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LITERATURE OF THE LATE FOURTEENTH AND THE FIRST HALF OF THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY

 

In the latter half of the fourteenth and first half of the fifteenth century, under the descendants of Ivan the Money-Bag, Moscow emerged more and more actively as the centre unit­ing the principalities of North-Eastern Russia. Moscow’s strug­gle for supremacy against rival principalities was accompanied by constant clashes with external enemies—the Horde and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The importance of the Moscow grand principality as the only real force capable of achieving the unifica­tion of the Russian lands and organising resistance to the Horde is seen most clearly in the 1370s and 1380s.

From 1359 to 1389 the throne of the Grand Prince of Moscow was held by Ivan the Money-Bag’s grandson, Dmitry, under whom the political and economic power of Moscow were greatly enhanced. Internal strife within the Horde became very acute at this time, weakening the enemy and assisting Russia’s struggle against Mongol overlordship. Moscow practically ceased to pay tribute to the Horde.

The Mongols took resolute steps to restore their wavering dominion. The temnik (military leader) Mamai, who had seized power in the Horde during the internal strife, sent a large force against Moscow in 1378. In a battle on the River Vozha the forces of the Grand Prince of Moscow defeated the enemy. This was the first serious defeat that the Mongols had suffered since the establishment of their rule. Two years later, in 1380, the Battle of Kulikovo was fought. Hordes of Mongols and mercenaries led by Mamai marched on the Moscow principality. As in the battle on the Vozha, the Russians advanced to meet them. Many apanage principalities of North-Eastern Russia allied with Moscow against the foe. A mighty battle, from which Russians emerged victorious, was fought on the Don (after which Dmitry became known as Dmitry Donskoy), on Kulikovo Field.

The rout of Mamai demonstrated the leading role of the Moscow principality and its grand prince in North-Eastern Russia and the military superiority of the united Russian forces to the enemy. The Batde of Kulikovo was of immense national and patriotic importance: it produced an upsurge of national aware­ness and inspired confidence that the Russians could cast off the hated Mongol supremacy. In 1382, two years later, Khan Tokhtamysh attacked Moscow, defeating it and restoring the payment of tribute. But neither this raid nor the subsequent Mongol incursions could shake the dominance of Moscow and the grand prince in the political life of the country. It is significant that when he bequeathed the grand principality to his eldest son Basil, Dmitry Donskoy was acting independently of the Golden Horde.

In the late fourteenth and first half of the fifteenth century, at the same time as the unification of the lands around Moscow, the number of apanages within the borders of the Moscow principality increased as a result of territory being divided up between a number of heirs. The princes who held these apanages recognised the authority of the grand prince. The grand prince sought to turn them into privileged landowners bound to serve him. This led to the outbreak of a feudal war in the second quarter of the fifteenth century which lasted for almost thirty years. In this war the reactionary apanage princes and boyars opposed the growing authority of the Grand Prince of Moscow. Apart from the apanage princes, the principality of Tver and the Novgorodian boyar republic took an active part in the struggle against Moscow. This feudal war was a bitter, cruel one, complicated by the constant struggle against the Horde. In the end the forces that were „regressive at that particular stage in history triumphed: the apanage and boyar opposition was defeated, and the power of the Grand Prince of Moscow consolidated.

All the most important historical events of the period were reflected in the literary works of the age.

To some extent or other the development of human culture is connected with the strengthening and enrichment of the individu­al element in it. The succession of historical formations mark stages in the liberation of man. In the age of feudalism man was liberated from the power of the clan, and after that in the period of the Renaissance from the power of the corporation and estate. Later he sought to free himself from the oppression of class. This process was assisted by various forms of the “discovery of man”, the recognition of his value as an individual.

In the age of early feudalism Old Russian literature was connected with the liberation of the individual from the power of the clan and the tribe. By becoming part of a feudal corporation, man grew conscious of his power. The hero of literary works of this period is a member of a feudal corporation, a representative of his estate. He is a prince, monk, bishop or boyar, and in this capacity he is portrayed in all his grandeur and corporate dignity. Hence the monumental nature of the portrayal of man.

The extent to which a person was valued as a member of a corporation in the period of early feudalism, the tenth and eleventh centuries, can be seen from Russian Law, where a blow with the hilt or the flat of a sword, a drinking horn or a goblet was considered several times more offensive than a wound that drew blood, because it expressed extreme contempt for one’s antagonist.1

But then came an age in Russian history when a person was valued irrespective of whether he belonged to a mediaeval corporation. There was a new “discovery of man”, of his inner life, his virtues, his historical significance, etc. In Western Europe this discovery took place with the development of commodity- money relations. At the same time as enslaving man, money in other respects liberated him from the power of the corporation. In principle anyone could acquire money, and it gave one power over others. Money broke down the corporative barriers and made the concept of corporate honour unnecessary.

In Russia the conditions for the liberation of the individual from the power of the corporation were created, on the one hand, by economic growth and the development of trade and handicrafts which led to the rise of the “town-communes” of Novgorod and Pskov, and on the other hand, by the fact that with the military conflicts and the bitter moral tribulations of Mongol overlordship inner qualities became valued increasingly: a person’s fortitude, devotion to his homeland and his prince, his ability to resist the offers of advancement with which the foreign authorities constant­ly tempted people to betray their country. The prince promoted competent military commanders, administrators, etc., irrespective of their origin and membership of a corporation. As we shall see later, the chronicle tells of the Surozh merchants who defended Moscow against Tokhtamysh and describes the bravery of a simple sacrist of the Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir who refused to hand over the church plate to the enemy. There are increasing references to the activity of the populace, the townspeople in particular, in the life of the state.

