Home » 13th century » The Supplication of Daniel the Exile


The Supplication of Daniel the Exile


One of the central themes of Old Russian literature was the role of the prince in the life of the country. The need for strong princely power in order to struggle successfully against external enemies and overcome internal contradictions was perfectly clear to those concerned with the fate of their country.

The idea of strong princely power lies at the centre of one of the most interesting works of Old Russian literature—the Supplica­tion of Daniel the Exile.14 This work is interesting not only because of its ideological content and literary qualities, but also because of the mystery that surrounds it. The question of when it was written and who Daniel the Exile was has still not been fully answered, and specialists also disagree strongly on nature of the inter­relationship of the two main redactions.

One redaction is entitled the Oration of Daniel the Exile and the other the Supplication of Daniel the Exile. The Oration is addressed to Prince Yaroslav, son of Vladimir, the Supplication to Yaroslav, son of Vsevolod. In the text of the Oration the prince is called “the son of the great tsar Vladimir”. This wording suggests that the ruler in question was Vladimir Monomachos, but he did not have a son called Yaroslav. Some specialists believe that “Yaroslav” was written by mistake, and that it should be either Yuri the Long-Armed or Andrew the Good (both sons of Vladimir Monomachos). In this case the Oration would have been written not later than the 1140s or 1150s (Yuri the Long-Armed died in 1157 and Andrew the Good in 1141).15 Most specialists take the view that the Supplication was addressed to Yaroslav, son of Grand Prince Vsevolod III the Big Nest, who reigned in Pereyaslavl-Suzdalsky from 1213 to 1236.

The view also exists that the Oration is a later reworking of the Supplication.16 In spite of the extensive literature arguing both points of view the question of which came first, the Oration or the Supplication, remains an open one.

The main difference between the Supplication and the Oration lies in their ideology. In both redactions the power and might of the prince and princely authority are praised equally. But the attitude to the boyars in the Oration differs greatly from that in the Supplication. In the Oration the prince is not contrasted with the boyars, but in the Supplication the superiority of the prince to the boyars is stressed strongly.

The chronicle account of the battle on the Vozha in 1378 mentions Daniel the Exile (zatochnik). It refers to a certain priest who was banished “into imprisonment on LakeLacha where Daniel the Exile was.” 17 This reference does not solve the question of who Daniel was, however. Most likely it originates itself from the Oration or the Supplication and merely testifies to the popularity of this work in Old Russia. We cannot even be sure that there really was a person called Daniel who at some time for some reason fell into disfavour with his prince and lived on Lake Lacha (on the north bank of which is the town of Kargopol). The very word zatochnik is unclear. The various attempts to identify Daniel in specialist and popular literature are, as a rule, not objective. It is clear from the material of the Oration and the Supplication and from the author’s descriptions of himself that he did not belong to the ruling class. Daniel belonged to the category of prince’s “favourites” who came from the most varied strata of bondmen.18

Daniel the Exile’s work is a collection of aphorisms, each of which or each group of which can be regarded as an independent text. For example: “To help a man in sorrow is like slaking his thirst with icy water on a hot day”; “Gold is melted by heat, but man by misfortune”; “The moth, oh prince, eats away clothes, and sorrow—man”, etc. But all these aphorisms, which convey everyday wisdom in extremely condensed form, are united by the figure of Daniel the Exile standing behind them. The eternal, commonplace truths become the peripeteia of the fate of one man, Daniel himself. This makes the work appear not as a collection of aphorisms, but as a narrative about the concrete fate of a concrete person. We do not know whether this is a conscious literary device or whether it is a real Daniel writing about his fate with aphorisms both borrowed and made up by him and portraying the ideal prince and ruler. In either case we can say that here we have a work of considerable literary merit that reflects real life.

The author borrowed aphorisms widely from the Holy Scriptures (Psalms, the Song of Solomon, the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach, and others) and made use of The Tale of Akir the Wise, Gennadius’ Hundred Words and The Tale of Bygone Years, with which he was familiar. At the same time both the Oration and the Supplication reflect the most varied aspects of Russian life of the period. Daniel makes extensive use of everyday vocabulary and draws on everyday life in his similes and metaphors. And we are presented with thumbnail sketches of the life and customs of the day.

Reflecting on ways to escape poverty, Daniel suggests marrying a rich woman. This leads him to reflect on female spite (a very popular theme in mediaeval writing). Here he makes use of both books as sources and, as he himself says, “worldly parables” (i.e., secular sayings). The wit and common sense of these maxims (Daniel does not attack women in general, only the type of “bad woman” that he finds particularly hateful) create lively scenes. “I saw an ugly woman pressing herself against the mirror and painting her face, and I said to her: ‘Look not in the mirror—for you will see the ugliness of your face and grow even more bitter’; “A good wife is her husband’s crown and happiness, but a bad wife is woe and ruin to the house.”

The author’s familiarity with translated and original literature combines well with his extensive knowledge of worldly wisdom. He is not afraid of quoting abundantly from worldly parables and does not avoid colloquial expressions. As Dmitry Likhachev notes: “Daniel flaunts his coarseness, his deliberately low style, as it were, and is not afraid of using everyday words.” 19

This feature of Daniel the Exile’s style is explained not only by the fact that he was from the lower strata of society, a bondman, but also by the author’s literary position. Daniel’s deliberate coarseness and buffoonery are in the tradition of the skomorokh (a wandering minstrel-cum-clown).

The combination in Daniel the Exile’s work of bookishness and buffoonery, of didactic utterances and “worldly parables” give this work a special character of its own. The Supplication also stands out for its attitude to the human personality. By denigrating himself and praising the prince inordinately (one can sense a certain grotesqueness behind this praise), Daniel places intellectual powers above all else and rises to the defence of human dignity. A wise man in dire straits who is seeking to make his way in life cannot and should not compromise his human dignity, act against his conscience. It is interesting that although he stresses the prince’s power in all possible ways, Daniel says that however mighty a prince, his actions depend on the counsellors around him: “My lord! It is not the sea that drowns ships, but the winds; it is not fire that makes iron red hot, but the blowing of the bellows; and likewise it is not the prince himself who makes a mistake, but his counsellors who are at fault. If he consults a good counsellor, a prince will win a high throne, but with a bad counsellor he will lose a low one.”

Daniel the Exile is an Old Russian intellectual who is fully aware of the evils of his time and tries to find a way of combating them. He stands for the recognition of human merit irrespective of a person’s social status and wealth. Vissarion Belinsky, the famous Russian critic, gave a very apt description of Daniel the Exile as a writer: “Whoever Daniel the Exile was, we have good reason to conclude that he was one of those people who, to their cost, are too intelligent, too gifted, who know too much and, unable to conceal their superiority from others, offend proud mediocrity; whose hearts ache and are consumed with zeal for things that do not concern them, who speak when it would be better to stay silent, and stay silent when it would be more advantageous to speak; in short, one of those whom others at first praise and pamper, then plague to death and, finally, having got rid of them, begin to praise again.”20