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The Book of Degrees


The existence of deliberate invention in historical narrative is seen most clearly in the semi-official, mid-sixteenth-century work The Book of Degrees of the Tsar’s Genealogy.18 The Book of Degrees was compiled in 1560-1563 in the Macarius’ circle that produced The Great Menology and was similar to it in structure. It set out the whole history of Russia in the form of lives “of the God-appointed sceptre-holders shining in piety” and the life of each of these “sceptre-holders” or princes was seen in the form of a “rung” on the “ladder” to heaven, like the ladders described in Bible stories or hagiographical literature. All the Russian princes (ending with Ivan IV himself) appeared in The Book of Degrees as men full of “virtues pleasing to the Lord”. The desire to ascribe “piety” to all of them made it necessary to “amend” Russian history to a far greater extent than this was done in chronicle-writing. Under the influence of “political passions and worldly interests” chronicle writers frequently introduced changes into the accounts written by their predeces­sors, but such changes usually affected recent history only; they were more cautious about tampering with accounts of the distant past. Not so with the compilers of The Book of Degrees. Seeking to extol the whole dynasty of Kiev-Vladimir-Moscow princes, they turned boldly to the distant past, radically revising the descriptions of Ivan the Terrible’s ancestors and removing everything that did not fit in with a eulogy to them.

The attitude of the compilers of The Book of Degrees to historical material is seen not only in the changing of individual events described in the chronicles, but also in the creation (or borrowing from oral tradition) of new stories not found in chronicle sources. Such stories include, for example, the legend about Princess Olga which was put at the very beginning of The Book of Degrees as a kind of introductory story. Making use of legends not found in the literature of the preceding centuries and evidently derived from folklore, the author of The Book of Degrees began his account with the scene of the first meeting of the heroine who is “not of royal, nor of noble birth, but from the common folk”, with the young Prince Igor. Out hunting in the “Pskov region”, Igor wanted to cross a river. Seeing a boat, he summoned the rower to the bank and got into it. Only when they had set off from the shore did he notice that it was a girl, young but “comely and brave”; “and he did burn with desire for her, and uttered some bold words to her”. But Olga cut short his importunate speech, reproaching him “with a wisdom far beyond her years” and uttered a long speech: “Do not be tempted on seeing me, a young girl all alone…” This scene reminds one of the similar episode in The Tale of Peter and Febronia, but in the tale the heroine’s answer is mocking and witty, whereas in The Book of Degrees it is solemn and didactic. Olga’s words of wisdom caused Igor to change his “youthful” behaviour; but when the time came for them to find him a wife, “as is the custom of the state and tsardom”, Igor “remembered the most wondrous of maidens”, Olga, sent for her, “and they were joined together in holy matrimony”.19

In spite of the insertion of individual light-hearted scenes, The Book of Degrees is, first and foremost, an official, publicistic work. Its theme is the extolling of the ruling dynasty, its style—solemn and monumental.