HURI Fellow Talia Zajac Wins Prize for Kyivan Rus’ Article

May 31, 2019
Talia Zajac

Talia ZajacCongratulations to Dr. Talia Zajac, one of our Shklar Fellows during 2018 spring semester, for winning the Canadian Association for Ukrainian Studies Article Prize for 2017-2018.

Her article, “The Social-Political Roles of the Princesses in Kyivan Rus,’ ca. 945-1240” is published in A Companion to Global Queenship (ed. Elena Woodacre, 2018).

Zajac is a graduate of the University of Toronto and is currently affiliated with the University of Nottingham. Her research focuses on Kyivan Rus’ dynastic marriages, particularly ones that formed a connection between Kyivan Rus’ and Western Europe, and between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. She works to uncover the political activities and agency of women in medieval societies, which often are excluded from historical accounts. In addition to re-examining the influence of women during this time, her research calls into question the notion that Western Europe and Ukraine can be divided along Catholic and Orthodox civilizational lines.

Global Queenship book coverA Companion to Global Queenship is published by Arc Humanities Press. It is available for purchase through the distributor links on the Arc Humanities website.

This collection expands previous regional and individual studies of queenship and female political agency in order to engage in a comparative study of premodern female rule on a global scale. While the field of queenship studies and examinations of gender and power have been flourishing, the literature has tended to be dominated by studies of European royalty. This volume aims to embrace and develop the trend towards an increasingly global outlook for the field of queenship studies. Case studies of women from different periods, places, and religions are deliberately mixed to compare and contrast the realities of queenship in varied settings. Lesser studied examples of queens are provided alongside fresh perspectives on more familiar figures and regions. The authors increase our understanding of understudied individuals and groups of queens, and they encourage the comparison of the practice of queenship in the premodern era. This authoritative and comprehensive Companion will be required reading for all scholars and students of premodern gender and political studies.

The publishers kindly granted us permission to post Zajac’s article to share with our community. Read the article.

Zajac also answered a few of our questions about the book and her time here at HURI as a Shklar Fellow.

Eugene Shklar and Fellow Talia ZajacHURI: What role did your fellowship at HURI play in the creation of this article?

Zajac: Thanks to generous funding from the Eugene and Daymel Shklar Research Fellowship, I was able to spend one academic term at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute in the spring of 2018 in which I was able to bring several research projects to completion. Among them, I was blessed to have the research time and library access to investigate the public roles that a princess could play in Kyivan Rus’ (the medieval ancestor state of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus’). My research on this topic was a contribution to the volume Global Queenship, edited by Elena Woodacre (ARC Humanities Press, 2018). As its title shows, this volume is an ambitious attempt to understand the nature of queenship in the Middle Ages and early modern period not only in Europe, but in a broad geographic perspective throughout the medieval and early modern world, with chapters spanning from Wales to Georgia, the Sultanate of Delhi, China, Japan, New Zealand and Madagascar, among other countries.

In my contribution to this wider project, I compared the political and social roles available to female members of the ruling clan of Rus’ in the tenth to thirteenth century with the roles available to medieval Western European queens, their social equals. In East Slavic sources, each female member of the ruling dynasty of Rus’ bore the title k”nęgyni (also spelled knęginia or more commonly, kniaginia ), which was the female equivalent of the male title k”niaz’, a word related to our English “king.” Usually k”nęgyni is translated in English as “princess” and “k”niaz’” as “prince,” but medieval Latin sources more often refer to the female and male rulers of Kyivan Rus’ as regina (queen) and rex (king), respectively. So, I was curious to explore the question: How did the agency available to Rus’ princesses compare to that of queens, since at least to outsider observers writing in Latin, they were very similar?

Finding an answer was difficult and still partly awaits further research. In some ways, I found the roles to be analogous—for instance, both the princess in Rus’ and the western medieval queen had special titles of rulership; both were married to a prince or king in a Christian ritual; both gave birth to children who alone were considered legitimate and able to inherit power; both wore elaborate clothing and headdresses that emphasized their elevated social status over that of common women. But Rus’ princesses had more limited power than their Western European counterparts in certain respects — for example, by the rules of succession adopted by the ruling dynasty in Rus’, women were not allowed to become rulers in their own right. Instead of just ascribing this kind of limitation on power to misogyny, I tried to trace what cultural influences (for example, from Byzantine, Scandinavian, and even nomadic Turkic groups) might have shaped the agency available to elite women in Rus’.

list of radzivill chronHURI: Among many other sources, you draw from the Rus' Primary Chronicle for the information that is at the core of your article. Why is the Primary Chronicle an important source? How does it differ from other chronicles, such as the Kyivan and Novgorod chronicles, which you also use?

Zajac: The Rus’ Primary Chronicle is easily the most important surviving narrative source for early Rus’ history. No comparable document has survived that tells in one grand narrative the story of the origins of Rus’, its rulers, their adoption of Christianity, and the various ‘games of thrones’ that took place as rulers clashed for power. Its main narrative tells of events that took place from the ninth to early twelfth century, but it begins with a kind of pre-history, tracing the descent of the Rus’ all the way back to Japheth, one of the sons of Noah in the Bible.

