Relationship of Cyrillic and Glagolitic Scripts - The "Russian Letters" in Vita Constantini

The "Russian Letters" in Vita Constantini

Obrěte že tu evaggelie i psaltyrь rusьskymi pismeny pisano, i člověka ōbrětъ glagoljušta toju besědoju, i besědova s nimъ, i silu rěči priimъ, svoei besědě prikladaa različnaa pismena, glasnaa sъglasnaa, i kъ bogu molitvy tvorę, vъskorě načętъ česti i skazati, i mnodži sę emu divlęxu, boga xvalęšte. "And he found there the Evangel and Psalter written with Russian letters, and upon finding a man who spoke the language, talked with him; and perceiving the power of the speech, he added various letters for his own language, consonant vocal sounds; and praying to God, immediately began to compose and reveal, and many marvelled at him, glorifying God."

The phrase rusьskymi pismeny ("Russian letters", or more appropriately "Rus' letters") occurring in Vita Constantini VIII, 15 is another famous and enigmatic statement that has been puzzling to Slavists for a long time, having provoked various and imaginative explanations. According to the chronicle, Constantine, prior to the setting out, at the request of the Byzantine emperor, on a mission to the Khazars, found in Cherson—at the time a Byzantine outpost in the Crimea, recently repossessed—a gospel text and a psalter written in "Russian letters".

Even though the Crimea in the c. 860 was probably a multiethnic community (especially its main port city of Cherson), it is quite unlikely that among the peoples settled there were also Slavs, notably Slavs from the basin of the southern Dnieper., as the Slavs of the Dnieper region were at that period still separated from the northern shores of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov by the steppe, populated by the Khazars and later also by Pechenegs, the latter remaining heathen until long after the conversion of Rus' in 966. Therefore, scholars have generally rejected the connections of the Rus' referred here with Eastern Slavs, with a few highly nationalistic minority still maintaining a view that Constantine indeed found and Old East Slavic text, and that the man he encountered spoke that language.

Birnbaum (1999) argues that it is highly unlikely that Constantine would have been so very much concerned with the issue whether the Slavs (of Moravia or elsewhere) had their own writing system, as reported further in the following chapter XIV of Vita Constantini, had he in fact already found and familiarized himself or otherwise experimented with a Slavic script in the Crimea, while en route to Khazars.

According to the hypothesis originally propounded by French Slavist André Vaillant, accepted and further developed by distinguished scholars such as Roman Jakobson, Dietrich Gerhardt, Karel Horálek, Robert Auty, Horace G. Lunt and others, rusьskymi (or rosьskymi) stands for the original surьskymi (sorьskymi), with a metathesis of the consonants of the first syllable. I.e. sur- > rus- (sor-, > ros-) and thus the original meaning was 'Syriac' (i.e. Aramaic, the language of Jesus), being substituted for 'Russian' (i.e. Old Russian, aka Old East Slavic) by the later East Slavic copyist, to whom 'Syriac' here presumably made little sense. It is doubtless that Syrian (Syriac, Aramaic) speaking people, presumably prevalently merchants, could have resided in the Crimea in the late ninth century, especially in the port city of Cherson. Moreover, Syriac was the language of Syrian Christian refugees who had escaped from Arabic Islamic rule and could have made their refuge on Cherson at that time. Therefore, the Syriac hypothesis is generally held to have much arguments on its side and many accept it even today.

According to another theory, the term rusьskymi (pismeny) refers in fact to Gothic, the author confusing one Old Germanic language (Gothic) with another (Old Norse, or more precisely Early Old Swedish, the speech of Varangians, which were referred to in contemporary Slavic and Byzantine Greek sources as Rusь or Ῥῶς). This theory was advocated by Czech-American Slavist Francis Dovrník and Polish Slavist Tadeusz Lehr-Spławiński. The chief argument is that Goths had been Christianised much earlier, as early as the fourth century by the mission of the bishop Wulfila, and that there is doubtless evidence of Gothic presence in the Crimea (cf. Crimean Gothic, which was recorded as late as the 16th century). The chief argument against this theory is the fact that it is not particularly likely that the Old Scandinavian language of the notoriously pagan Varangians would have ben mixed with the language of Christian-Arian Goths by a medieval copyist and that, furthermore, the Arian Goths of the Balkans were in no way identical with the Crimean Goths at the northern shores of the Black Sea, which were very possibly not even converted to Christianity, or at least not in its "heretic" Arian variety. Therefore, this theory was very soon abandoned in favour of other explanations.

