Church of the Transfiguration of Our Saviour on Il’ina street (1374), the largest of buildings that were built in Novgorod in the second half of the 14th century. The church houses the frescoes of Theophanes the Greek. Photo by Marina Iashina.
Sergei Bogatyrev
(University College London)


The Black Death reached the lands of Novgorod slightly later than in Western Europe, but the results of the pandemic were equally devastating. In 1352 Archbishop Vasilii Kalika of Novgorod prayed for the deliverance of his flock from the plague, but became a victim of the Black Death himself. The archbishop of Novgorod was a key figure in local culture and politics. The Novgorodian Church was in the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the patriarch of Constantinople and the metropolitan of Kiev and all Rus, who usually resided in Moscow. However, the Novgorodian diocese insisted on its autonomy. In the mid-1380s the Novgorodians rejected the metropolitan’s right of appeal court in the city and, respectively, deprived him of corresponding fees. The conflict led to the temporary excommunication of the Novgorodians and the intervention of the patriarch of Constantinople and the prince of Moscow. Other factors affecting Novgorodian literature were Novgorod’s rivalry with Moscow and a revival in contacts with Constantinople after a break caused by the crusade sack of the city in 1204 and the Mongol invasion of Rus’ in 1237-40. Some few literati from Novgorod travelled to Constantinople and other centres of Orthodoxy (Mt Athos, the Holy Land). Greek artists, including the celebrated icon painter Theophanes, undertook commissions in Novgorod. 

Novgorod was a commercial town trading with the Hansa, Sweden, and other partners. Contacts between Novgorod and Constantinople facilitated the transmission of Byzantine cultural models in Novgorodian literature, icon painting and church building. The Byzantine forms, however, were often modified in the cultural context of East Slavic Orthodoxy. As elsewhere in Rus, the impact of classical works and Byzantine theological disputes on Novgorodian culture was very limited. Novgorod’s diverse contacts with non-Orthodox peoples (Finno-Ugric tribes, the Swedes, German merchants from the Hanseatic towns) are reflected in literary works, which view Novgorod’s relations with its neighbours in the context of Orthodox triumphalism, and in administrative and judicial texts, which focus on the matters of commerce, justice, and diplomacy.

The archbishopric’s scriptorium produced liturgical books for churches and monasteries in the Novgorodian diocese. Such works were the most common types of literary texts circulating among cultured Novgorodians. The productivity of monastic scriptoria depended on what form of monasticism was practiced in a monastery. The scriptoria of the oldest kelliotic monasteries in Novgorod were not very active, as their monks preferred to commission books from other scriptoria rather than to copy codices themselves. The scriptorium of the cenobitic monastery of the Nativity of the Mother of God at the Fox Hill is noticeable for its diverse output. Some codices connected with the Fox Hill, for example, the Taktikon of Nikon of the Black Mountain, reveal cultural exchange with Athos.

Chronicles were the main literary form of organising historical memory. The format of Rus chronicles is closer to Western annals than Byzantine chronicles. The Synod copy of the First Novgorodian Chronicle, which is the oldest surviving manuscript of a Rus chronicle, records various political, military, economic, and ecclesiastic events in Novgorod. The Synod copy was based on a hypothetical archbishopric chronicle, which was probably a living chronicle similar to the Annals of Inisfallen. Unlike the Synod copy with its focus on Novgorod, a set of interrelated chronicle texts known as the Novgorodian Karamzin chronicle demonstrates a wider interest in other territories of Rus’. Like Western annals, the Novgorodian chronicles often include tales and literary works, such as the Tale of the Battle between the Novgorodians and the Suzdalians and the fictitious Testament of King Magnus of Sweden.  

Theophanes the Greek, Alypios the Stylite (Church of the Transfiguration)

Only a few Novgorodian texts are attributed to individual persons. Archbishop Vasilii Kalika’s epistle to Bishop Feodor Dobryi of Tver’ about paradise is modelled after the First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians. Like Paul, Vasilii tries to correct internal disorder in a church community after learning about contentions among its members. Vasilii supports his thesis that no creation of God, including the earthly paradise, can perish with recollections of his visit to Jerusalem. Novgorodian perception of holy places is also evidenced by the account of a certain Stefan of Novgorod of his pilgrimage to Constantinople. 

Many private messages, including love letters, petitions, registries, official records, and pupils’ exercises were written on birchbark. Unlike literary works, which are normally influenced by Church Slavonic, most of the birchbark documents are written in the Old East Slavic vernacular (also known as the ‘Novgorodian dialect’); some texts on birchbark reveal linguistic contacts with other languages, like Czech and Low German. Birchbark documents, most of which have survived in small fragments, mainly concern debts, goods, household management, and commerce. Some of them can be classified as short literary texts, including a riddle, a joke, a Finnic glossary, and spells.