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LITERATURE OF THE SECOND HALF OF THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY

 

The second half of the fifteenth century saw the forma­tion of a united Russian state. Novgorod and the extensive Novgorodian lands (which had an outlet for the White Sea and the Arctic Ocean) were joined to Muscovy, together with Tver, Yaroslavl, and other lands, and also Vyazma, Gomel and Cher­nigov, which were won back from Lithuania; in the early six­teenth century Pskov, Ryazan and Smolensk also joined the Russian state.

The formation of a united national state, the abolition of feudal disunity, and the strengthening of the monarchy were not only characteristic of Russia in the fifteenth century: the same processes took place at that time in England, France, Spain, Denmark and other states. This is roughly the period of the Renaissance and a little later the Reformation in Western Europe. The Renaissance was, first and foremost, the victory of the secu­lar trend in culture over the religious, the widespread intro­duction of secular subjects (including comical and satirical ones) from folklore into written literature, and a turning to the pre-Christian culture of Greece and Rome. A little later the widespread movement within the Catholic Church known as the Reformation began (in Germany, England and the North European countries, and in parts of France and Poland), the main consequence of which was the destruction of the monasteries and monasticism and the simplifica­tion and translation into national languages (from Latin) of church services.

Cathedral of the Assumption in the Moscow Kremlin. 1475-1479. Interior

Cathedral of the Assumption in the Moscow Kremlin. 1475-1479. Interior

Was the formation of a single state in Russia in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries connected with the Renaissance and Reformation movements? The political changes of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries coincided with profound changes in Russian culture. The fifteenth century saw the flowering of Russian architecture. The stone Moscow Kremlin which stands today is almost entirely a creation of the late fifteenth and the early sixteenth century. Icon-painting developed (the great Dionysius painted at the end of the fifteenth century). Important changes also took place during this period in Russian letters: expensive parchment was finally replaced by the much cheaper paper; it is in paper manuscripts no earlier than the fifteenth century that nearly all the works of Old Russian secular literature have survived. We have already noted Pre-Renaissance features in Russian culture of the fourteenth century. By the end of the fifteenth certain phenomena in Russian literature distinctly resem­bled those of the Renaissance and Reformation in Western Europe.

The fifteenth century, particularly the second half, saw a sharp increase in the number of secular works in Old Russian literature. There appeared translations (mostly Russian adaptations of South Slavonic texts) of mediaeval tales of chivalry and adventure. The first original works of Russian fictional narrative appeared.

We even know the name of a man who lovingly collected and copied this secular literature. It was a monk at the White Lake Monastery of St Cyril, the talented late-fifteenth-century scribe Euphrosyne. It was he who transcribed the oldest extant manuscripts of The Trans-Doniad, and The Tale of the Indian Empire and also a number of fifteenth-century works of fictional narrative: Solomon and Kitovras, the Alexandreid, The Tale of Dracula, verse condemning drunkenness, etc. In some cases Euphrosyne has obviously revised the work, compiling his own versions of chronicles and chronographs. Well aware that many of the works that came into his possession were considered “of little use” and “false” and even included in the special lists of books proscribed by the church, Euphrosyne copied these works notwithstanding, advising his readers not to read them in company and not to show them to “many”. Euphrosyne does not appear to have been a heretic or opponent of the church, but the range of his interests extended far beyond the limits set by official church ideology. In Euphrosyne’s manuscripts we also find tales of utopian lands inhabited by happy people (Brahmins) who have “no king, no nobles, no theft and no robbery…” 1

The fifteenth century was a time of heretical activity in Russia. Already by the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century the heresy of the Strigolniks (Shearers) appeared in Novgorod and Pskov, which attacked the greed of the clergy and appointment to ecclesiastical office in return for bribes. The name of this heresy would appear to be connected with the fact that its supporters did not recognise the former taking of monastic vows (postrig) and took them afresh.2 In the late fifteenth and the early sixteenth century heresy became widespread in Novgorod and Moscow. Novgorod and Pskov, where heresy first arose, were free cities, feudal republics where the townspeople were very active and played an important part in political life. In Novgorod heresy was widespread mainly among the lower clergy and minor church officers who had close links with the urban populace. Then heresy spread to Moscow and other cities. In Moscow it found support mainly in secular circles, beginning with the grand prince’s secretary Fyodor Kuritsyn and including some lower-ranking members of the administration. We know that they included a merchant. The heretics not only strove for reform of the church, but also showed great interest in secular culture; the books that circulated among them included Greek and Roman works. One of the chief heretics, Fyodor Kuritsyn, who dealt with foreign policy matters under Ivan III, was the author of a philosophical and grammatical treatise entitled The Laodicean Epistle.3

A most important element of Novgorodian-Muscovite heresy in the late fifteenth and the early sixteenth century was the rejection of monasticism and monasteries (in so doing the heretics quoted the Bible which contains no references to monasticism) and also criticism of the doctrine of the Trinity and the worship of icons. Some of the bolder heretics even went so far as to deny life in the hereafter, i.e., views of an almost atheistic nature.4

The influence of heresy on the culture of the late fifteenth century was considerable. In his Laodicean Epistle Fyodor Kuritsyn argued that man’s soul was “autonomous”, and was defended by faith. But what does this “autonomy” mean? Another work similar to The Laodicean Epistle and entitled The Writing on Literacy says that a person’s “autonomy” is realised in literacy: “Literacy is autonomy.”5 It is possible that Kuritsyn was also the author of one of the oldest known extant works of Old Russian fictional narrative, The Tale of Dracula (see below).

For a while the heretical movement in Russia received the support of the grand prince, who was himself striving to wrest the large land holdings away from the monasteries. But in the final analysis heresy seemed to threaten princely power too. The heretics were attacked by the leading churchmen of the late fifteenth and the early sixteenth century, Abbot Joseph of the Volokolamsk Monastery and a monk of the White Lake Monastery of St Cyril, Nilus of Sora. The literary work of these two men differed greatly. Joseph was, first and foremost, a defender of monasticism and supporter of large monasteries where the monks were not supposed to have any personal possessions and lived at the expense of the villages and peasants that belonged to the monastery. Nilus of Sora favoured a different form of monastic organisation: small retreats with separate cells for two or three people. Above all he concerned himself with perfecting the monastic way of life and studying the monks’ inner psychological state. In the struggle against heresy they were united, however, and Nilus of Sora even helped Joseph to write his main anti-heretical work, The Enlightener.

The early reformationist movement in Russia was unsuccessful because the basis of the reformationist movements of the late Middle Ages (as can be seen from West European history) were the towns, and in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Russian towns were not sufficiently developed. In 1504 the heretical movement was defeated and heretics punished. The isolated humanist elements in Russian culture did not lead to a Renais­sance in Russia.

This fact must be borne in mind if one is to understand the development of Russian literature in the second half of the fifteenth and the sixteenth century.

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