Pointing Out the Elephant: On Sean Griffin’s “The Liturgical Past in Byzantium and Early Rus”

February 6, 2021   •   By Simon Franklin

The Liturgical Past in Byzantium and Early Rus

Sean Griffin

SOME BOOKS PROMOTE themselves with bold titles that scream their own significance: How X Changed the World, The Truth About Y, Z and the Meaning of Life. At the other end of the scale there are the “so what?” titles: restrained, academic, obscure, doubtless worthy in their disciplines — but really, what’s the point of them for most of us? Why should you or I take time out from doomscrolling on Twitter? The Liturgical Past in Byzantium and Early Rus sounds like just such a “so what?” title: PhD-plus, good for establishing professional credentials in the ivory tower. Next item, please. Except that it’s not. Sure, the book has hundreds of footnotes, over 45 pages of bibliography, and copious quotations from sources in Cyrillic and Greek scripts. There’s no disguising the fact that it is an academic study, albeit a very good one (winner of the 2020 W. Bruce Lincoln Book Prize for the best first book about Russia as well as the Ecclesiastical History Society Book Prize). The focus of Sean Griffin’s book is a medieval chronicle and its sources. However, the subject resonates beyond its time.

Even now this chronicle’s tales are read not just as true accounts of a remote past but as directly relevant to current events. They even become instruments of policy, cited to justify actions in the present. They are foundation myths of national and geopolitical origins and identities, both in self-affirmation and in conflict. Who is their rightful owner and successor? Russia? Ukraine? These two modern nations are divided by a common past — or, to be more accurate, by shared stories of a past (facts are fragile and debatable, stories are certain and controllable). The stories were devised nearly a thousand years ago, yet they remain potent. They create meanings for millions. They are not ancient curiosities but living truths.

Early Rus is a label for a medieval territory that spanned much of today’s Ukraine, Belarus, and European Russia. In the Early Middle Ages, these vast lands had no obvious geographical, ethnic, or cultural coherence. They were populated by different peoples speaking different languages (Finnic, Slavic, Turkic) and leading different ways of life. The earliest connecting strands were the river-roads that were exploited for long-distance trade: crucially, the north-south routes between the Baltic and the Black Sea, along which — with organization and resolve — it was possible to travel between Scandinavia and the richest city of Europe, Constantinople. Developed mainly over the 10th century, this was the backbone of what was to become the land of Rus. Its major settlements were at one end Novgorod (now in Russia, about 150 miles south of St. Petersburg), and at the other end Kiev (now Kyiv, Ukraine). From this central axis the frequently fractious ruling family extended its control eastward and westward, forming a network of principalities. The “lands” were linked partly through their dominant clan, and partly through cultural practices and organizational structures that came with a shared faith, for in the late 10th century their forebear, Vladimir, prince of Kiev, made Christianity the official religion. In came books and bishops and the miracle-working bones of saints, in came ways of painting and building and worshipping, and in came a new total vision of time, of past and future, from the Creation to the end of the world. God created time; God created history. To understand truly the meanings of the past was to affirm the divine presence in Creation.

If Christianity purported to make sense of the world, then early Christian bookmen in Rus sought, through Christianity, to make sense of themselves. The problem was that, in the writings imported with the faith (in the Church Slavic language, mostly translated from Greek), Rus was very hard to find. How could one locate Rus on the imported map of meaningful history that failed to take Rus explicitly into account? This was the task that some of the first interpreters and chroniclers set themselves; to create the stories and the images which showed that Rus was meant to be there, that it, too, was part of God’s plan for mankind.

An elegant sermon by the head of the Rus church in the mid-11th century, Metropolitan Ilarion, made the theological case, in terms of Old and New Testaments: the age of the Law (the Old Testament, the Jews) prefigured and was superseded by the age of Grace (the New Testament, Christianity, all the peoples of the earth). The lateness of Rus implied no lesser dignity. The last shall be first.

A more complicated, multilayered, and ultimately far more influential version was the narrative in the text that has come to be known in English as the Primary Chronicle. This is the focus of Sean Griffin’s study. In its surviving form, the Primary Chronicle was compiled in the second decade of the 12th century, though it incorporated accounts that probably took shape somewhat earlier. The chronicle wove together three main strands: an ethnic story that linked the people of Rus, through the Slavs, to Biblical origins in the division of lands among the sons of Noah after the Flood; a dynastic story of a ruling family of Scandinavian origin; and, capping and making sense of it all, a religious story of the origins and triumph of Christianity derived from “Greek” (i.e., Byzantine, east Christian) origins. Land, language, faith, and family converged. Rus and its rulers were not merely explained historically, geographically, and politically. They were sacralized.

