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The Lives of Zealots of the Church


The Lives of zealots of the Church written in the second half of the thirteenth century can be characterised in general as works which followed the hagiographical canons more strictly than the princely lives of the same period. Examples of this are The Life of Abraham of Smolensk compiled by a certain Ephraem in the middle of the thirteenth century and the first redaction of The Life of Barlaam of Khutyn that belongs to the latter half or end of the thirteenth century (author unknown).

Ephraem gives an abstract, generalised account of the biography of Abraham, making use of hagiographical conventions, although he was a pupil of Abraham’s and could have heard about his life from Abraham himself. The Life of Abraham of Smolensk centres mainly on his preaching in Smolensk and his clashes with the local clergy and townspeople. These events, of importance in the life not only of Abraham but of the town in general, are described in hints and allegories. It is impossible to see from this account why Abraham aroused such dislike in the clergy and the townspeople and how he managed to escape being killed. Nevertheless the fact of this inter-clerical strife is most important. It shows that the Church itself was far from united.48

The Life of Barlaam of Khutyn is about the founder of the Khutyn Monastery outside Novgorod and provides in condensed form the main facts of his life (in secular life he was the Novgorodian boyar Alexei Mikhailovich). At the time when the first redaction of The Life of Barlaam was compiled, the oral tradition in Novgorod contained some legendary tales about Barlaam of a fantastic nature. But these tales were not included in the written text of the Life until later, in the subsequent redactions. In the thirteenth century the hagiographer did not yet dare to include episodes of a secular or legendary nature in the Life of a zealot of the Church.49

During the period of Batu’s invasion and the establishment of Mongol overlordship the main feature of Russian literature was its strong patriotism. The chroniclers, Serapion of Vladimir, and the hagiographers saw the victory of the Mongols as Divine punish­ment of the Russian people for their sins. But from the accounts by the same chroniclers of the Mongol invasion and the tales dealing with the same subject it is clear that in the popular consciousness the way to salvation from the enemy was seen as lying not in repentance and praying, but in active struggle. Therefore the literature of the period in question shows a pronounced heroic nature. In the chronicle accounts, The Tale of the Life of Alexander Nevsky and particularly The Tale of Batu’s Capture of Ryazan the strength and cruelty of the enemy are contrasted with the military daring and immense courage of the Russian warriors, the bravery and selflessness of the Russian people.

The second main theme of thirteenth-century literature is the idea of strong princely authority. In the years of struggle against the external foe and the growth of feudal disunity this theme was also of great national patriotic significance: the question of a strong prince who could lead the struggle against external enemies was of the greatest importance for the future destiny of the Russian state.

In the thirteenth century the development of the traditional genres of Old Russian literature continued. Even more intensively than in the preceding century tales were inserted in the chronicle compilations that, although subjected to the overall contents of the chronicle, are nevertheless self-contained. These are the chronicle tales of the struggle against the Mongols, the murder of Russian princes in the Golden Horde, and encomiums of the princes. Traditional vitae were also written. At the same time a number of works arose that went beyond the traditional hagiographical framework.

The Chronicle of Daniel of Galich shows a number of features that give it a special place. It is not so much a chronicle, as a prince’s biography.

The Tale of the Life of Alexander Nevsky belongs for the most part to the hagiographical genre. But in many respects it does not observe the conventions of this genre and is closer to that of the princely biography, in particular, to The Chronicle of Daniel of Galich.

The Tale of Batu’s Capture of Ryazan forms part of the cycle of tales about St Nicholas of Zarazsk which, to quote Dmitry Likhachev, is akin to the chronicle compilations: “It is in the nature of a ‘compilation’, in this case a compilation of different

Ryazan tales that appeared at different times and are connected at different periods with the icon of St Nicholas of Zarazsk.”50 But it is not a chronicle, and its resemblance to chronicle-writing is mainly external. At the same time, however, taken as a whole and in its individual parts, this work cannot be called an historical tale either, although the main section of the cycle, The Tale of Batu’s Capture of Ryazan, deals with an important historical event. What we have is an historical tale in the making, that has “broken away” from the chronicle, but is still connected with it to some extent. Herein lies the originality and novelty of The Tale of Batu’s Capture of Ryazan.

Thus, it can be said that the thirteenth century witnessed the intensive formation of new phenomena within traditional literary genres. And the most striking works of this period, although still connected to some extent with the canons of the traditional genres, are in fact already new genres in the making.