Guthier, Sophia Sonja
Eastern European History
#White, Monica
#Byzantine Empire
#Early Middle Ages
White, Military saints in Byzantium and Rus, 900-1200
Annotation author: Guthier, Sophia Sonja
Book author: White, Monica

Monica White, Military saints in Byzantium and Rus, 900-1200, Cambridge 2013

Monica White is Associate Professor in Russian and Slavonic Studies at University of Nottingham. Her expertise lies in the history of pre-modern Russia and Byzantium, the Orthodox Church, cults of saints, relics and religion, and warfare.

White’s study Military saints in Byzantium and Rus, 900-1200 seeks to explain the process by which three unrelated martyrs – George, Demetrios and Theodore – were first established as a corps of heavenly protectors of the Macedonian emperors and examines the changes which their cults later underwent in Rus, culminating in the inclusion within their ranks of Sts. Boris and Gleb. Contrary to other studies, Monica White does not attempt to solve questions of dating. The arguments depend not on the chronology of the sources but on their function and meaning. White includes various sources into her investigation, such as liturgical and hagiographic texts, chronicles (e.g. Povest’ Vremennych Let) but also seals, coins, church dedications, and minor/early arts.

In the first part of the book, White analyzes the cults of the mentioned saints in late antiquity, the circumstances that led to their selection as a group of patrons in war in the tenth century, and the combination of the ideals of martyr and warrior that characterised their joint imperial cults (chapter 1-3). White explains that, in Byzantium, the initial development of the corps of holy warriors was a phenomenon of the court rather than the Church. However, there is no evidence to suggest that the Church opposed the militarisation of a handful of martyrs. These innovations were incorporated into church texts and rituals, with the result that many ecclesiastical writings featured the same interplay of the attributes of martyrdom and military prowess as the works of art commissioned for the court.

The second half of the investigation (chapter 4-6) concerns the fate of the middle Byzantine martyr-warrior ideal in Rus. White argues that the military saints provided a template for the nascent cult of Boris and Gleb which began in the late 11th century. Byzantium spread the martyr-warrior ideal through the medium of liturgical and hagiographic literature to Rus, where it initially seems to have been confined to the Church, although the princes of Rus inherited the institution of military sainthood from the Byzantines. While still seen as intercessors in war, the saints’ veneration in Rus’ princely circles became centred on their patronage of individuals. The attribute of martyrdom lost much of the prominence which it had enjoyed in the Byzantine imperial court. Another feature which differentiated the saints’ cults in Rus and Byzantium was the association which developed in Rus between Boris and Gleb and the holy warriors. Although Boris and Gleb’s cult was influenced by a variety of earlier figures, the iconographic similarities between the two groups show that the holy warriors were particularly important models for Boris and Gleb’s attributes of intercession in war and the defense of Rus and its princes.

In the last chapter, White deals with military saints under the house of Suzdal in the 12th and 13th centuries. White reports that there is evidence of Byzantine influence in the practices of the princes of Vladimir-Suzdal. Over the course of three generations, members of this family adopted various elements of the Byzantine veneration of military saints. Their monuments indicate that they envisioned the holy warriors as a defined group which had collective responsibility for the protection of their lands. These princes continued to make innovations in the cults of the saints by further integrating Boris and Gleb into the group, creating a new force of heavenly patrons. White notices that these and earlier permutations in the veneration of the military saints’ mirror some of the more general features of cultural exchange between Byzantium and Rus during the pre-Mongol period.

Monica White concludes that in Byzantium and Rus the military saints occupied central if not consistent positions in religious life and military ideology. Their basic role as the protectors of armies varied little. She says that military sainthood found its way to Rus along with many other Byzantine traditions. Like monumental architecture, monasticism, manuscript illumination, and other forms of cultural and religious expression, the veneration of the holy warriors soon took on a subtle but distinct local colouring. Despite the significance of these changes and the development of new practices, the most important feature of the military saints remained unchanged in Byzantium and Rus, both before and after the early thirteenth century: the rulers of both countries, seeking to secure divine aid in battle, never ceased to look to these figures for protection.


Military saints in Byzantium and Rus, 900-1200 is an excellent book with a different focus than many other studies about this topic. Monica White concentrates on the function and meaning of the sources; she does not address any dating problems. She offers a very good overview over the current state of this research field. This book may be recommended to an audience interested in the field of military saints and cultural exchange.