"A Chicken Is Not A Bird"

Feminine Personal Names in Medieval Russia

By Paul Wickenden of Thanet

The old Russian folk saying, "A chicken is not a bird and a woman is not a person," along with such wisecracks as "I thought I saw two people on the road, but it was just a man and his wife," points to a tradition of misogyny and a tendency to marginalize women in Russian traditional culture. The lack of status granted to women is more than a historical footnote. It is also an important barrier in identifying period bynames for them -- a necessity as the College of Arms requires people to submit a given name and at least one byname. Nonetheless, the two subjects are difficult to separate. As I have noted previously:

It is extremely difficult to document period patronymics for women.... Women lacked legal status and therefore did not really need to be differentiated from each other.... Only after the land reforms of 1714 under Peter the Great did women generally receive the right to own land and thereby the privilege of being addressed (like men) with a full forms (including given name, patronymic, and surname). (Wickenden, 1993: 40)

Yet it is precisely this pre-Petrine period that interests us. What would a period Russian woman's name look like? What constructions are plausible?

Documentary evidence is sparse. The women whose names are preserved often are simply treated as appendages of their male relatives. Bæcklund (1956: 24) explains why:

When the need was felt for a more precise description of a man, various means could be used other than patronymics, pointing to his social position, governmental function, political allegiance, occupation, trade or profession. With a woman such possibilities were limited. She was, first of all, a member of her family. Consequently, pro foro externo, outside the family, the indication of the head of her family, added to her Christian name, was the surest and the most natural means of her identification.

Yet this finding may not actually be discouraging. It can in fact document a certain type of name construction that might prove interesting to women in the SCA looking for Russian personae. Using predominantly 16th and early 17th century legal records (published as part of the Russkaia istoricheskaia biblioteka series, in volumes II, XII, and XIV -- hereafter cited by volume number only), I will present in this article a number of documentable patterns. Feminine bynames for earlier periods are rare to non-existent, so it is best to stick to this late period.

Before we embark further, though, two points need to be made. First of all, bynames were not generally used in oral communication in Russia. The birchbark documents of Novgorod provide ample proof of this assertion (as do the actual transcripts of the court records examined herein). Rather, bynames were used almost exclusively by scribes in written accounts. In everyday usage, women were known only by their given names. Therefore, the legal records (when they are quoting actual testimony) rarely give a more complete account than "my mother, Dar'ia" [mat' moia Dar'ia] (1563) [XIV 63] or "his little daughter Fedos'ia" [ego dochka Fedos'ia] (1635) [II 596]. The elderly are not usually referred to with any great ceremony, but simply as "the crone Orina" [baba Orina] (1566) [XIV 74]. Needless to say, the young do not merit better, as in a reference to "my daughter Mar'ia, suckling" [moia doch' Mar'ia, u grudei] (1623-4) [II 625]. Most of the time, only one name is mentioned in the records. In oral usage, only a single reference can be found to a proto-byname construction, when a husband introduces his wife to the court as "my wife [who is] called Orenka, and Khlopyr's daughter" [moia zhena Orenkoiu zovut, a Khlopyreva doch'] (1612) [XIV 608].

Secondly, registration with the SCA College of Arms is also only for written purposes. How many Spanish/Welsh/Italian personas out there use their four-element names in conversation? Most of us use only our given names at events. Full names are for court and for written communication. Therefore, while the byname constructions in this article were probably never used in spoken conversation, they are still appropriate for registration within the Society.

Basic Bynames

In Wickenden (1993 and 1994), I described the standard patronymic/surname constructions for women's names as follows: 1) feminizing a masculine patronymic (i.e., -ova/-eva endings on the given name of the father); 2) adding the word "doch'" [daughter] to the first construction; and 3) the -ovna/-evna ending on the father's given name (used in modern Russian for feminine patronymics). The first form can be found in these documents, although it is rare. Examples include: Anna Vasilchikova (1585-6) [II 294], Ogrofena Rechkina (1623) [II 481], and Euprakseia Chebotova (1585-6) [II 306]. The third form is even more rare, but is found in the examples of Marfa Ivanovna (1618) [II 357] and Princess Evdokeia Luk'ianovna (1643) [XII 227].

