By 1348, the Northeastern Rus principalities–Moscow, Tver, Rostov-Iaroslavl, Suzdal-Nizhny Novgorod, and Riazan–had recovered from the initial Mongol conquest (1237-40) and resumed their growth, but constituted a resource-rich backwater within the literate world. The regional hegemon Moscow figured as the de facto headquarters and usual residence and burial site of the “Metropolitans of Kiev and All Rus,” including the two most active in Rus literary life, both foreigners, the Bulgarian Kiprian (1380-82, 1389-1408) and the Greek Photios (1408-31). Simultaneously, this era witnessed missionary activity into the northern forests and a marked expansion of monasticism, movements reflected in the hagiography and book production of the time. The military highlights of relations with Lithuania and especially the suzerain Tatars, as the Rus called the Mongols, found expression in the region’s chronicles and, then or later, miracle tales and heroic poetry.
As part of the Orthodox Christian oikoumenē, the mandarins of Northeastern Rus drew strict lines separating their self-proclaimed, uniquely holy and ritually clean cult from heretical or diabolical otherness. While valuing fine style, they judged texts chiefly for their spiritual utility. Accessible sprinklings of Christianity’s Classical inheritance served essentially as adornments. East Slavic manuscripts through the 15th century were overwhelmingly liturgical in purpose. Outside of a little secular law, a small family of faith-filled official chronicles, and, embedded in them, some geography, folklore and a few treaties, the modest number of verifiably original East Slavic writings before 1348 had filled the hagiographic, homiletic, didactic, regulatory, penitential, and pilgrimage needs of a newly converted, barely literate, violence-ridden frontier society. The Rus devoted more, maybe most, of their literary energies towards reproduction—some very skilled, a few for laymen—rather than new creations.
The Greek iconographer Theophanes, active in both Novgorod and Moscow in the late 14th century, astounded educated Rus with his erudition. But Rus was not Spain. Though centers of pious Islamic learning existed in the khanate’s capital on the lower Volga, where the Rus also had a bishopric, no Muslim-Christian intellectual or literary cross-fertilization (in Pushkin’s words, “neither Algebra nor Aristotle”) took place there.
Among the leading literary lights of fourteenth-century Northeastern Rus stood a half score prelates, monks, and lay clerics from different towns and districts. Rostov was notable through mid-century for educating the most remarkable natives: the missionary bishop, Stefan of Perm (ca. 1340-1396) and Epifanii the Wise (d. pre-1422), biographer of both Stefan and the celebrated, Rostov-origin coenobiarch, Sergii of Radonezh (d.1392). New monastic centers of book-learning included Sergii’s Trinity; Spaso-Kamennyi (St. Savior of the Rock) on an island in Lake Kubenskii; Kirillov in Beloozero, all in the wilds, as well as Nizhny Novgorod Pechersky (Caves) and Moscow’s new Simonov, Chudov and Andronnikov, the latter two founded by Metropolitan Aleksii and all three placed under disciples of Sergii.
Northeastern Rus proved welcoming of fresh Orthodox influences from without, with widespread copying of “hesychastic cell literature” and the first extant personal library—comprised of religious works sprinkled with a little of what passed for natural science at that time. Bishop Fëdor of Tver (r. ca. 1344-60, d. 1367) was probably mulling hesychastic theology, when he reportedly asserted: “The paradise where Adam was has perished,” emphasizing that only “mental paradise” now exists, and provoking an extended retort by Archbishop Vasilii Kalika of Novgorod. The prevailing Byzantine-Balkan cultural trends in Rus standardized the more elaborate and recently introduced “Jerusalem” liturgical typicon; enriched services with translations of the new hymns of Patriarch Philotheus Kokkinos (1353-54, 1364-76); fostered more ornate hagiography and spiritually subtle iconography; and embraced Pseudo-Dionysius’s Neoplatonic “physics” to explain human connections to God; SEQ CHAPTER \h \r 1but rejected Scholasticism’s formal syllogism and any attempts to reunite the Churches on Rome’s terms. As for direct contacts with Europe, Moscow reportedly acquired its first clock in 1404, but the Northeastern Rus neither attended nor ever mentioned the Council of Constance.
Epistles constituted a key, active genre with a slew of possible sub-types: informative, judicial, ascetic regulatory, polemical, homiletic, and political, not to say mixtures of these, as virtually every well-crafted utterance of our writers contained some preaching. Metropolitan Photios was an uncharacteristically active sermonizer and correspondent for a medieval Rus prelate. He composed close to fifty known works, including at least one for a forlorn widow and thirteen directed to the clergy and elite male laity of Novgorod’s former, western satellite city Pskov, mainly in the form of responsae. Kirill’s legacy includes a trio of tightly constructed, politically delicate, didactic epistles to prince-patrons more than forty years his junior.
