Home » 17th century, 1st half » The Tale of Juliana Osorgina


The Tale of Juliana Osorgina


At first glance this work is a vita of a locally revered saint. Take the typical hagiographical heading, for example: In the Month of January on the Second Day Is the Dormition of Saint Juliana the Wonder-Worker of Murom. The tale makes use of many stereotypes of the hagiographical genre. The heroine’s noble parents live “in piety and purity”. Juliana herself is from childhood “diligent in prayer and fasting”, meek and quiet, “refraining from laughter and all games”. After marrying, she gives alms and cares for widows and orphans, washing them “with her own hands and giving them food and drink”. When her husband refuses to let her go to a convent, Juliana mortifies her sinful flesh by sleeping on logs and putting nut shells and potsherds in her boots. As befits a holy person, Juliana overcomes evil spirits. Her demise is a blessed one. It is not death, but going to sleep. Summoning her children and servants, she instructs them “in love, prayer, alms-giving, and other virtues”. Her last words are those of a hagiographical heroine: “Glory be to God. Into The hands, Oh Lord, I commit my spirit. Amen!” Those who were present at her dormition, the author tells us, saw “a gold nimbus around her head, like unto that painted round the heads of saints on icons”. Bells are heard when Juliana’s relics are found, and her coffin is full of chrism that gives off a sweet fragrance; the chrism turns out to have healing properties. This shows that Juliana is a wonder-worker.

True, after mentioning her posthumous miracles, the author immediately breaks off the narrative. The final sentence reads as follows: “We dared not write this, for it has not yet been examined.” Thus the author had a practical purpose in writing this tale: he was hoping that the Orthodox Church would canonise Juliana. The tale was intended as the first step in the canonisation procedure. We do not know whether Juliana was canonised, or whether she remained a locally revered Murom saint.

These hagiographical elements, however, constantly contradict the author’s designs and the development of the plot. Let us examine the scene of the finding of Juliana’s relics, for example. Juliana died in 1604. A “warm” church (i.e., one heated in winter) was built over her grave shortly afterwards. Eleven years later her son Georgi died. He was naturally buried next to his mother, in the church porch. When this new grave was being dug, Juliana’s coffin appeared “on top of the earth whole and quite undam­aged”. “And they did marvel,” writes the author, “and wonder whose it was, for there had not been any burials here for many a year.” The hagiographical “marvelling”, which invariably accom­panied the “discovery of relics” is out of place here. For the Tale was composed by Juliana’s other son, Druzhina, whose Christian name was Calistratus and who must have buried Georgi too. He could not have forgotten where his mother’s body lay!

Druzhina Osorgin, Juliana’s other son, held a senior post in the local chancery from 1625 to 1640. The story of the pious Juliana reveals the author’s personal attitude towards her clearly. It is full of filial love and reverent admiration. Only a son who had lived side by side with the devout Juliana could have observed her dozing while she told her beads: “Many a time did we see her sleeping, while her hand told the beads.” What Druzhina wrote was not a conventional hagiographical account, but a biography with elements of a family chronicle of the Osorgins, Nedyurevs, Arapovs and Dubenskys, noble families in Moscow and the provinces.

Juliana’s house, family and servants are not merely the backcloth to the action, as in a typical vita. Her whole life is devoted to her family. She is idealised as a wife, mother, and daughter-in-law, a thrifty and fair mistress of the household, a lady of the manor who gives refuge to the homeless and cares for the needy.12 Among the good deeds essential for saving the Orthodox soul, the author gives pride of place to Juliana’s indefatigable household labours. Because of them she has no time to go to church: “And the priest of that church … did hear a voice from the icon of the Virgin saying unto him: ‘Go and ask the gracious Juliana why she does not come to church to pray. Her prayers uttered at home are pleasing to the Lord, but not as pleasing as prayers uttered in church. But revere her, for she is no less than sixty now, and the Holy Spirit dwells within her.’” As we can see, the author tries to present even the fact that Juliana does not go to church as a reason for glorifying the heroine. However, Juliana did not go to church even before she was married (there was no church in the village where she grew up), nor did she go after she married. Thus, Juliana’s piety was by no means exceptional.

A person may deserve to enter the kingdom of heaven without leaving the daily round of earthly pastimes—this is the logic of the tale. Although Druzhina Osorgin may not have intended to implant this “free-thinking” idea in the reader, the latter could not help arriving at it. This idea was also suggested by the main literary device in the tale, namely, the clash of the practical and the conventional hagiographical explanations of one and the same fact. When there was a bad harvest Juliana “took the food from her mother-in-law intended for the morning and midday meals” and secretly gave it to the hungry. This amazed her mother-in- law: in times of plenty her daughter-in-law would fast and refuse food, and now, when food was scarce, she had suddenly changed her habits. Juliana explained that before she had children she did not feel hungry, but now, the heroine says, “I cannot have enough to eat, I often crave food not only by day, but also by night, yet I am ashamed to ask you.”

Another episode relates to these hungry years, the fatal three years of bad harvests in the reign of Boris Godunov. Juliana has to mix goose-foot and bark with the flour, “and her bread was sweet from prayer. She gave it to the needy, and did not send a single beggar away without alms, although at that time there was a great multitude of them.” The neighbouring landowners jeered at the beggars: “Why are you going to Juliana’s house? She’s dying of hunger herself!” “We have been to many villages and received good bread,” the beggars replied, “but none so sweet as hers; that widow’s bread is sweetest.” Juliana’s neighbours also decided to try her bread, and began praising her bakers: “How skilled her servants are at baking bread!” “They did not understand that her bread was sweet from prayer,” the author explains. Here the reader was left to decide for himself what made the bread sweet—prayer or skilful baking. The author insisted on the religious explanation, but the reader could choose the prosaic one.

There is a most important idea in The Tale of Juliana Osorgina, It is that “salvation” in this world lies not in religious zeal, but in the family, in family love, meekness and piety. This idea was of great importance in the first half of the seventeenth century, when the RussianChurch was going through a deep crisis. The idea of “salvation in the world” inspired the activity of the “God-lovers” in the 1630s and 1640s, Ivan Neronov, Stefan Vonifatiev and Avvakum. In the final analysis this idea promoted the secularisation of literature, as we can see from the work of the Murom senior official, Druzhina Osorgin, who wrote the biography of his mother.