Far more common in these late period documents is the second form (patronymic + "doch'"). Some examples include: Varvara Zakhar'ina doch' (1617) [XII 159]; Makrina Dmitrieva doch' (1570) [XIV 83]; and Akilina Leont'eva doch' (1617) [XIV 249]. Surnames could be added on as a third element, as testified by the example of Katerina, Karpova doch' Korotkova (1609) [XIV 591] and Marina Grigor'eva doch' Iarygina (1568) [XIV 82]. There are even cases where a woman's famous father and grandfather are cited by the records, like Fevron'ia Kuzmina doch', Dmitreeva vnuk (1570) [XIV 83-4] (the latter element is in fact an error as "vnuk" means grandson, not granddaughter -- the correct form would be "vnuka" or "vnuchka").

In addition to being named after one's father, upon being married, many women became known through their husbands. The actual grammatical constructions were similar, except for the replacement of "doch'" with "zhena" [wife]. The examples found also include the husband's patronymic/surname added as an extra byname: Katerinka Stepanova zhena Proniakina (1538-9) [II 780] and Marina Ovdeeva zhena Laikina (1617) [XIV 249]. In these cases, Katerinka is the wife of Stepan Proniakin and Marina is the wife of Ovdei Laikin. As these women grew older, they might undergo yet another reincarnation and be known by their son's names instead of their husbands, in which case the word "mat'" [mother] would be substituted in the above constructions with the relevant patronymic form. "Vdova" [widow] and "devka" [mistress/servant] are also found in the records (and are cited in particular cases below).

There was also no reason why a woman could not described using a combination of her father's and her husband's name, leading to a multitude of possibilities: Varvara Avdeeva doch', a Stepanova zhena Ivanova (1610) [XIV 207]; Avdot'ia Grigor'eva doch', a Petrova zhena (1612) [XIV 210]; and Irinka Nazarova doch', a Grigor'eva zhena Kuznetsova (1606) [XIV 572]. In each case, it seems that even the scribe found the name a bit excessive, as he put a comma between the elements and added the conjunction "a" [but/and]. The result could be translated in the first instance as "Varvara Avdei's daughter, and the wife of Stepan Ivanov."

Just to make life more complex, word order does not appear to be very important and the bynames could appear at the beginning of names just as easier as at the end. The results are rather tedious to decipher: Ogeeva Proskurniana (1613) [XIV 611] (Proskurniana is the mother of Ogei); Onisimova zhena Sudakova Anna (1623-4) [II 649] (Anna is the wife of Onisim Sudakov); Volkhova vdova Olekseeva zhena Shvanova Nastas'ia (1623-4) [II 649] (Nastas'ia is the wife of Oleksei Shvanov and the widow of Volkhov); Avdeeva zhena Zheronkina vdova Mar'ia (1623-4) [II 650] (Mar'ia is the widow of Avdei Zheronkin -- the extra "zhena" here seems to be merely to stress the point); Lukina mat' Murina Antonidka Vasil'eva doch' (1634-42) [II 734] (Antonidka is the mother of Luka Murin, and the daughter of Vasilii); and Trenkina zhena Fedorka Ivanova doch' (1634-42) [II 734] (Fedorka is the daughter of Ivan and the wife of Trenka).

To sum up, then, these documents not only show ample cases of the byname constructions discussed in my previous works, but also point out a high degree of flexibility in actual application.

More Complex Forms

Other variants, not previously mentioned in my research, are the use of 1) adjectival bynames; and 2) genitive bynames. These two forms are not true patronymics, but rather cases in which the father's/husband's/son's name serves as a modifier. The case of adjectival forms will be most clear to begin with. Tret'iakovskaia zhena Sapozhnika (1613-8) [XII 16], then, means "Tret'iakov's [or Tret'iak's] wife Sapozhnika." These forms are constructed by taking the husband's surname (or given name transformed into a patronymic in some cases) and turning it into an adjective. In this case done by taking Tret'iakov and adding -skaia (the feminine adjectival ending).

There was no reason why the adjectival form could not be combined with one or more of the more basic forms, as in Mar'ia, a Druzhininskaia zhena Vakhneva (1607) [XIV 579] and Mar'ia Mikhailovskaia zhena Agramakova (1567) [II 42]. There are also cases where the father is named in a standard patronymic, but the husband is named adjectivally: Neonila Sozont'eva doch', a Evseevskaia zhena (1608) [XIV 190] and Matrena Isakova doch', a Semenovskaia zhena (1618) [XIV 290]. The husband's surname is even added on at the end as well: Fevroniia Fokina doch', Mikhailovskaia zhena Spasenieva (1618) [XIV 270] and Minodora Fedorova doch' Elizarova, Fedorovskaia zhena Kherpina (1618) [XIV 283].