Novgorod’s anti-simoniac Strigolniki served as the catalyst for the Eastern Slavs’ most extensive, original theological polemic, commonly attributed to Stefan of Perm and employing parallelism, antithesis, simile, metaphor, hypallage, and polyptoton in just one extended sentence. Bishop Dionisii of Suzdal (r. 1374-85) and Metropolitans Kiprian and Photios were likewise skilled polemicists. Kiprian also introduced the spiritual testament as a quasi-homiletic Rus literary genre.
The Northeastern Rus created no new comprehensive chronicles or other such historical works during this period. Its only authenticated local annalistic product, the Laurentian Chronicle, though copied and maybe edited in 1377, goes up only to 1305. But this product of Nizhny Novgorod contains the oldest witness of the early12th-century Povest’ vremennykh let (Tale of Bygone Years) or Primary Chronicle–an Orthodox-didactic Kiev-centered history through 1101, and the earliest version of the late 13th-century Life of Alexander Nevsky. Nikolai Karamzin (1766-1826), Russia’s first professional historian, placed within his multi-volume classic a huge number of extracts from what he claimed was a Trinity Monastery chronicle going up to 1408, but then lost in the 1812 Moscow fire. Its protograph may be the same as that of hypothetical 1412 Tver compilation reflecting connections with all of Rus, as well as with Lithuania, Byzantium, and the Tatars. Textual evidence points to locally-oriented chronicling during our period in several Northeastern centers and indicates that by 1418 or soon afterwards annalists from Moscow, Tver, Novgorod, Pskov, and Western Rus borrowed from each other. Of interest here are the vigorous, brief tales of battles between Rus and Tatars, regardless of outcome, of ecclesiastical power grabs, plus laconic reports of unsolved political murders. As in the West, chronicles could serve as “serious entertainment” (Partner).
The elevation of Grand Prince Dmitrii’s victory over the Tatar emir Mamai at Kulikovo Meadows in 1380 to iconic, legendary status in Russian national and historical consciousness came later, but the first chronicle accounts of this battle (and the Tatars revenge in sacking Moscow in 1382) likely predate 1418. Whether Tamerlane’s destructive invasions of the khanate in 1390 and especially 1395, when he threatened to march on Moscow, found embellished expression in the chronicles before 1418 is moot. Some fusion of oral heroic warrior poetry and homiletics likely constituted part of the lost, local literary scene of the time.
Northeastern Rus hagiography experienced a hesychastic turn, signaled by Metropolitan Kiprian’s rewrite of the earlier brief life of his distant predecessor Peter (r. 1305-26), who initiated the shift to Moscow. But Epifanii the Wise, who maybe had visited Constantinople and Jerusalem and had two inordinately long lives to his credit, stands as our outstanding Northeastern Rus writer. Since every extant version of the Life of Sergii, completed around 1418, contains some later editing and additions, we have only one complete, major original work by Epifanii, the Life of Stefan from around 1400. Centering on his successful mission to Perm, the regional fur emporium of the Finnic Zyrians (Komi), this work contains a series of tableaux constructed for intellective reflection, literary modeling, and even pure enjoyment. Replete with appropriate prayers and homilies for any given situation, the Life also presents rhetorically crafted dialogue, with first converts and then Stefan taking on the redoubtable shaman Pam. The latter vividly credits the traditional gods for the rich diversity of exported furs; mockingly contrasts the bumbling Rus, unable in bands of 200 to snag one bear as can a single Zyrian, and asks rhetorically and bitterly, if anachronistically early for Perm while aptly for parts of Northeastern Rus: “Can any good come to us from Moscow? Do we not already obtain burdens, heavy tributes, oppression, stewards, informers, and bailiffs from there?”
Neither of Epifanii’s lives contains miracles as such, but both heroes produce quasi-supernatural results. Stefan twice seems able to ward off threatening natives with his string of appropriate verses from the psalms, while Sergii is able to tame and regularly feed a hungry bear. Indeed both lives celebrate earthly success, Stefan’s new Permian alphabet, translations, and bishopric being paralleled by the Patriarchal assignment to Sergii to establish the rule of common property and the number of his disciples themselves appointed coenobiarchs of new, princely or episcopal foundations. The extent of Stefan’s actual translations, however, is debatable. A conscious wordsmith, Epifanii ends the Life of Stefan with three lamentations: one from the people of Perm, one from its church, and one from the writer himself. His hagiography represented the peak of Northeastern Rus’s comparatively limited literary creativity during the period under consideration in this project.