John Exarch in Russian Medieval Literature

Written by Анисава Милтенова
John Exarch in Russian Medieval Literature John Exarch in Russian Medieval Literature

A considerable part of the early Old Bulgarian translation literature is preserved in Russian literature and is characterized by a clearly compilative character – with original authors’ parts.


John the Exarch’s Шестоднев (Shestodnev) [Hexameron] is precisely such an exegetical work, in which about one-third of the text is original. The composition is supposed to have been created before 913 AD when, after the siege of Constantinople, Simeon received the royal title of a tsar, while at the beginning of the Prologue, John the Exarch addressed the ruler as a knyaz [prince] (my Prince, glorious Simeon) and the palace in the capital in his description was called ‘the Prince’s court’. The work was composed on the basis of the Hexameron of Basil the Great (ca 330–378AD) and Severian of Gabala (unkown – 415 AD/430 AD). Basil the Great’s nine-homily composition (Ὁμιλίαι Θʹ εἰς τήν Ἑξαήμερον) is regarded as an exemplar model of this genre. The interpretation of the biblical text of the Genesis follows the traditions of the Cappadocian School. The writer has used the ancient philosophy in two directions – as an argument for Christian cosmogony, and as an example of views that should be disproved because of their pagan basis. Severian of Gabala’s work, which includes six homilies, is presented in a synopsis and in short extracts. The reason was probably that he was a representative of the Antioch school in cosmogony, which was not well-accepted by John the Exarch. Other sources have been used as well: excerpts from the treatises of Theodoret of Cyrrhus За материята и света [On the Matter and the World] and Лекуване на езическите болести (Therapeutikē ) [The Cure for Pagan Evils]; the description of the human body in the Sixth Homily was based on Aristotle’s History of Animals (presumably taken from a rework made by Monk Meletius in the 9th century AD) (Икономова 1995: 174–175). The Hexameron has played a crucial role in both the establishment of the Old Bulgarian literary language and in the artistic expressiveness of literature. The text contains the first philosophical-conceptual system for the Slavs and the corresponding terminology.

The earliest transcript of the Hexameron dates back to 1263 and was made at the Hilendar Monastery at Mt Athos by Theodore the Grammarian (State Historical Museum, Moscow, Sin. 345). The work is known from more than 50 Russian transcripts, the earliest of which are from the 15th century (e.g. No 90 of 1414 in the collection of Barsov, State Historical Museum, Moscow; No 433 from the collection of the Joseph-Volokolamsk Monastery; No 145 in the collection of Moscow Theological Academy; No 619 in the collection of Egorov (all in the Russian State Library, Moscow); No 1/126 and No 13/1090, the Cyril-Belozersk Collection, the Russian National Library, St Petersburg, etc.). After a comprehensive textual analysis, Galina S. Barankova identified four branches in Russian manuscript tradition, each with different history: the Chudovsk branch, the academic group of which dated back to an Old Bulgarian original of the work, transferred to Russia in the 11th century (a transcript of this group is included in the Great reading menaion of Metropolitan Macarius); the Belozersk-Barsov branch, which has preserved traces of a middle-Bulgarian protograph, which, according to her assumption, was transferred to Russia in the 14th–15th century; Uvarov’s and Ovchinnikov’s branch, with later Russian inserts (excerpts from the works of Zinovy Otensky and Maxim the Greek, as well as excerpts from Christian Topography of Cosmas Indicopleustes with images). The last two branches (Uvarov’s and Ovchinnikov’s) have distinctive glosses in the marginal fields, that explain which other works with reports on natural science contain similar motives and interpretations. A. V. Gorsky was of the opinion that they were originally introduced by a man-of-letters in Moscow in the 17th century. Of particular interest to researchers is the linguistic analysis of the transcripts, especially of those with an Old Bulgarian protograph. The lexical substitutions illustrate the process of aligning the orthography with the norms of the Russian literary language. Scientists are unanimous that Hexameron has been of great importance for the formation of the Russian literary language, and its layer of scientific terminology, in particular. In addition, linguistic analysis has shown the sustainability of the lexical fund and of the synonyms’ wealth that characterizes the early period of the Slavic Middle Ages as a whole.

