Drawing on an extant list of courtiers (1552) of the wife of the starosta of Žemaitija, references in correspondence, posthumous property inventories and individual pieces of legislation, the present article aims to illustrate the generalized composition of sixteenth-century noblewomen’s court in the GDL, and the functions of those attached to such courts. At the same time an attempt is made to determine the role of noblewomen in appointing officials and co-opting court members and, in general, establishing the limits of their rights and patronage.
The size of the court depended on the social position of the lady as its head – on the office held by her husband and on the role of the noblewoman herself in her family as well as on her personality. Minors were attended merely by a few servants, while the courts of married women and in particular those of widows comprised between 50 and 60 courtiers. As a rule, noblewomen’s courts consisted of several parts that functioned as a single unit: court officials, the male quarters (male courtiers and messengers), court specialists (medical practitioners, clergymen and musicians), the female quarters (ladies, young ladies and lady’s maids) and court staff (servants, craftsmen and coachmen). The role of the husband was crucial in the formation of noblewomen’s court. Noblewomen themselves could transform their court after the death of their husbands.
The maintenance of a large number of court members required massive investment on the part of noblewomen. Nevertheless, such investment, albeit without any obvious dividends, paid off ultimately. The court was a matter of their prestige; it was important in raising noblewomen’s status in society. A court enabled them to develop their clientele and to participate actively in public life and create their own home clientele. Through their mediation their clients could become clients of their husbands or of their friends of the same high social status.