The family’s first individual convert to Christianity had been Vladimir’s grandmother Olga, who became the precursor, like John the Baptist, or like Helena, mother of the Byzantine emperor Constantine the Great. Vladimir himself was of course a new Constantine, and also in his achievements like an Apostle to his land. The family even acquired its very own saints: two of Vladimir’s sons, Boris and Gleb, who were murdered by one of their brothers (as Abel was murdered by Cain) in the power struggles that followed Vladimir’s death in 1015. Though not martyred for the faith, they were Christ-like in their acceptance of suffering: lambs to the slaughter, an innocent sacrifice, intercessors for their kin and for the faithful of their land. Finally, another son, Iaroslav, turned the act of faith into a visible, physical reality, building Kiev as a great Christian city in the image of Constantinople, complete with its own glorious cathedral of Saint Sophia.

The chronicle’s narratives buttress a modern sense of sacred historical entitlement that can at times be disarmingly specific. For example, in the chronicle’s story Vladimir was baptized on the Crimean Peninsula. In some of the more extreme recent polemics, whoever reckons to own the story also reckons thereby to have a right to own Crimea.

Where did the myths come from? Scholars have identified narrative sources and analogies from biblical apocrypha to Byzantine chronicles to Scandinavian sagas. Sean Griffin’s contribution is different. Where others have looked for the fruits of monastic erudition, Griffin takes us into the heart of monastic experience, to the words and images that were assimilated not through analytical reading but though meditative repetition in the cycles of monastic devotion. He explores and shows how the foundational stories of a meaningful Rus Christian identity were infused with meanings embedded in the language of liturgy. Is this new? Did anyone imagine that monks might think to express their interpretation of the world without recourse to the language and imagery that was central to their regular acts of worship? Elephants in rooms are rarely visible until someone points out their existence.

Not that liturgies expressly explained Rus; but they did evoke the events and people and images — partly biblical, partly Byzantine — through which Rus could acquire meaning by association and analogy. Hence the new Constantines and Helenas, the apostle-like ruler, the sacrificial lambs. And a great deal more. Griffin’s “Byzantine liturgical past” was by no means limited to a few epochal figures. It is richly textured with “hundreds of biblical and Byzantine heroes: ‘ancestors, fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and every righteous spirit made perfect in faith.’” The headline analogies — Constantine, Helena, and the like — are too stark to do justice to the fabric of Griffin’s chapters, which are thick with quotations, all rendered into English alongside their Cyrillic and Greek originals. For scholars, Griffin’s deep intertextual readings can provide a semantic anchorage in the close interpretation of the chronicle’s words. Those with no stake in the detailed argument can drift through the clouds of images that swirl in their own poetic rhythms.

Griffin stresses the Byzantineness of the liturgical past evoked by the chronicle’s myths for Rus. For him, Rus was an “East Roman liturgical colony.” But the Rus myth in the chronicle was nevertheless bespoke. Even if all the key elements were Byzantine, it did not include all elements that were key to Byzantium’s own mythologies of itself. Rus made a virtue of lateness, Byzantium clung to its antiquity. The chronicle myth more or less ignores Rome itself. Byzantines called themselves Romans, in Rus they were “Greeks.” The providential significance of Romanness is also embedded in liturgy, for example on Christmas Eve, when it is stressed that God chose to become flesh “when Augustus ruled alone upon earth.” That is, the Roman Empire was God’s chosen vessel in history long before Constantine realized its meaning in Conversion. This had little traction in (or attraction for) early Rus. Another 400 years were to pass before ideologues in Muscovite Russia found a connection between their rulers and the family of the emperor Augustus. But that was a different story in a different place.


Simon Franklin is professor of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge, UK, and a fellow of Clare College. He is the author of, among other works, Sermons and Rhetoric of Kievan Rus (Harvard University Press, 1991), Writing, Society and Culture in Early Rus, c. 950-1300 (Cambridge University Press, 2002), Byzantium – Rus – Russia: Studies in the Translation of Christian Culture (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), and The Russian Graphosphere, 1450-1850 (Cambridge University Press, 2019). In 2007, he was awarded the Lomonosov Gold Medal by the Russian Academy of Sciences for outstanding achievements in research in Russian history and culture.