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The Lay of Igor’s Host


The Lay of Igor’s Host was discovered by the well-known collector of Old Russian manuscripts, Count Alexei Musin-Pushkin, at the end of the eighteenth century. The intensive study of this outstanding monument of Old Russian literature dates from that period. Today the list of books and articles about The Lay of Igor’s Host published in Russian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian and other languages of the peoples of the Soviet Union and also in other countries numbers hundreds of titles.105

Scholars have analysed the text of the Lay, its literary merits and language, they have examined the ideological conception of the work and the historical range of its author, and they have sought to explain the circumstances in which the manuscript of the Lay was discovered and the principles of its publication. Most of these questions have now been studied fully.

The Story of the Discovery and Publication of the Lay. The first published references to the Lay are by Mikhail Kheraskov, the poet and dramatist, and the historian and writer Nikolai Karamzin. In 1797 Kheraskov stated in a note on the text of his poem Vladimir: “A manuscript, entitled The Song of Igor’s Host, written by an unknown author has been discovered recently. Written many centuries before our day, it would seem, for it mentions the Russian bard, Boyan.” The same year in a journal published in Hamburg by French emigres, the Spectateur du Nord, Karamzin published a note that read, inter alia, as follows: “Two years ago in our archives a fragment was discovered from a poem entitled The Song to Igor’s Host, which may be compared with the finest Ossianic verse and which was written in the twelfth century by an unknown author.”

The Lay became known to Musin-Pushkin somewhat earlier than in 1794-1795 however. Pavel Berkov expressed the well- founded view that in the article “On the Innate Character of the Russian People” published in the February issue of the Zritel (Spectator) journal for 1792, the publisher Pyotr Plavilshchikov had the Lay in mind when he stated that “even in the days of Yaroslav, son of Vladimir, there were verse poems in honour of him and his children” 106 and said that, in spite of the devastation after the “barbarous Tartar invasion”, “these precious remains still exist to this day in the libraries of lovers of rare Russian antiquities and, perhaps, Russia will soon see them”.107 The following fact also points to these years as the time when the Lay was discovered. Musin-Pushkin made a copy of the Old Russian text of the Lay for Empress Catherine the Great who was interested at that time in Russian history. The text of the Lay was accompanied by a translation and notes. In these notes he made use of historical essays by Catherine herself, which were published in 1793. Since the notes contain no reference to a printed edition, it is likely that Catherine’s copy was made before 1793.108

How did the manuscript find its way into Count Musin- Pushkin’s collection? The count himself said that he had acquired it together with a number of other books from Archimandrite Joel of the Monastery of Our Saviour in Yaroslavl. It has recently been established that the miscellany containing the Lay did belong to this monastery and was included in an inventory of its manuscript books, but not later than 1788 it was “sent away” presumably for binding, according to an inventory (in the inventory for the following year the manuscript is already listed as “destroyed due to poor condition”). It was evidently sent away, directly or through Joel, to Musin-Pushkin.109

At the very end of the eighteenth century Alexei Musin-Pushkin together with the archivists Alexei Malinovsky and Nikolai Bantysh-Kamensky prepared the Lay for publication. It was published in 1800.110 Twelve years later, however, the whole of the count’s valuable collection of Old Russian manuscripts, including the miscellany with the Lay, perished in the fire in Moscow during the Napoleonic invasion. Part of the first edition of the Lay was also destroyed then: today there are about sixty copies of it in public libraries and private possession.111

The destruction of the only manuscript of the Lay made study of the work extremely difficult. The contents of the miscellany were not sufficiently clear, its date had not been established, and it transpired that the publishers had not reproduced the original text of the Lay altogether accurately. In several cases they had been unable to read certain passages correctly and had not noticed obvious errors in copying. It required considerable efforts from several generations of Russian and Soviet researchers to solve these problems.

The Contents of the Musin-Pushkin Miscellany. Mention is made of the contents of the miscellany in the introductory note to the edition of 1800. This gives only the titles of the works before and after the Lay, however, and they have been established by indirect evidence, in particular, with the help of extracts from tales included in the miscellany and quoted by Nikolai Karamzin in his History of the Russian State. It has now been established with a sufficient degree of probability that the miscellany began with a Chronograph of the Extended Redaction of 1617,112 followed by The Novgorod First Chronicle of the younger recension,113 the first redaction of The Tale of the Indian Empire,114 the earliest redaction of The Tale of Akir the Wise, The Lay of Igor’s Host, and the first redaction of The Deeds of Digenes. The composition of the miscellany is extremely interesting. The Lay is found together with works or redactions that are very rare in Russian literature. Thus, we have no other manuscript of the first redaction of The Tale of the Indian Empire, and only one more complete manuscript (fifteenth century) and two incomplete ones (fifteenth and seventeenth centuries) of the first redaction of The Tale of Akir the Wise. The Deeds of Digenes is known only from three manuscripts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, although it was translated not later than the thirteenth century.

Information about the date of the miscellany was conflicting. The publishers merely announced that the manuscript “was a very old one, judging by the script”. The orthography of the text of the Lay and the fragments of The Tale of Akir the Wise that we know because Nikolai Karamzin copied them out suggest that the manuscript was transcribed not later than the late sixteenth century. But the presence in the miscellany of the seventeenth- century chronograph suggests that the miscellany was a convolute, i.e., a manuscript consisting of two parts, one of which contained the chronograph of the seventeenth century and the other the chronicle and tales of an earlier period.115

It was most important to attempt to establish how accurately the Old Russian text of the Lay had been reproduced by the publishers. Pyotr Pekarsky’s discovery of the Catherine copy in 1864 made it possible to compare the text of this copy with that of the published version. It transpired that there were a large number of discrepancies between them. A study of the Catherine copy, the passages from the Lay copied out by Alexei Malinovsky and Nikolai Karamzin116 and an analysis of eighteenth-century publishing principles117 made it possible to conclude that in striving to reproduce the words (the sense units of the text) the publishers, in keeping with the spirit of their age, had deviated considerably from the actual script, i.e., the orthography of the Old Russian manuscript.

