Griffin, The Liturgical Past in Byzantium and Early Rus.
Annotation author: Guthier, Sophia Sonja
Book author: Griffin, Sean

Sean Griffin, The Liturgical Past in Byzantium and Early Rus, Cambridge 2019.

Sean Griffin is a scholar of Russian culture, religion, and politics. His current research focuses on topics as diverse as Russian Orthodox liturgy, contemporary media and memory politics, and the resurgence of medievalism in post-Soviet literature and film. The study under review here is his first published monograph.

Under the title The Liturgical Past in Byzantium and Early Rus Griffin examines liturgical texts to reconstruct the source of information for eleventh- and twelfth-century Rus clerics. Griffin establishes that the Rus’ clerics wrote historiography, e.g. the Primary Chronicle (Povest vremennych let), and it was clerics who wrote and rewrote, copied, and recopied, the political and sacred histories of their respective communities. He calls into question if the clerical writers indeed used historiographical books as their primary source, which would seem the natural approach to modern historians. Griffin reasons that the historiographical past that is contained in the clerics’ writings is instead mainly based on liturgical texts. According to Griffin, historiography itself first arose in Kiev as an attempt to make the local past conform to the liturgical past. The myth of Christian origins in the Rus’ so-called Primary Chronicle offers evidence for this hypothesis.

The book is structured in two parts containing a total of six chapters. In the first part of the book, Sean Griffin gives an overview of liturgy and history in early Rus (chapter 1) and introduces the Rus Primary Chronicle (chapter 2). In the second part, Griffin focuses on the evidence from surviving manuscripts of the Rus Primary Chronicle, where he sees proof of a powerful and important Byzantine political tradition. Griffin’s theory behind this finding is that the worship of God and the ritual retelling of his saving acts was also a covert form of political indoctrination. He assumes that liturgical rites were an explicitly social arrangement between ruler and ruled not only in eastern Rome, but also in the Rus.

By employing the methods of comparative philology, Griffin attempts to recover the political tradition and identifies the liturgical sources of ten annalistic entries from 955 to 1015. Two of these entries are devoted to Princess Olga, seven to Prince Vladimir, and one to both Vladimir and Princes Boris and Gleb. Griffin’s goal is to reconstruct the ritual context that surrounded the creation of these passages. In each chapter, he uses medieval church books to reveal the liturgical subtexts underlying the story of the Christianization of the Rus. In Chapter 4 he suggests that the tale of Princess Olga’s conversion derives, in part, from tenth-century baptismal rubrics, possibly connected with the Great Church in Constantinople. He also discusses the notion of liturgical typologies and suggests that Olga is depicted as both a “Slavic Mary”, using hymns from the major feasts of the Mother of God, as well as a “Slavic Forerunner”, based on hymns from a series of feasts devoted to John the Baptist, Joachim and Anna, and Zechariah and Elizabeth.

Griffin concludes that in the eyes of their contemporaries, the Rurikids reigned in the Rus for the same reason that David and Solomon reigned in Israel, Christ reigned in heaven, and Constantine reigned in Rome: they were the chosen of God. For the reviewer’s project “Varangians and Slavs as a Threat to Byzantium in 18th- and 19th-Century Russian Pictorial and Textual Culture” this book is useful to contextualize the sources, where the Christianization of the Rus features prominently. For the Research Training Group 2304 “Byzantium and the Euro-Mediterranean Cultures of War. Exchange, Differentiation and Reception” this book can be of value for all projects which focus on e.g. the meaning of Christian feasts or liturgical processions.

Griffin’s work gives an excellent overview of the research concerning the Primary Chronicle and, more generally, the “historiography” of the Rus which was characterized by and originally based upon the works of clerics. Sean Griffin suggests that notions of history were primarily disseminated through the liturgy in the early Middle Ages. Some historians may see the focus on traditional liturgiology in this book as too one-sided. This is, however, not a surprise given the title. Griffin’s study certainly is a great chance to broaden one’s perspective, if the reader’s usual field of study does not focus on liturgical sources – which might apply to many, if not most, historians.