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Hagiographical-Biographical Tales


The “discovery of character” meant that writers of the first half of the seventeenth century began to assess their personages regardless of mediaeval convention, their status in the hierarchy.

A personage was assessed as an individual, not as a tsar, a general or a prelate. From here it was but a step to recognition of the value of the individual in general. The first attempts at the biography of a private person appeared. The authors of these attempts still write with one eye on hagiographical canons (for vitae remained the school of the biographical genre). But these canons were greatly modified, as we can see from the North Russian Lives of saints.10 Feats of piety were replaced by strange happenings that stretched the imagination. The stories centred round some extraordinary event. For example, as a guest at a banquet Nikodim Kozheozersky accidentally partakes of some poison prepared by a wicked wife for her husband. Varlaam Keretsky kills his wife in a fit of rage, thereby condemning himself to a terrible ordeal: he sails along the shore of the Kola Peninsula in a boat, alone with the corpse, until “the dead body began to rot away”. Persecuted by his superiors, Kirill Velsky drowns himself in the river in protest. Thus even a person who had committed suicide and whom the Church would not allow to be buried on consecrated ground or have prayers said for him, was associated in the popular mind with saintliness!

One of the main functions of hagiography was to portray examples for emulation. In the North Russian vitae this function is relegated to the background: it is difficult to imagine anyone deciding to emulate Varlaam Keretsky or Kirill Velsky. Saintliness is replaced by human suffering, the story arousing sympathy for the heroes, tears of compassion. North Russian locally revered saints are an early version of the literary type embodied in Dostoyevsky’s “insulted and humiliated”.

At the same time Platon Karatayev’s[1] predecessor, the “good man” type, appeared in hagiographical prose, for example, the heroine of The Tale of Juliana Osorgina written between 1620 and 1630.11

[1]  A character in Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

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