D. S. Likhachov defined the work as the ‘basic aesthetic code’ for the ancient Slavic literatures. He pointed out that Hexameron has been one of the monuments that had had the greatest impact on Russian writers from the 11th to the 17th centuries. A number of parallels with the work of John the Exarch were found in the Sermon on Law and Grace by Metropolitan Hilarion (created 1037–1050). Russian writer Vladimir Monomakh (11th–12th II century) in his Sermon on the structure of the world and the general harmony of the universe used stylistic techniques and presented a general picture of God’s creation that were very close to the text of Hexameron (Лихачов 1963). The author of Слово за гибелта на руската земя [Homily for the Destruction of Russian Land] (13th century) has borrowed not only the approach to creating the artistic lands’ and beauty of the world order (Лихачов 1966). A.V. Solovyov related the Russian work to the earliest descriptions of native land in European literature (Соловьев 1958). D. S. Likhachov emphasized that during the 11th–13th centuries the delight and the admiration with the harmonious structure of the universe had taken over the Russian writers and that they often resorted to borrowings from Hexameron as a model in this regard. The reception of the work in Russian literature was characteristic of later centuries as well. As N. S. Sarafanova-Demkova maintained, in the Vita of Protopop Avakum (17th century), there were not only inserts from the work of John the Exarch, but the author has regarded it as an artistic model.

Небеса (Heavens) is a translation of the third part of the work of John of Damascus (676–749 AD) The Source of Knowledge (Πηγὴ γνώσεως), created by John the Exarch around 893 AD. Forty-eight out of the hundred chapters of the original have been translated and added were translations of patristic authors such as Theodoret of Cyrus, Gregory of Nyssa and others. The Slavic tradition of the work (and of Hexameron as well) was identified by Konstantin Kalaydovich (1792–1832). The essence of the text is contained in the systematization of the basic dogmas of Christian teaching in order to create a guide to Orthodox dogma. Philosophy and natural science terminology has been a particularly valuable contribution of John the Exarch. The text of Heaven penetrated Russian literature very early. The earliest Russian transcript is from the 13th century (Sin. 108, State Historical Museum), and the total number of transcripts exceeds twenty. It has been established that the author of Boris and Gleb’s Story (11th century) has borrowed parts of Ch. 40 of the essay. Subsequently, a second translation of the work of John of Damascus, Dialectics, translated according to the principles of the Athos reform, has penetrated from the Slavic south. Late Russian writers also knew and used the translation of John the Exarch until the 17th century. The first stage of the purposeful editing of the translation was around the middle of the 15th century – in a manuscript from the collection of the Moscow Theological Academy, No. 145, Russian State Library, dated 1450. A decade later, as Olga S. Sapozhnikova noted, a second stage of text editing began, with Russian writers attempting to reconcile the terminology of the Dialectics and Theology treatises. In 1470/1480 the whole terminological vocabulary of John the Exarch’s translation was replaced by a more modern one, in line with the South Slavic translations of the 14th century – the so-called Trinity editions of the Theology (transcript in the collection of the Trinity Lavra of St Sergius No. 177). In addition, the ancient translation was included in the Macarius’ Menaion Reader (Икономова 1995: 174). In the 16th century, Metropolitan Daniel of Moscow (1492–1539) prepared and added extensive interpolations of Russian translations and original works to the philosophical-theological chapters – Maxim the Greek, Joseph Volotsky, and others. Around 1630, a parallel work began in the Moscow Printing House and in the Solovetsky Monastery for editing the transcripts of Theology in the translation of John the Exarch. In Moscow, the editorial work was associated with the name of Stefan Gorchak (No 317/337, Solovetsky Collection, Russian National Library, St Petersburg), while in the Solovetsky Monastery it was done by the highly erudite man-of-letters Sergey Shelonin (No 310/330, 1637; 312/332, ca 1637; No 309/329, 1641; No 315/335, after 1641, Solovetsky Collection, Russian National Library, St Petersburg) (Sapozhnikova 2010: 178–200; 207–210). A new corpus of works with adapted text has been formed by the aligning of the lexical and grammatical forms with the modern Russian language norm. The editorial effort provided a wealth of material for comparing synonymy in Russian and Bulgarian traditions.


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SESDiva ERA.Net RUS Plus Call 2017 – S&T

SESDiva. Project № 156

SESDiva aims at creating a virtual museum of written culture in relation to the social, religious, cultural, and ideological environment and relations between the South and East Slavs throughout the centuries from the 11th to the beginning of the 20th century.

Duration: 2018-2020
Program: ERA.Net RUS Plus Call 2017 ‐ S&T Projects