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Polemical Writings. Joseph of Volokolamsk


In the sixteenth century in Russia a new type of literature became widespread, namely, works dealing with current political issues, or, to use a later term, polemical works.

Joseph of Volokolamsk. The first work of sixteenth-century Russian polemics was a book written at the very beginning of the century that played a most important role in the history of Russian social thought. This was The Book Against the Novgorodian Heretics (later entitled The Enlightener) by the abbot of the Volokolamsk Monastery Ivan Sanin (Joseph of Volokolamsk). It was the main work attacking Novgorodian-Moscow heresy of the late fifteenth and the early sixteenth century, which served as a kind of bill of indictment in the condemnation of heretics at the council of 1504.25 At the end of the fifteenth century Joseph of Volokolamsk and his followers did not enjoy the support of the grand prince in the struggle against the heretics; this was connected with Ivan Ill’s plans for restricting monastery landownership. In his early works written at the end of the fifteenth century Joseph even urges opposition to the “torturer tsar” who has insulted the Christian faith. He supported Ivan IIFs opponent, the appanage Prince of Volok. But after the suppression of the heretics in 1504 the former denouncer of tsardom became its zealous protector and declared that “in power the tsar is like unto God, the Most High • A few years later Joseph broke with his former patrons, the appanage princes of Volok, and announced that his monastery would henceforth be under the direct authority of the grand prince. Joseph of Volokolamsk’s last writings attack the Prince of Volok and his protector, Archbishop Serapion of Novgorod.

Joseph of Volokolamsk is, first and foremost, a polemicist and denouncer, his style is high-flown and lofty. In his defence of Orthodox religious doctrine, Josep bases his arguments entirely on Holy Writ and the works of Byzantine religious writers; quoting them as his authority, he develops his arguments logically an consistently. His logic and extensive reading in theology enable us to see Joseph as a kind of Russian representative of mediaeval scholastics. The principle of systematic analysis of all points raised by his adversaries was later borrowed from Joseph by other sixteenth-century polemicists (Ivan the Terrible, for example).

There are passages in Joseph’s writing in which one senses the colloquial speech of the day. Thus, in an epistle to the okolnichy (Okolnichy—a court post and rank in Old Russia.) Boris Kutuzov, Joseph very vividly and expressively accuses the appanage Prince Theodore of Volok, who persecuted monastery, of robbing “town and country folk”. He describes, for example, how prince Theodore extorted money from the widow of a “trading man”. “And Prince Theodore bade them torture her. And she told them everything, where she kept what, and he took all her money…” Joseph begged the prince not to leave the widow penniless. The prince promised to send her something. But all he sent her was “five fritters from dinner, and four fritters for the morrow, and did not give her back any of the money. And her children and grand-children still go begging round the houses to this day…”26