Women in the Genealogical Memory

What do we know about the nobles of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania? We can tell quite a bit about their political, cultural, military or economic achievements. A less familiar area is the genealogical self-awareness of the elite, i.e. how did they understand the lives of their ancestors and how did they express their own identity through their predecessors.

The feminine ties between extended family

Family trees and genealogical schemes are excellent tools to reveal genealogical self-awareness of the aristocracy of the GDL. They include only selected members of an extended family and only certain information about them. The comparison of genealogical sources of different extended families in the GDL provides clues as to who commanded most attention, who was left at sidelines and what differences and similarities of genealogical self-awareness existed. 

What role did women play in the genealogical memory of GDL’s aristocracy? Historians often, and rightly so, speak of elite extended families who took an active part in the political, cultural and social life of the state. This time we will focus on some lower-rank extended families and their female representatives. Women in lower-rank extended families were important at the time as family members tried to accomplish their individual aspirations.

A highborn woman was an object of a successful marital policy in the GDL because she was able to grant her husband’s family a prestigious status that would translate into its social ranking, official posts to family members and their social, confessional or cultural activity, let alone greater material wealth in the form of a dowry brought into a new family.

Genealogical sources of some extended families, such as Kochany and Lukomski, only include women in descriptions of later generations. That apparently reflects changes in the genealogical self-awareness of those extended families because the genealogical memory starts documenting not solely men but also women, namely spouses and daughters of the family’s men. By the way, the Lukomski family tree bears an illustration featuring a woman seated in an armchair.

Marriage opened the gate to the society

Women are particularly important for the Szweykowski extended family the originator of which, Kaspar Szweykowski, moved to the GDL from Podolia in the middle of the 16th century before marrying Fronckiewiczowna whose first name is unknown, a girl from an actively protestant family. The importance of women in the genealogical self-awareness of the Szweykowski family is related to their key role in extending the family’s network of social and confessional ties and in building closer links with other high-ranking extended families in the GDL – all through marriages. Ensuring its social status that way was particularly important for a family of lower-rank nobility arriving in the GDL from Podolia. Many more families sought social integration through marriage. Integration became a social phenomenon involving extended families of different nationalities. Just like the Szweykowski family, many families of lower-rank nobility have arrived in the GDL since mid-16th century. The family from Podolia could integrate into the local society of the nobility more actively and more expansively because of its broad network of marital ties. The Szweykowski family tree features official posts of the Szweykowski women, not men, although the “titles” of the Szweykowski daughters are in fact the official posts of their husbands.

Spiderwebs of family ties

The surviving Chrapovicki family tree depicts representatives of four generations of the extended family whose members were active mostly in the post of Voivode of Vitebsk, Mstislavl, and Smolensk and in the districts of Orsha and Kaunas. The tree includes both daughters and wives of whom Sofija Korzeniecka is worth singling out. Her first husband was Jan Chrapovicki, they had daughter Franciszka. Later Sofija married two more men. The Chrapovicki family tree shows, among other things, two generations stemming from her third marriage with Holynski. The fact that the family tree depicts female members of her former family indicates that women are a vital link in for the Chrapovicki to develop ties of the extended family. In this case, the family tree does not emphasise either blood relationship or marital bonds linking it to other extended families. Sofija’s case illustrates the wish of the Chrapovicki family to demonstrate its new ties with new members of her other two extended families through its former female member whose daughter Katarzyna Holynskaitė married into the families of Holynski and Aleksandrowicz. This is the way of showing the expansion of a genealogy through a woman.

Rich dowry makes for a good wife

Speaking of the genealogical aspect related to land ownership, it important to pay attention to the role of women in expanding their own land possessions because aristocrats in the GDL would base their genealogical self-awareness on wealth and the principle of the total land owned.

The land that a wife brings into her new family as a dowry or leaves to her husband in testament, is an important condition to upgrade the husband’s social status as a landlord.

Despite that, genealogical sources of aristocrats in the GDL very seldom indicate particular land plots acquired through marital ties. In most cases, land ownership is indicated next to the names of male members of an extended family, mostly beside the name of its originator, but the information on the origin of the land is missing. The Szalkowski extended family represents a rare exception. Its genealogical scheme bears the name of the family originator, Mikołaj Andrzej Szalkowski, who was a deputy lord Cupbearer in Vilnius. The inscription next to his name says that he received a village of Galminai in the present-day region of Zarasai through his wife Ona Micewiczowa: “Vilnius deputy lord cupbearer Mikołaj Andrzej Szalkowski [is] an inheritor of Galminai after the death of his wife Ona Micewiczowa.”

The information provided above is far from Western European chivalric romances and courtly love to the Beautiful Lady so plentifully adored by troubadours. Even in the times of the romantic love aristocrats, just like other people, would carry out obligations stemming from their background or social norms after each grand party or a secret meeting of a vassal with his suzerain’s wife. Aristocrats in the GDL had to consider the interests of their extended family rather than their own welfare while choosing wives in order to develop a sacred bond that is beneficial in different aspects. Ideally, the wife-to-be would possess all the three merits of the Beautiful Lady, the Wealthy Lady and the Highborn Lady.

Agnė Railaitė