Economic Reconstruction or Corporate Raiding? the Borisoglebskii Monastery in Torzhok and the Ascription of Monasteries in the 17th Century

By Thyret, Isolde | Kritika, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Economic Reconstruction or Corporate Raiding? the Borisoglebskii Monastery in Torzhok and the Ascription of Monasteries in the 17th Century


Thyret, Isolde, Kritika


In spite of a recent revival of interest in medieval Russian monastic life, the administrative regime of Muscovite monasteries and hermitages and their political and economic aspirations are still incompletely understood. In seeking to counter the negative bias of Soviet-era studies of Russian monasteries, which focus primarily on monastic houses as landholding institutions that exploited their peasants, the Western and newer Russian scholarship has concentrated on the intellectual and cultural life of medieval Russian monasticism and rightfully stressed its spiritual aspects. (1) Due to the paucity of 17th-century sources, however, we still have only a vague understanding of how medieval Russian monasteries interpreted their various economic, political, and spiritual functions and resolved possible tensions among them. While scholars have investigated the rote and function of some of Russia's largest monasteries, such as the Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery, the Volokolamsk Monastery, and the Solovetskii Monastery, we lack studies for smaller regional monastic institutions. (2) Our understanding of medieval Russian monastic life is particularly murky for the 17th century, since the Time of Troubles left many of Russia's monastic institutions with their physical infrastructure destroyed or damaged, their servant population killed or dispersed, and even the number of monks severely reduced. Soviet statistical studies testify to the gradual recuperation of Muscovite monasteries in the century following the Troubles in spite of efforts by the tsarist government to curtail the acquisition of new properties by these institutions. (3) Scholars, however, have as yet gained little insight into the day-to-day struggle of individual monastic leaders to rebuild their institutions and the methods they employed to promote the economic expansion of their monasteries. In this context, one of the glaring gaps in our knowledge relates to the economic interactions of medium-sized monastic houses and their even less wealthy counterparts. The following study of the economic activities of the Borisoglebskii Monastery in the provincial town of Torzhok, as evident in property deeds, donation charters, petitions, and royal and ecclesiastical decrees, suggests that after the Time of Troubles the head of this medium-sized Russian monastery employed all traditional means available to place his institution once again on a sound economic footing. In the later 17th century, the Borisoglebskii leaders often functioned as shrewd entrepreneurs who manipulated property deeds to receive sanction for their takeover of smaller monasteries and hermitages. Confronted with resistance from the inhabitants and sponsors of these institutions, at least one Borisoglebskii archimandrite, in his campaign to build a successful spiritual house, was not above twisting the truth and using his influence at the Muscovite court to silence complaints about his ruthless exploitation of newly acquired territories.

The Borisoglebskii Monastery and the Time of Troubles

The first documentary evidence of the Torzhok Borisoglebskii Monastery, which seemingly dates back to the 12th century, appears in a charter by Ivan III from 6 April 1476, which assigns some of the Borisoglebskii lands to the archbishop of Novgorod. The monastery rose to prominence in the early 16th century when the Muscovite ruler granted it jurisdiction, except in matters of high crime, over the monastery's villages in the Torzhok region (uezd) and over a district in the Torzhok suburb (posad). (4) According to a royal charter dating from 30 January 1535, the grand prince's agents and soldiers were not allowed to enter the monastery's lands or take dues from it, and the monks were exempted from all obligations to provide hospitality or transport for them. (5)

The monastery's proximity to the town of Torzhok drew it into the town's politics and made the monks unintended targets during the raids the town experienced during the Time of Troubles. …

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