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The Tale of Savva the Priest


Church life of the 1640s and 1650s is reflected in The Tale of Savva the Priest which makes use of rayeshnik verse. At this time there were no schools for training priests in Russia. Peasants and townsfolk selected candidates who were sent for training and ordination to the towns that were diocesan centres, and “apprenticed” to local priests. The latter, of course, bullied them, extorted money and other bribes from them, and often issued them with a certificate of ordination without teaching them a thing, in return for a bribe. In the middle of the seventeenth century Patriarch Joseph decreed that ordinands must be trained in Moscow. Thus the Moscow priests acquired additional ways of getting rich.

The main character in The Tale of Savva the Priest is a parish priest in the Church of SS Cosmas and Damian in the Kadashevsky settlement of Zamoskvorechye (opposite the Moscow Kremlin on the other side of the River Moskva).

He … scours the squares,

Looking for ordinands,

And talks much with them,

Enticing them over the river to him.

It is unlikely that the real prototype of this character bore the name of Savva. This name is a kind of satirical, comic pseudonym, because in the Old Russian burlesque tradition, many names in proverbs and sayings were associated with traditional rhymes that produced a comic effect.

Savva rhymed with khudaya slava (“of ill-repute”). Filya with the verbs pili and bili meaning drank and beat. The name Spirya rhymed with the word styril (stole) and Fedos lyubil prinos, i.e., liked presents.

The sad life of these helpless, downtrodden ordinands is portrayed in the Tale in the blackest of colours:

And he keeps his ordinands,

Until they have spent all their money,

And sends some home

After they have sworn in writing

To come back to Moscow,

And bring Savva the Priest wine.

And should anyone bring him mead too,

He will accept it gladly,

For he likes to drink, and having drunk all,

He roars at them:

‘Don’t hang around here doing nothing,

Go and water the cabbages…’

He sends the ordinands to take the Eucarist,

While he stays in bed.

(In the original Russian this is all in rhymed prose).

It was probably one of these unfortunate ordinands who took up his pen to avenge himself on the hated priest.

The satirical element is very strong in this work; the satire is aimed, first and foremost, at the main character.

Another kind of satire typical of the texts that form the category of democratic satire is that directed “at oneself”. In keeping with the specific nature of mediaeval humour44 not only the object, but also the subject of the narrative is ridiculed. Irony turns into self-irony and extends to both the readers and the author himself. The laughter is also directed at those who are laughing. This creates a kind of aesthetic counter-balance to official culture with its pious, deliberately serious “edification”, a literary “world inside out”, a burlesque anti-world.