Moreover the publishers had not been able to read and reproduce the text accurately at times and had not always un­derstood the meaning of individual words. This explains why in the first edition of the Lay there were several obscure passages, which students of the Lay have been trying to decypher for more than a century and a half now. It proved relatively easy to correct the publishers’ errors,118 but the manuscript of the Lay, like all Old Russian manuscripts, undoubtedly had some obscure passages of its own, resulting from the scribe’s errors or damage to the text in the manuscripts that preceded Musin-Pushkin’s. There are not many such obscure passages, but it will probably not be possible to clarify them until another manuscript of the work is found.

That we know the Lay from one manuscript only should not be surprising. We have only one manuscript of Vladimir Monomachos’ Instruction and two of The Lay of the Ruin of the RussianLand. A number of works, particularly those written before the Mongol invasion, are known only from indirect evidence, as not a single copy of them has survived (for example, the Life of St Anthony of the Caves). Many works of this period have survived in rare and very late manuscripts, such as The Deeds of Digenes.

The Question of When the Lay Was Written. The question of the authenticity of the Lay and the date when it was writ­ten occupies an important place in research literature on the work.

Doubt as to the authenticity of the Lay arose after the manuscript was destroyed in the Moscow fire of 1812. At that time there were many reasons for the emergence of a sceptical attitude to the Lay having been written in the twelfth century. Firstly, at the beginning of the nineteenth century scholars still knew very little about Old Russian literature, and therefore the Lay seemed to them unnaturally advanced for the level of literary culture in the late twelfth century.119 Secondly, they were troubled by the obscure passages in the Lay, the abundance of incomprehensible words, which they sought to explain at first by reference to other

Slavonic languages, and this gave grounds for assuming that the author of the work was not an Old Russian writer, but, for example, a Western Slav. Thirdly, one reason for the emergence of doubts as to the authenticity of the Lay was the sceptical trend in Russian historiography during that period. The casting of doubt on the authenticity of the Lay was just one individual episode. Representatives of the sceptical school also challenged the age of the Russian chronicles, the collection of Old Russian laws entitled Russian Law, the works of Cyril of Turov, etc.120

In the middle of the nineteenth century The Trans-Doniad was discovered, the tale of the Battle of Kulikovo (1380) between the Russians and the Tartars of crucial importance for the Russian state. The language and imagery of this work were found to contain vivid parallels with The Lay of Igor’s Host. Since the oldest of the known manuscripts of The Trans-Doniad belongs to the late fifteenth century, doubts as to the authenticity of the Lay were quietened. However, in the 1890s the French scholar Louis Leger advanced the thesis that it was not the author of The Trans-Doniad who had imitated the Lay, but vice versa, the Lay was an imitation of The Trans-Doniad.121 This hypothesis was later developed in the writings of the French Academician A. Mazon,122 and subsequently became one of the main arguments of the Soviet specialist Alexander Zimin. Zimin believed that the Lay had been written on the basis of The Trans-Doniad in the eighteenth century by the Yaroslavl Archimandrite Joel from whom Musin-Pushkin acquired the miscellany with the Lay.

Alexander Zimin’s hypothesis was the most well-founded of the attempts to challenge the traditional view of the Lay as a literary work of Kievan Russia. Zimin examined a broad range of questions: he touched upon the reasons why the Lay could have been written in the eighteenth century, described the personality of the hypothetical author, examined the language of the work, in particular, the role of Turkisms in the vocabulary of the Lay, and dealt with the relationship of the Lay to The Hypatian Chronicle and other monuments of Old Russian literature, but paid special attention to the central question—the relationship of the Lay to The Trans-Doniad.123

After this discussion scholars again turned to a profound study of all the questions listed and it emerged that the facts testified indisputably to the authenticity of the work: the connection between The Trans-Doniad and the Lay, which served as a model for the former,124 is beyond doubt, and the relationships between the various manuscripts of The Trans-Doniad are different (in particular, the White Lake Monastery of St Cyril manuscript does not represent the first redaction of the work, as Zimin argued).125

The authenticity of the Lay is confirmed by an analysis of its language126 and a comparison of its grammatical structure with that of The Trans-Doniad.127 The Lay is closely connected with the historical reality of its age, and to ascribe it to the eighteenth century gives rise to a number of ideological and source discrepancies that are hard to explain.128 Even more striking is the aesthetic correspondence of the Lay to the spirit of the twelfth century and the obvious difference between its artistic nature and the perception and interpretation of historical subjects in the literature of the eighteenth century.129 The authenticity of the Lay is borne out by its relationship with The Hypatian Chronicle.130 The Turkisms in the Lay are archaic.131 The personality of Archiman­drite Joel gives us no grounds whatsoever for seeing him as the possible author of the Lay.152

In general the most recent discussion on the dating of the Lay was a fruitful one, since a more careful study was made of many different facts—textological, historical and linguistic—which con­firmed the traditional view of the Lay as a literary work of Kievan Russia.133

Let us now examine the text of the Lay.