A note under the year 1116 in one major group of manuscripts of the Primary Chronicle states that the monk Silvester wrote its text at the Monastery of Saint Michael outside Kyiv, but most scholars believe that Silvester copied the Chronicle from previously existing manuscripts. Many people may perhaps know the Primary Chronicle by the title “Nestor’s Chronicle”: but this is a misnomer. The idea that the monk Nestor of the Kyivan Monastery of the Caves was the author of this text comes from a note inserted into a late sixteenth century manuscript copy of the Chronicle (called the “Khlebnikov” or “Ostrozkyi”) manuscript). Historians and literary scholars agree that the form in which the text of the Primary Chronicle has come down to us is not just the product of one person’s authorship, but the result of editing and re-editing by numerous anonymous monks over time. The number of these editorial changes, called redactions, when and where they were made, remain greatly debated.

The Chronicle’s story of Prince Volodimir (Vladimir’s) Sviatoslavich’s acceptance of Christianity from Byzantium in 988/989 is a case in point. As historians Andrzej Poppe and Jonathan Shepard have shown, in fact, the conversion narrative has multiple beginnings: we are told that Volodimer was first taught by a missionary Greek “philosopher” about Christianity. Even though he is convinced by the missionary’s argument, he still sends envoys around the world to find out whether Islam, Judaism, or Christianity in its Western or Eastern forms is the best religion. Later, in the chronicle narrative, we find that Volodimir is suddenly blind and then miraculously healed by his belief in the Christian God, but we are also told that he accepted conversion to Christianity in exchange for marrying the Byzantine emperor’s sister, Anna, after besieging the city of Cherson… You can see in the fabric of the text how the monks have assembled different conversion narratives to form a cohesive whole, but the seams of the texts they have stitched together are still visible.

So in sum, we can say that the Primary Chronicle was written by monks in Kyiv in the early twelfth century to explain the origins of Christianity in their land and how the ruling family came to power—for this reason, the Primary Chronicle is also known as the “Tale of Bygone Years” (in Old East Slavic: Povest’ Vremennykh Let; sometimes abbreviated to “PVL” ). These monks were trying to make sense of the ancient history of their land in light of their twelfth-century Christian beliefs. They used various sources to understand the past centuries of this history, including Byzantine chronicles and Slavonic translations of tenth-century trading and peace treaties signed between Byzantium and Rus’. Sometimes other types of texts, like the story of the founding of the Kyivan Monastery of the Caves, are inserted into the main narration of year-to-year events, which becomes more detailed from the eleventh century onward.

ostrowskiBut the fact that the Primary Chronicle is often a unique source of information for early Rus’ history and the fact that it has only come down in manuscript copies written centuries after the original composition sometimes makes it difficult for historians to assess its reliability. Women are often frustratingly only mentioned in passing—even the founding of monasteries or churches often takes a back seat to stories of competition for power between male princes.

As Rus’ became more politically fragmented in the second half of the twelfth century, other major Rus’ cities began their own local chronicle-writing traditions. But nearly all surviving Rus’ chronicles begin with the text of the Primary Chronicle before telling the story of their own local histories, showing its central importance to their understanding of their shared past. For example, in the Kyivan Chronicle’s text is immediately preceded by the text of the Primary Chronicle. The Novgorod Chronicle is an exception, as Novgorod developed its own chronicle-writing tradition very early and its relationship with the text of the Primary Chronicle (as it has come down to us today) is debated (one influential theory argues that the so-called ‘younger’ version of the Novgorod First Chronicle actually preserves traces of a hypothetical annal called the ‘Base Compilation’ assembled in Kyiv in the 1090s, making it older than the twelfth-century text of the Primary Chronicle). But there is no question that for all its textual problems and mysteries, the Primary Chronicle remains an absolutely fundamental source for the early medieval history of the East Slavs.

HURI: HURI will soon publish an English translation of this chronicle. Can you comment on the value this translation could provide?

Zajac: The oldest surviving copy of the Primary Chronicle dates to 1377 from present-day northern Russia. This oldest copy (called the “Laurentian” after the monk, Laurentij, who copied it out), was the basis for the older English translation of the Primary Chronicle made by Samuel Hazard Cross and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor and published in 1953--- the translation was begun by Cross in 1930 and completed after his death by his colleague.

However, there is another important copy of the Primary Chronicle—the so-called ‘Hypatian Copy’, which is named after the Monastery of Saint Hypatian in Kostroma (near Yaroslavl in the present-day Russia) where it was discovered. Although this manuscript copy is not as old as the 1377 copy (the Hypatian Codex was written in the fifteenth century), its text is believed to date from the end of the thirteenth-century. It preserves many instances of more accurate readings, closer to the twelfth century text(s) than the 1377 copy. As far as I am aware, the new HURI translation will be based on the Hypatian Copy. It will be exciting to see the changes to the text that will be available for teaching and research.

