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The Tale of the Battle Against Mamai


The Tale of the Battle Against Mamai is the most lengthy work of the Kulikovo cycle. It contains the most detailed account of the events of the Battle of Kulikovo.

The Tale describes the preparations for the campaign and the uryazhenie or deployment of the detachments, the order of battle and the military tasks assigned to each detachment. It contains a detailed description of the advance of the Russian army from Moscow via Kolomna to Kulikovo Field. At this point there is a list of the princes and military leaders who took part in the fighting and an account of the Russian forces crossing the Don. Only from the Tale do we learn that the outcome of the battle was decided by a detachment led by Prince Vladimir of Serpukhov: just before the battle began he was told to wait in ambush, and his unexpected attack from the flanks and the rear on the enemy after they had broken into the Russian lines inflicted a resounding defeat on them. It is also from the Tale that we learn that the grand prince was found unconscious when the battle was over. These details and a number of others, including some from legendary sources (the story of the combat of the monk Peresvet with a Mongol warrior before the battle, the episodes about help given by Russian saints, etc.), have come down to us only in The Tale of the Battle Against Mamai.

The Tale was frequently copied and revised right up to the beginning of the eighteenth century and has survived in eight redactions and a large number of versions. The many illuminated manuscripts of it bear witness to its popularity with the mediaeval reader as a work intended for individual reading.15 The main hero of the Tale is Dmitry Donskoy. The Tale is not only a story about the Battle of Kulikovo. It was also intended to extol the Grand Prince of Moscow. The author portrays Dmitry as a wise and brave leader, stressing his military prowess and valour. All the other characters in the work are grouped around Dmitry. Dmitry is the senior Russian prince, and the other princes are his loyal helpers, his vassals, his younger brothers.

Dmitry’s campaign is blessed by Metropolitan Cyprian in the Tale. In fact Cyprian was not in Moscow in 1380. This is not an error on the part of the author, but a literary, publicistic device. For publicistic considerations the author of the Tale, who set out to present the Grand Prince of Moscow as the ideal ruler and leader of all the Russian armies, had to show him in firm alliance with the Metropolitan of All Russia. In a literary work he could, of course, take the poetic licence of adding Metropolitan Cyprian’s blessing of Dmitry and his host particularly as Cyprian was formally Metropolitan of All Russia at that time.

At the time of the Battle of Kulikovo Prince Oleg of Ryazan and Prince Jagiello of Lithuania, the son of Grand Prince Olgierd of Lithuania who died in 1377, allied with Mamai. The Tale, however, describing an event that took place in 1380, says that Olgierd was Mamai’s Lithuanian ally. As in the case of Cyprian’s blessing this is not an error, but a conscious literary, publicistic device. For the Russian reader of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century, and for Muscovites in particular, the name of Olgierd was associated with memories of his campaigns against the principality of Moscow. He was a wily and dangerous enemy, whose military cunning is mentioned in the chronicle record of his death. Olgierd could be called Mamai’s ally instead of Jagiello only at a time when his name was still fresh in people’s memories as that of a dangerous enemy of Moscow. At a later period this change of names would have been pointless.16

By calling Olgierd Mamai’s ally, the author of the Tale enhanced both the publicistic and the literary aspects of his work: Moscow was attacked by the most cunning and dangerous enemies, but they too were defeated. There was also another reason for this change of name: Andrew and Dmitry, Olgierd’s sons, allied with Prince Dmitry of Moscow. Thus Olgierd’s own children were shown to be fighting against him, which also enhanced the publicistic and narrative elements of the work.

Mamai, the enemy of the Russian land, is portrayed by the author of the Tale in a highly negative light. Whereas Dmitry is the embodiment of light, the leader of a noble cause, whose actions are guided by God, Mamai is the personification of darkness and evil—behind him stands the Devil. The principle of abstract psychologism is seen very clearly here.

The heroic nature of the event portrayed in the Tale explains why the author turned to oral legends about the battle against Mamai. The episode of the combat before the battle between Peresvet, a monk from the Trinity Monastery of St Sergius, and a Mongol warrior probably originated in oral legend. The epic element is felt in the story about Dmitry of Volhynia’s “testing of omens”; the experienced leader Dmitry of Volhynia rides out with the grand prince at nightfall on the eve of the battle, into the steppe, between the Russian and Mongol armies, and Dmitry hears the earth weeping for the Mongol and the Russian warriors: there will be many dead, but the Russians will win the day. An oral legend probably was behind the statement in the Tale that before the battle Dmitry put his princely armour on his beloved commander Mikhail Brenok, and attiring himself in the clothing of a common warrior was the first to rush into battle with an iron cudgel in his hand.

The influence of oral folk poetry on the Tale can be seen in the author’s use of representational devices from the folk tradition. The Russian warriors are compared to falcons and gerfalcons, the Russians smite the enemy “as if they were felling timber, or mowing grass with a scythe”. The lament of Grand Princess Eudoxia after parting with the prince who is going off to fight the Mongols can also be regarded as an example of the influence of folklore. Although the author presents this lament in the form of a prayer, one can still detect elements of the popular lament in it.

The descriptions of the Russian host are vivid and striking. It is possible that here the author of the Tale was influenced by the poetics of The Galich-Volhynian Chronicle: “And the armour of the sons of Russia was like water streaming in the wind, the gold helmets on their heads shone like the morning sunrise in clear weather, and the pennoncels of their helmets fluttered like a fiery flame.” In the descriptions of nature one detects a lyrical quality and the urge to link these descriptions with the events. Some remarks by the author are deeply emotional and realistic. For example, describing the wives bidding farewell to the warriors as they are leaving Moscow to fight the enemy, the author writes that the wives “could not say a single word for their tears and heartfelt cries”, and adds that “the grand prince himself, barely holding back his tears, did not weep before the people”.

The author of the Tale made extensive use of the poetic imagery and devices in The Trans-Doniad. The interaction of these two works was two-way: in late manuscripts of The Trans-Doniad we find insertions from The Tale of the Battle Against Mamai.

The question of when the Tale was written is a difficult one and, in spite of the extensive literature on it (a large number of works appeared on this subject recently in connection with the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kulikovo), it still remains open. We take the view that the work was written in the first quarter of the fifteenth century. The special interest in the Battle of Kulikovo at this time can be explained by the increased tension in the relations with the Horde and, in particular, Jedigei’s attack on Russia in 1408. Jedigei’s attack, which was successful because of the lack of unity among the Russian princes, made people aware of the need to restore unity under the leadership of the Grand Prince of Moscow in order to fight the external foe. This is the main idea in the Tale.

No matter how long after the event itself the Tale was written (and a number of recent works tend to date it some time after),18 there can be no doubt that it reflects stories about the Kulikovo epic that date from the time of the actual event and are based on the reports of participants and eyewitnesses.

The Tale of the Battle Against Mamai was of interest to readers because it gave a detailed description of the Battle of Kulikovo. However, this was not its only attraction. In spite of its rhetoric, the Tale has the elements of an exciting story. Not only the actual event, but also the fate of the individual characters and the development of the plot produced an emotional response to the account. In some redactions the narrative episodes are more numerous and detailed. All this makes The Tale of the Battle Against Mamai not only an historical and publicistic work, but also a stirring tale.

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