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The Tale of Mercurius of Smolensk

 

It is interesting that even in towns that were not attacked by Batu legends grew up about the miraculous saving of the town from this disaster due to the intercession of higher powers. One such legend of this period has survived in The Tale of Mercurius of Smolensk It arose in Smolensk which Batu’s forces did not reach.

As a tale the legend of the saving of Smolensk from Batu was composed not earlier than the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. Two versions of the Tale have survived. They are not directly connected, but both of them originated independently from one and the same legend. The first version, which has been preserved in a single seventeenth-century manuscript, would appear to be closest to the legend, although as a literary work it belongs to the seventeenth century. The second version, which has survived in a large number of manuscripts, has several redac­tions.36

The subject of the Tale in its first version is as follows. A young man called Mercurius lived in Smolensk. He was god-fearing and prayerful. At this time Batu was advancing on the Russian land, spilling “innocent blood like water”. Batu’s forces marched on Smolensk. The Virgin Mary appeared to the sacristan of the Crypt Monastery outside the town and ordered him to find Mercurius and bring him to her. The Virgin gave Mercurius her blessing, armed him with a sword and told him to go to Batu’s camp and attack the foe boldly. When he had overcome Batu’s force a splendid warrior would appear to him, to whom Mercurius must hand over his sword. The warrior would cut off Mercurius’ head with this sword and he, Mercurius, would return to the town, holding his head in his hand, and be buried there with great honour in her (the Virgin’s) church. Everything came to pass as the Virgin had foretold.

With a few changes, and considerable additions and rhetorical insertions, this subject is repeated in the second version of the Tale. Here Mercurius is a Roman nobleman who came to Smolensk some years ago. His head is cut off not by a splendid warrior, but by the son of the Mongol “giant” whom Mercurius kills. According to this redaction of the Tale after his burial Mercurius appears to the sacristan and asks that his sword be hung over his tomb to ward off enemies.

Ivan Bunin’s story Sukhodol testifies to the existence of other versions of the legendary tale of Mercurius of Smolensk. It refers to an old icon of Mercurius of Smolensk and says that “having defeated the Mongols, the saint went to sleep and was beheaded by his enemies”.

It is difficult to say what the original legend of Mercurius of Smolensk was like. But we can get a general idea of it from the surviving texts of the tale. The legend reflected the horror and grief felt by the Russian people, and the epic motifs of the people’s heroic struggle against the enslavers during the period of the Mongol invasion and overlordship. In spite of the hagio- graphical, religious nature of the figure, Mercurius appears as an epic hero in both versions of the work: he defeats the enemy forces alone. Batu is terrified by Mercurius’ miraculous strength and flees from the walls of Smolensk to Hungary, where he perishes. We can assume that in the original version of the legend the epic element was expressed even more vividly.

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