Rus' princess OlgaHURI: You offer a number of interesting anecdotes as examples of how Rus' princesses were involved in ruling and in the religious development of their lands. Do you have a favorite story or figure?

Zajac: It would be fascinating to experiment in writing a history of Christianization in Rus’ with women, rather than male clerics or princes, as the central protagonists. Two of my favorite figures in this connexion are the tenth-century Rus’ princess Olga (Ol’ha /Helga) and the Byzantine princess Anna Porphyrogenita (d. around 1011), the sister of Emperors Basil II and Constantine VIII of Constantinople and the wife of Volodimir Sviatoslavich of Rus’ (d. 1015).

Olga plays a prominent role in the Primary Chronicle and scholars have also justly compared her to powerful queens of Scandinavian sagas and wise women of Slavic folklore. Not only did she avenge her husband Igor’s death in 945 through a series of brutal reprisals against the Slavic tribe that murdered him, but she also acted as a regent on behalf of her young son Sviatoslav. At the same time, she saw the manifold advantages of conversation to Christianity. By comparing Byzantine, Rus’, and Latin sources we learn that she sent embassies to both Byzantine and German emperors to request missionary priests to Rus’. Latin chronicles call her the “queen” (regina) of the Rus’.

The Byzantine-born Anna, too, is important for acting as a Byzantine cultural ambassador to Kyiv by bringing with her art, architecture, and customs from her homeland. For instance, she imported Byzantine artisans who helped create a stone palace and church in Kyiv. The Primary Chronicle portrays Anna as weeping when her brothers tell her that she must leave Byzantium and marry Vladimir, who must have appeared to her to be an uncouth barbarian. But she eventually agrees to the marriage, according to the Chronicle, after her brothers convince her that she (and not Vladimir!) will be the means by which salvation is brought to Rus’. Anna, in short, is given an apostolic-like mission, despite her female gender. Both Olga and Anna are fascinating figures in early Rus’ history and their political, religious, and cultural impact on the future development of East Slavic lands is difficult to underestimate.

HURI: In your article, you explain how princesses were drawing their authority (for their seals) from their patron saints, not (just) their husbands or fathers. Would you say that in some ways, the Church was one of the primary means by which women in this period could have some independence or power?

Zajac: The veneration of female saints in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy and the custom of giving baptismal names to children, who then had their namesake patron-saint in heaven as their special “protector”, lent itself to an iconographical and rhetorical discourse of female power that elite women might draw upon. The fact that princesses associated themselves with their female patron saint on their seals—administrative tools for authenticating legal documents and letters------ serves as an illustration of how these elite women could align themselves with female saints in heaven as a way of bolstering their authority on earth. Religious patronage—founding or donating to churches and monasteries and creating a memorial tradition for themselves—was another way in which elite women could participate in the traditions of the church and also exercise agency in the public sphere.

enamel british museumHURI: In our last Q&A, you mentioned two areas where additional research could be particularly interesting: 1) the entourages of well-born women who traveled across Europe (specifically, what happened to those servants/ ladies in waiting when they reached a new land), and 2) visual culture as a source of information. I think you address the latter to some extent in the Global Queenship article. Do you have anything else to add on these points?

Zajac: There are all sorts of weird and wonderful surviving objects and manuscript illustrations that were owned or commissioned by elite women from Rus’--- including enamelwork rich in iconography, spindle whorls (weights) with inscriptions of their female owners’ names, or amulets inscribed with ‘magical’ protective charms, to name just a few. While many of these pieces have been well-studied in the context of art history or the history of literacy in Rus’, such visual and material culture can also be a fruitful source for further expanding our knowledge of elite women’s agency in Rus’. For instance, by looking at the now-lost grand enamelled jewelled cross commissioned by Princess Euphrosyne of Polatsk (stolen in 1941, but still known from images), her seal, and a thirteenth-century fresco in a monastic church depicting her as donor, we gain a greater appreciation of this twelfth-century princess’ religious authority, administrative agency, and economic purchasing power.

Finally, information in archives—in both Western and Eastern Europe--- have perhaps not yet been fully utilized. They may still contain documents that can reveal family networks of women who travelled as brides across boundaries. For instance, Alexander V. Maiorov has compared effectively Byzantine and Rus’ sources with the genealogical information preserved in the necrology (book of commemoration) of Speyer Cathedral to identify convincingly the family identity of Princess Euphrosyne and to show her family networks. She was the wife of the Rus’ prince Roman Mstislavich (d. 1205), the daughter of Emperor Isaac II Angelos of Byzantium, and the sister of Princess Irene-Maria, who was the wife, in turn, of the German king, Philip of Swabia. The commemorative notices in the Speyer Cathedral necrology show us family connections that otherwise might be lost among different sources housed in different national collections and written in various languages. As long we ask new questions, visual and archival sources can still “speak” to us with new information.