This explains why literature, and particularly hagiography, describes the inner life of an individual and pays increasing attention to the emotional sphere. Literature is interested in a person’s psychology, his state of mind. This leads to expressive style and dynamic description.

The expressive-emotional style develops in literature, and in ideology increasing importance is attached to “silence”, solitary prayer outside church, withdrawal to a monastery or hermitage. This seclusion of the individual, his withdrawal from society, was also in keeping with the development of the individual element.

These phenomena should not be identified with the Renais­sance, for religion dominated the spiritual culture of Old Russia right up to the seventeenth century. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there was still a long way to go to the secularisation of life and culture: the liberation of the individual took place within the framework of religion in Russia. It was the initial period of a process that, given favourable conditions, usually developed into the Renaissance or in other words the Pre- Renaissance.

The interest in man’s inner life, which demonstrated the transience, the vanity of all earthly things was connected with an awakening of historical awareness. History was no longer seen as a simple succession of events. In people’s minds at the end of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the very nature of the age was changing. This manifested itself, first and foremost, in the attitude to the foreign dominion. The idealisation of Russia’s age of independence began. Thinking turned to the idea of independ­ence, art to the works of pre-Mongol Russia, architecture to the buildings of the age of independence, and literature to the works of the eleventh to thirteenth centuries: to The Tale of Bygone Years, Metropolitan Hilarion’s Sermon on Law and Grace, The Lay of Igor’s Host, and so on.

Thus, pre-Mongol Russia, the Russia of the period of independence, became a kind of “age of antiquity” for the Russian Pre-Renaissance.

All mediaeval literature is characterised by abstraction, general­isation of phenomena, the urge to single out the general instead of the particular, the spiritual instead of the material, the inner, religious meaning of every phenomenon. The mediaeval method of abstraction acquired special significance during the Russian Pre-Renaissance, determining the method of portraying human psychology. Dmitry Likhachev has defined this feature of the literature of the Russian Pre-Renaissance as “abstract psycholo­gism”. “In the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century writers focused their attention on man’s psychological states, his feelings, his emotional responses to the events of the external world. But these feelings and states of mind were not yet moulded into characters. Individual manifestations of psychology were portrayed without any individualisation and were not shaped into psychology as such. The connecting unifying element—human character— had not yet been discovered, human character was still restricted by being put into one of two categories—good or bad, positive or negative.”2

The Pre-Renaissance phenomena that emerged in the first half of the fourteenth century in Russian cultural life became particularly evident at the end of the century and in the first half of the following one. The upsurge of national awareness after the Battle of Kulikovo produced a flowering of culture, arousing intense interest in the country’s past and the urge to revive national traditions and to strengthen Russia’s cultural contacts with other states. Russia’s traditional contacts with Byzantium and the Southern Slav countries were revived.

The monumental stone building that resumed in the first half of the fourteenth century acquired considerable dimensions by the end of the century. The fine arts, which was where Pre- Renaissance ideas manifested themselves most clearly, enjoyed a special flowering in the late fourteenth and first half of the fifteenth century. In the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century the great mediaeval painter Theophanes the Greek worked in Russia, whose painting brilliantly embodied the ideals of the Pre-Renaissance. In the churches of Novgorod, Moscow and other towns in North-Eastern Russia Theophanes painted frescoes that still impress us with their majestic, dynamic and austere figures.

The great Russian painter Andrei Rublev was working at the end of the fourteenth and in the first quarter of the fifteenth century. His activity is connected with Moscow and the towns and

monasteries around Moscow. Together with Theophanes the Greek and the elder Prochorus, he painted the frescoes for the Cathedral of the Annunciation in the Moscow Kremlin (1405). With Daniel the Black (his close friend) he painted frescoes and icons in the Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir (1408) and the Trinity Cathedral of the Trinity Monastery of St Sergius in Zagorsk (1424-1426). His famous Trinity icon belongs to the period of his work in the Trinity Monastery. Andrei Rublev’s painting radiates a profound humanism.

“The painting of this period,” writes Dmitry Likhachev, referring mainly to frescoes, “was enriched by new themes. Its subject matter became more complex and narrative, events were given a psychological treatment, painters strove to portray the emotions of the people involved in them, to stress their suffering, grief, longing, fear, joy and ecstasy. Biblical subjects were treated less formally, more intimately and prosaically.”

The overall spread of enlightenment, the awakening urge to find a rational explanation for natural phenomena led to the emergence of rationalistic movements in the towns. The Strigol- niks’ heresy appeared in Novgorod at the end of the fourteenth century. The Strigolniks (Shearers) rejected the church hierarchy and church ritual, and some of them appear not to have believed in the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead and the divinity of Christ. Their protests contained social undertones.

The cultural flowering of the late fourteenth and the fifteenth century led to an expansion of Russian cultural links with Byzantium and the Southern Slav countries (Bulgaria and Serbia). Russian monks frequently spent long periods in the monasteries of Mount Athos and Constantinople and a number of Southern Slavs and Greeks settled in Russia. Among those who played an important role in Russian literature of the late fourteenth and first half of the fifteenth century were the Bulgarians Cyprian and Gregory Tsamblak and the Serb Pachomius the Logothete. Many Southern Slav manuscripts and translations appeared in Russia during this period. Russian literature interacted closely with the literature of Byzantium and the Southern Slavs.

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