Harvey Goldblatt has suggested in his essay On 'rusьskymi pismeniy in the "Vita Constantini" and Rus'ian Religious Patriotism another radical reinterpretation. Goldblatt notes that of all the preserved codices that contain Vita Constantini, the vast majority is East SLavic (Goldblatt counted app. 40), and has the reading rusьskym(i) pismeny, while numerically much fewer South Slavic MSS show various alternative readings: rousьskymi, roušьskymi and rosьky (or corrupted forms that can be derived from it). Given also the fact that the earliest attestation of this text does not go back further than the fifteenth century, it cannot be automatically assumed, according to Goldblatt, that they all reflect one uniform and complete text tradition of the Vita Constantini, supposedly written in Moravia before 882. Instead, by considering in particular also the nationalistic (or "patriotic") ideology expressed by a Russian Church Slavonic text known as the Skazanie o gramotě rusьstěi, a work whose oldest extant copy is found in a MS immediately following that of the Vita Constantini, Goldblatt suggests that, for the lack of information, "one cannot...advance a conjecture on either the circumstances on textual transmission for the Skazanie prior to the fifteenth century or the precise relations between its textual history and that of Vita Constantini". Yet the Skazanie provides the correct context in which to place the "Russian" episode of the Vita Constantini "precisely because it conveys a message conforming perfectly to the ideological atmosphere of the fifteenth-century 'Rus'ian' lands", after the defeat of the Slavs at the battle of Kosovo in 1389 and the fall of Tarnovo, the Bulgarian capital in 1393. Thus, the Greek "betrayal of Orthodoxy", with the loss of Constantinople to Muslim Ottoman Turks in 1453 was suited to reinforce the idea of a religious and cultural transfer from Byzantine and the Slavic Balkans to Muscovy. The notion of Constantine-Cyrill discovering "Russian letters" in Cherson or that he would have studied with a "Russian" in the Crimea would thus be completely acceptable, indeed welcome, in the fifteenth century Muscovy. Grounded on the belief belief that Moscow was, by then, the center of the true Orthodox faith, the scenario of events in Cherson would thus become a central component of the new, Muscovite ideological outlook.

Another recent theory is that by Greek Slavist Tachiaos (1993-1994). The author first emphasizes that there is in fact no support for the Syriac hypothesis in the MS tradition as no single extant text of the Vita Constantini actually has the allegedly correct reading (sourьskymi), which is something one would have expected given the many witnesses of this text which have been preserved and considering the fact that letter transpositoins within a single word were indeed not an uncommon phenomenon in medieval texts. In other words, argues Tachiaos, to accept the Syriac theory one has to assume that the sour > rous- (sur- > rus-) metathesis must have occurred very early, in the very first antegraph underlying all extant MSS. He thus argues that the Vita Constantini goes back to the original version composed in Moravia immediately after Constantine's death (in 869). In order to explain the stay of the brothers in Cherson, Tachiaos claims that the Old Church Slavonic verbs obrěsti and sъkazati were used in the specialized meaning of 'to receive' and 'to interpret, teach, preach', rather than the common senses of 'to find' and 'to speak', respectively. Thus the described Cherson episode would mean that Constantine "received" a gospel text and a psalter and a man (speaking that language), and that he soon began to read it and to "preach" in it. He further suggests that Constantine, who already knew some Hebrew when he arrived in Cherson, here merely perfected his mastery of that language while learning the very beginnings of the related Samaritan language. As for the mysterious rusьskymi, Tachiaous argues that the Constantine's study of Hebrew, Samaritan and the "Rus'" languages, though repeated one after the other, must not be viewed as necessarily having occurred in close time sequence, and hence the Constantine is said to have encountered Slavs among the multiethnic population of the Crimea.

Vernadsky (1959) does not doubt at all the existence of Rus' strongholds on the Crimea in the ninth century, but moreover argues that some of the settlements must have existed in the older period of merger of Rus' (Russians) with Alanic tribes. A troop of Rus' is reported to have settled on the Crimea as early as the late eighth century, as around 790 AD the city of Surož (ancient Sugdaea, nowadays Sudak) was apparently attacked by the Rus'. The Life of St. Stefan of Surož (Žitie Stefana ispovednika, ep. Surožskago) reports of conversions to Christianity of Rus' knyaz who led the siege to the city of Surož. A certain number of Rus' followed his example, so they, having settled on the Crimea, necessarily came under the influence of their neighbours, the Greeks and the Goths. Religious rites, in which the Rus' participated, were conducted in Byzantine Greek and Gothic, depending on the locality. It is thus possible that the Rus' in a certain period might have wanted and in fact did found their own churches using their own tongue for liturgical ceremonies. Consequently, the translation of the New Testament was a necessity, and it is not impossible that they arranged it, and all that was left of it was a doubtful news in Vita Constantini. As far as the alphabet is concerned, Vernadsky argues that this rusьskymi in fact could have referred to an ethnonym as well as on the Aryan word—Old Indic rocá 'shining, radiant', rúci 'light, lustre', Avestan raočah- 'light, esp. heavenly', Old Indic rukṣa- = Avestan raoxšna 'radiant'—and thus it could referred to an "enlightened" or "inspired" alphabet.

None of the proposed theories is flawless and escapes heavy criticism, and furthermore none enjoys widespread acceptance among Slavists. Thus in a recent study Birnbaum (1999) concludes that "This therefore is one of the remaining controversial issues of the Cyrillo-Methodian research today as much as ever".

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