05 March 2009

'A Lover of Books'—The Holy Great Prince Yaroslav the Wise

Today, 20 February on the Church’s calendar, we commemorate the Holy Great Prince Yaroslav the Wise. I first became acquainted with St Yaroslav through Bishop Kallistos’s brief account in The Orthodox Church, and I immediately took note of him (literally—I made a note in the margin). Unfortunately, I don’t have my copy of that book anymore and can’t quote it or cite the page number, but I do have something even better. There is a wonderful bit about St Yaroslav in the Primary Chronicle for the year 6545 (1037 AD). I shall quote the entire excerpt from Samuel H. Cross’s translation plus the introductory note given in Serge A. Zenkovsky’s Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales, rev. and enlarged ed. (NY: Meridian, 1974), pp. 71-3:

12. Yaroslav the Wise

Fratricidal warring among the sons of Vladimir ended in 1016 with the victory of Prince Yaroslav, who established a firm rule over Russia for nearly forty years, from 1016 to 1054. This was the ‘golden age’ of Kievan Russia, the age when material, intellectual, and artistic achievements were particularly brilliant. Prince Yaroslav, called ‘Yaroslav the Wise’ by his contemporaries because of the peace and prosperity that marked his reign, maintained lively relations with Byzantium and Western Europe, and his children and grandchildren married the royalty of various western European nations. His daughter, Ann, became queen of France, and ruled that country in the name of her son after the death of her husband, Henry I, the Capet. It is of interest to note that Ann was the only literate member of the French royal family, and signed most of the state documents for her husband and son.

6545 (1037) Yaroslav built the great citadel at Kiev, near which stand the Golden Gates. He founded there also the metropolitan Church of St Sophia, the Church of the
Annunciation by the Golden Gates, and also the Monastery of Ss George and Irene. During his reign, the Christian faith was fruitful and multiplied, while the number of monks increased, and new monasteries came into being. Yaroslav loved religious establishments and was devoted to priests, especially to monks. He applied himself to books, and read them continually day and night. He assembled many scribes, and translated from Greek into Slavic. He wrote and collected many books through which true believers are instructed and enjoy religious education. For as one man plows the land, another sows, and still others reap and eat food in abundance, so did this prince. His father Vladimir plowed and harrowed the soil when he enlightened Russia through baptism, and this prince sowed the hearts of the faithful with the written word, and we in turn reap the harvest by receiving the teaching of books. For great is the profit from book learning.

Through the medium of books, we are shown and taught the way of repentance, for we gain wisdom and continence from the written word. Books are like rivers that water the whole earth; they are the springs of wisdom. For books have an immeasurable depth; by them we are consoled in sorrow. They are the bridle of self-restraint. For great is wisdom. As Solomon said in its praise: ‘I (Wisdom) have inculcated counsel; I have summoned reason and prudence. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Mine are counsel, wisdom, constancy, and strength. Through me kings rule, and the mighty decree justice. Through me are princes magnified and the oppressors possess the earth. I love them that love me, and they who seek me shall find grace’ (Proverbs 8:12, 13, 14-17). If you seek wisdom attentively in books, you will obtain great profit for your spirit. He who reads books converses with God or with holy men. If one possesses the words of the prophets, the teachings of the evangelists and the Apostles, and the lives of the Holy Fathers, his soul will derive great profit therefrom. Thus Yaroslav, as we have said, was a lover of books, and as he wrote many, he deposited them in the Church of St Sophia, which he himself had founded. He adorned it with gold and silver and churchly vessels, and in it the usual hymns are raised to God at the customary seasons. He founded other churches in the cities and districts, appointing priests and paying them out of his personal fortune. He bade them teach the people, since that is the duty which God has prescribed them, and to go often into the churches. Priests and Christian laymen thus increased in number. Yaroslav rejoiced to see the multitude of his churches and of his Christian subjects, but the devil was afflicted, since he was now conquered by this new Christian nation.

Sir Dimitri Obolensky points out that the chronicler here is so gushing with (genuine) emotion, and so gratefully eager ‘to extol the virtues’ of St Yaroslav ‘in promoting the Slav vernacular culture that he fails, in this passage, to mention the fountainhead of this culture—the work of Cyril and Methodius’ (Byzantium and the Slavs [Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1994], pp. 219-20). But it must be acknowledged that it was immediately through the bibliophilia of St Yaroslav that this culture was passed on to the chronicler, and his gratitude is thus not misdirected.

Of course, one of the many important achievements of St Yaroslav’s reign, which was not mentioned in this passage of the Chronicle, was the compilation of the first Russian code of laws, the Pravda Russkaia or Lex Russica. According to Thomas Riha, although it was formed in ‘the atmosphere’ of Byzantine law, the Pravda was ‘based upon customary law’ (Readings in the History of Russian Civilization, Vol. I: Russia Before Peter the Great, 900-1700, ed. Thomas Riha [Chicago: U of Chicago, 1966], pp. 33, 32). Riha also notes ‘a striking resemblance between some of its clauses and some of the provisions of King Alfred’s Wessex laws’ (p. 32). Eve Levin points out that a 'strong theme' of the whole Pravda 'was the protection of Orthodox Russian women' (Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs [Ithaca, NY: Cornell U, 1995], p. 102). Nevertheless, among the more important articles of the Pravda, wonderfully illustrative of the vast wisdom and justice of the Great Prince, is the following: ‘Article 67. If anyone tears [another’s] beard, and [the offended either comes to the court] with the sign of it, or produces men [as witnesses], [the offender pays] a 12 grivna fine; but if there is a claim and no men [to support it], there is no fine’ (Riha, p. 43). A richly deserved 12 grivna fine, one feels!

Having been so impressed by the example of St Yaroslav as I encountered it in Bishop Kallistos's account as well as in the Primary Chronicle, I was thrilled when my father (an avid genealogist) showed me that we could trace one of our ancestors back to Anne of Kiev and Henry I Capet of France, and from her to St Yaroslav, St Vladimir, and St Olga, and thence to Rurik and eventually, of course, to Odin—according to Snorri Sturluson a descendant of King Priam of Troy (Edda, trans. and ed. Anthony Faulkes [London: Everyman, 2001], p. 3). So it is on behalf of an ancestor, fallen under 'Pyrrhus' bleeding sword', that I second the immortal words (preferably in a Charlton Heston impression):

Out, out thou strumpet Fortune! All you gods,
In general synod take away her power,
Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,
And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven,
As low as to the fiends.

1 comment:

Thomas H said...

I would like to add that Anne of Kiev is also a saint. She was originally born in Sweden (and therefore, perhaps a distant relative to saint Olga), to the king Olof, who was the first christian king of Sweden; he was baptised, together with his daughter, by the english missionary, saint Sigfrid.

First, Anne was supposed to marry the norwegian king Olav the holy, "the eternal king of Norway", in order to restore peace. But there was a change of plans, and she got married to Yaroslav instead; though one of her demands was that she could bring a bodyguard from Sweden, and that she would be given the area around lake Ladoga, where the monastery of Valamo would later be founded. All her demands were fullfilled.

When she came to Kiev, her name was changed to Irene - "Peace" (her swedish name was first "Ingegerd"). This is suiting, not only because she was supposed to marry Olav of Norway in order to restore peace, but also because she would be negotiating for peace among the brothers in Kiev.

To make a long story short, she finally became a nun, after the death of her husband, and died with the name Anne.

Relics of St Anne first returned to Sweden a couple of months ago; a thousand years after having left to Kiev. The relics were given from the OCA:s church in Moscow.