Home » 11th-13th century » The Works of Vladimir Monomachos


The Works of Vladimir Monomachos


In the process of transplanting Byzantine and Old Bulgarian literature the Russian scribes acquired works representing the most varied genres of early Christian mediaeval literature.

The unique quality of Old Russian literature, however, revealed itself, in particular, in the fact that already in the early period of original literature Old Russian works were created that stand outside this traditional genre system. One such work is the famous Instruction of Vladimir Monomachos.78

Until recently this title covered four independent works, three of which really do belong to Vladimir Monomachos: these are the instruction proper, an autobiography and a Letter to Oleg Svyatos- lavick The concluding fragment in this set of texts, a prayer, has now been established as not belonging to Monomachos. It was accidentally copied together with Monomachos’ writings.79

All of the above-mentioned four works are found in one manuscript only: they are inserted in the text of The Tale of Bygone Years in The Laurentian Chronicle, in the middle of the entry for the year1096.80

Vladimir Monomachos (Grand Prince of Kiev from 1113 to 1125) was the son of Vsevolod and the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine Monomachos (hence the prince’s nickname). An energetic politician and diplomat and a consistent champion of feudal vassalage, Vladimir Monomachos sought both by his personal example and his Instruction to strengthen these principles and persuade others to follow them. Thus, in 1094 he voluntarily gave up the throne of Chernigov to Oleg Svyatoslavich. In 1097 Monomachos was one of the active participants in the conference at Lyubech at which the princes tried to settle disputes concerning the inheritance of appanages. He firmly condemned the blinding of Prince Vasilko of Terebovl, recalling the main idea of the Lyubech conference—that if the internecine strife did not end “and brother begins to kill brother”, “the Russian land will perish, and our enemies, the Polovtsians, will come and seize the Russian land”. At the conference at Dolobsk in 1103 Monomachos called for a joint campaign against the Polovtsians, stressing that this was in the interests of the common people, the peasants, who suffered most of all from Polovtsian incursions.

The Instruction appears to have been written by Monomachos in 1117.81 The aged prince had a long and difficult life behind him, many military campaigns and battles, considerable experience as a diplomat and a ruler of the various principalities where the principle of accession by seniority, which he himself had defended, bad taken him, and, finally, the honour and glory of his great reign in Kiev itself. In his declining years the prince had much to tell his younger contemporaries and progeny and much to teach them. And his Instruction is such a political and moral testament, behind the instructions to observe the rules of Christian morality: to meek, to heed one’s elders and obey them, to befriend one’s equals and inferiors, and not to offend orphans and widows, we can detect the outlines of a definite political programme. The mam idea of the Instruction is that a prince should submit unquestioningly to his senior, live in peace with the other princes and not oppress the lesser princes or boyars; a prince should avoid unnecessary bloodshed, be a cordial host, not indulge in laziness, not be carried away by power, not rely on officials in the management of his household nor on voevodas in campaigns, but be conversant with everything himself…

Monomachos did not limit himself to practical advice and discourses of a moral or political nature, however. Continuing the tradition of his grandfather, Yaroslav the Wise, and father, Vsevolod, who “stayed at home yet knew five languages”, Monomachos shows himself to have been a highly educated, scholarly man. The Instruction contains many quotations from the Psalms, the Instruction of St Basil the Great, the Book of Isaiah, the Triodion, and the Epistles of the Apostles. Monomachos reveals not only that he read widely, but also that he possessed breadth of mind, inserting alongside the didactic exhortations in the Instruction a description of the perfect world order and quotes, in slightly revised form, the Hexaemeron of John, the Bulgarian Exarch.

In support of his admonitions and homilies, Monomachos quotes a long list of the campaigns and hunts in which he took part from the age of thirteen. In conclusion lie stresses that throughout his life he has followed the same rules: he has tried to do everything himself, “giving himself no peace”, not relying on his fellow warriors and servants, and not offending the “poor peasant and the wretched widow”. The Instruction ends with an exhortation not to fear death either in battle or hunting, in the valorous performance of one’s manly duties.

Another work by Monomachos is the Letter to Oleg Svyatos- lavich. It was written in connection with a quarrel during which Oleg killed Monomachos’ son, Izyaslav. True to his principles of justice and brotherly love, Monomachos finds the moral strength to act not as an enemy and revenger, but, quite the reverse, to urge Oleg to be sensible and make peace. He does not seek to justify his dead son, but merely says that he should not have heeded the parobki (probably his young warriors) and tried to take what was not his. Monomachos wants an end to their enmity and hopes that Oleg will reply to him, after due reflection, gain his appanage by peaceful means and then they will be even more friendly than before.

The letter is striking not only because of the prince’s magnanimity and political wisdom, but also because of the lyrical quality, particularly in the passage where Monomachos asks Oleg to let Izyaslav’s widow return, so that he might embrace his daughter-in-law and “mourn her husband”. “And having wept with her,” Monomachos goes on, “take her in, and she will sit grieving like a turtle-dove on a withered tree.” (turtle-dove grieving the death of her mate on a withered tree is mentioned in some versions of The Physiologos.)

Vladimir Monomachos’ Instruction is the only known specimen in Old Russian literature of a political and moral exhortation written not by a churchman, but by a statesman. Scholars have nuoted analogies in other mediaeval literatures: the Instruction has been compared with the Testament of the French King St Louis, the apocryphal instructions of the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred or the Faeder Larcwidas of which there was a copy in the library of the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings, Harold II, Monomachos’ father-in- law (Monomachos was married to the king’s daughter, Githa).82 But these parallels are only of a typological nature: Monomachos’ work is completely original, it fits in perfectly, first and foremost, with the political activity of Monomachos who sought to strengthen the principle of “brotherly love” in Russia and fought for strict observance of feudal duties and rights. Like The Lay of Igor’s Host later, the Instruction did not so much follow the tradition of this or that literary genre, as respond to the political requirements of the day. It is typical, for example, that guided primarily by ideological considerations Monomachos inserted an autobiography in the Instruction. As a literary genre the autobio­graphy did not appear in Russia until many centuries later, in the writings of Avvakum and Epiphanius.

Monomachos’ works show that the author had mastered various styles of the literary language and applied them skilfully according to the genre and theme of the work. This is particularly evident if we compare the section of the Instruction in which Monomachos discourses on moral and ethical behaviour (it is written in lofty language, in keeping with the passages from the Bible and the Church Fathers quoted in it), and the autobio­graphical section in which his language is very close to the colloquial, extremely simple and expressive.83