddaughter Mavra. And that which is found in the clothing boxes is all to be given to my granddaughter Mavra. And to my grandson Veshniak I give a skewbald gelding, a horse's collar (worth ten altyn), two and a half rubles [poltina] in coin, and clothes that are his. And to my descendent Aleksandra in Ust'-Mosh' I give a stallion. And to Bogoiavlenii in Kozhozero I give a cow and a pair of calves. And I give two pigs to my granddaughter Mavra.

In Turchasovo, for reciting the prayers for the dead [sorokous'ia] (6), the best black single-breasted caftan [odnoriatka] and five boxes of barley [zhito], rye, and flour, and malt and bread shall be purchased. The account shall be paid, and the remainder given to my granddaughter Mavra (and I give a rabbit-fur to my granddaughter Mavra for the deed). From the cells of Spas and Nikola in the parish of Turchasovo, summon forth the poorest elder and elderess. And I order the Pertnem bailiff to see that all these goods are taken and given to the Solovetskii elder Ilinarkh so that things might be settled. Not that I am guilty to anyone for anything but rather for the glory of God and for my spiritual father who serves God.

To my granddaughter Mavra I give two icons: one of Zosim and Savatei and the other of Kozma and Dom'ian. And the remaining icon I give to my descendent Ivan. And the icon of Nikola in the church I give to the Nikola Monastery. And in Syvtozero, there is one eighth of a cottage (7) and in the house in Pertnem in storage there are ten sazhen (8) of netting and this netting and the portion of the cottage I give to my granddaughter Mavra and the remainder of the cottage I give to Ystoma Shumikhin.

And a shuba of rabbit-fur and heavy fabric I give to my granddaughter Okulina in Pertnem. And a boiar's shuba, a sermiaga (9), three shirts [rubakha], and three dresses [portka] all I give to my granddaughter Mavra. And this shuba, sermiaga, and shirts taken from my servant [kazak], as well as forty and three cubits [lokot'] of cloth [utiral'nikov] shall be given to my granddaughter Mavra.

And prior to this time, the possessions, which are to be given to my granddaughter Mavra by this testament, were promised to no one, neither to my grandchildren, nor my descendents, nor any of my other relatives.

And in this spiritual place sat my priest of Turchasovo's Transformation of the Savior Church Ontipa Semenov syn and other good people: Ivan Ivanov syn Panar'in and Ivan Ostaf'ev syn. And also sitting here were the Nikola Monastery of Turchasovo's priest Deonisei Ivanov syn, the sexton Konstiantin Zakhar'in syn, and Kirilo Stepanov syn Paltsova. This testament was written by Nikola's ecclesiastical scribe Matfeiko Vasil'ev syn in the year 7086 on the 30th day of December.

[on the back side:]

And here sat the priest of Turchasovo's Transformation Church Antipa Semenov syn, a spiritual father, and placed his hand. To this Nikola's priest Deonisei, the sexton Konstiantin, and Kirilko placed their hands.


(1) Copied in the seventeenth century and archived at LOII, kol 2, #146/1, ll. 309-12ob, reprinted as "#645: Dukhovnaia pertenemki Avdot'i Ivanovoi docheri Goluby," Akty solovetskogo monastyria: 1572-1584 gg, ed. I. Z. Liberzon (Leningrad: Nauka, 1990), pp. 101-2. My special thanks to Predslava Vydrina for her help and insights on obscure words and terms.

(2) A kabala is a loan which carried with it an obligation to perform labor if it was not paid in full by a specified time.

(3) An obzha is a measure of land of either 5 or 15 desiatinas (a desiatina is approximately 1.09 hectares) and basically the amount of land that one person with a horse can plow in one day. An osmin is about a quarter of a desiatina.

(4) A pud is a measure of weight of approximately 16.36 kilograms.

(5) An altyn is a three-kopeck piece and thus about 1/33 of a ruble.

(6) The sorokous'ia are forty days of prayers that are recited for the dead. One of their roles is for remission of sins "voluntary and involuntary, in word and in deed, committed in knowledge or ignorance" which (as we can see from what follows) is not the impression that Ovdot'ia wants to leave. Rather, she wants them recited to honor God, in order to preserve her reputation as a pious person.

(7) "One-eighth of a cottage" is a literal translation of osmaia dolia izby. I am unable to determine if there is some sort of alternative meeting. One thought is that she is referring to partial ownership of the cottage, but there is no historical indication that time-shares are period.

(8) A sazhen is a measure of length of approximately 2.13 meters.

(9) A sermiaga is a caftan made from course and heavy fabric.

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