The genitive construction (i.e., the second variant) is a special case, because while the adjectival form may represent more of an identifier than an actual "true" byname, the genitive form is even less likely to have been considered part of the original name. Mikhaila Gulianskogo zhena Anna (1623-4) [II 624] literally means "Mikhail Gulianskoi's wife Anna" and Olekseia Lvova devka Tanka (1623-4) [II 625] is "Oleksei Lvov's mistress Tanka." In other words, the descriptives are precisely that and rather far away from true bynames. Yet this genitive-based form creates another option for byname construction. Grammatically speaking, in these cases, the man's name generally precedes his relationship to the woman and her name: Petra Volosheninova vdova Olena (1623-4) [II 624] (Petr Volosheninov's widow Olena) and Luk'iana Bukolova zhena Anna (1623-4) [II 624] (Luk'ian Bukolov's wife Anna).

Complexities, of course, abound and this form was intermixed with the others, as in: Avdot'itsa Vasil'eva doch', a Kirilovskaia zhena Sidorova syna (1603) [XIV 540] ("Avdot'itsa daughter of Vasilii, and the Kiril wife of the son of Sidor -- an example which presents all three possibilities in one name) and the rather confusing Princess Alena Stepanovna kniazia Petrova zheny Barisavicha Zasekina (1624) [II 982] whose name is Alena Stepanovna (i.e., daughter of Stepan) but who is also identified as the wife of Prince Petr Barisavich Zasekin -- using an ungrammatical double genitive construction (literally, "of Prince Petr Barisavich Zasekin's wife").

In this maze of identifiers some women even lost their identity altogether. There are numerous references to women which omit their given names in favor of their bynames: Vasil'eva zhena Obrezkova (1615-9) [XII 35]; Ortem'evskaia zhena Vereshchagina (1617) [XII 159]; and Fedorova Babkina (1551) [XIV 50] -- or literally, "Vasilii Obrezkov's wife," "Ortemii Vereshchagin's wife," and "Fedor Babkin's [wife/daughter/mother -- the relationship is not made clear]." Obviously, this particular variant, while period, is not registerable in the Society because of our requirement that clients submit a given name.

Finally, identifying family ties was not necessarily solely a patriarchal affair. While I was unable in previous work to find the use of a metronymic with a woman's personal name (i.e., a woman named after her mother) (Wickenden, 1993: 41), I have at long last documented that possibility. We find Sof'ia, Mar'ina mat' (1614) [XIV 230], the mother of Mar'ia, Ermolina doch' (1614) [XIV 229]. In this case, the mother is named after the daughter, but the structure and the principle are the same. It shows that (at least on one occasion) scribes were not adverse to the practice of matrilineal bynames.


This article, then, presents a number of possible feminine byname constructions. To illustrate the multitude of possibilities, let us consider a true historical example. Two sisters, Ul'iana and Evdokseia, whose lives are recorded in one of the documents (1617) [XIV 331] make a fine case. Their father's name was Ignatii Antsyforov syn. At birth, the eldest daughter, Ul'iana, could have been referred to as:

In actuality, the scribe called her, Ul'iana Ignat'eva doch' Antsyforova syna.

At an early age, she was married off to Boris Vasil'ev syn Popov at which point, she could have been still called by her old name or have her bynames changed to match her new master:

Her name also could have preserved her father's name at the same time, and been one of the following (or a variation thereof):

In actuality, she was called, Ul'iana Borisova zhena Vasil'eva syna Popova and her sister, who married Miron Kozmin syn Shvakova became known as Evdokseia Mironova zhena Kozmina syna Shvakova. In any case, the actual order of the name elements was fairly unimportant and could be juggled around as desired. The important consideration to the scribe was simply that the woman be properly identified, so that she would not be confused with others. The multitude of different ways in which she could be linked to her family points out the great latitude with which medieval writers operated.


Bæcklund, Astrid. 1956. "The Names of Women in Medieval Novgorod." In For Roman Jakobson. The Hague: Mouton & Co. Pages 19-24.

Russkaia istoricheskaia biblioteka, vol. II. 1875. Saint Petersburg.

_____________, vol. XII: Akty kholmogorskoi i ustiuzhskoi eparkhii (Part One). 1890. Saint Petersburg.

_____________, vol. XIV: Akty kholmogorskoi i ustiuzhskoi eparkhii (Part Two). 1894. Saint Petersburg.

Wickenden of Thanet, Paul [Paul W. Goldschmidt]. 1993. "Russian Names: Notes on Period Naming Practices." Proceedings of the Known World Heraldic Symposium, vol. II, pages 37-46.

_____________. 1994. A Dictionary of Period Russian Names. Mountainview, CA: Free Trumpet Press.

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