The 17th-century Moscow publication of the Kormchaia kniga

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E[lena] V[ladimorovna] Beliakova, L[iudmila] V[ladmirovna] Moshkova, and T[at’iana] A[natol’evna] Oparina. Kormchaia kniga: ot rukopisnoi traditsii k pechatnomu izdaniiu. Moskva; Sankt-Peterburg: Institut rossiiskoi istorii RAN; Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv drevnikh aktov; Tsentr gumanitarnykh initsiativ, 2017. 496 pp. + 16 color plates. ISBN 978-5-8055-0316-1.

At the risk of provoking a put-down on Twitter (if, for example, there is a @realSlavicscholar account out there), I would venture that reading about Slavic collections of canon law is not a very popular undertaking. Indeed, I would not recommend anyone begin this excellent volume late in the day when the brain has begun to slow and the eyes are tired. Yet I would recommend you start on it early when fresh. In the process of discovering how interesting and important the material is, you might then not be able to put it down, even if questions of canon law normally do not elevate your pulse rate. Be warned, to absorb everything that is here will make some demands on you.

The history of scholarship on the subject, reviewed in the opening section here by Beliakova, the principal author of the book, glitters with the names of many to whom she gives generous credit. Among them are A. S. Pavlov, who included some of the texts in Russkaia istoricheskaia biblioteka, Vol. 6; V. N. Beneshevich, who undertook still fundamental comparisons of the Slavic translations with their Byzantine sources but was executed by the early Bolsheviks before he could do more; more recently Ia. N. Shchapov, who substantially advanced the knowledge of the various early Slavic compilations and their manuscript histories. Beliakova herself has been writing on the subject for a good many years now, and she acknowledges the important work of M. V. Korogodina, who defended her doctoral dissertation too late to have all its results included in the volume under review. As this introductory section and later parts of the book indicate, the various stages of selection, editing, and supplementing the basic canon law texts often can be connected with particular events, some of them explicitly political. The catalyst for a lot of the modern-era scholarship was the Church Schism of the 17th century (where the Old Believers were diligent in copying and using the canon law texts) and then the interest in codification of Russian law that peaked in the first half of the 19th century.

The particular justification for this volume is that, as with so many other important texts which had a long life in pre-modern Russia, scholarship has tended to focus on “origins” and the earliest centuries in what may be a complex history of editing and copying. Thus, while Beliakova provides a substantial summary of what is known about the earliest translations both among the South Slavs and in Rus and their manuscript histories, she and Moshkova devote even more attention to what we might call the middle and later parts of the history, from, say, the 15th century onwards. The point here in large part is to demonstrate which versions of the texts were the ones actually used when under Patriarch Iosif (Nikon’s immediate predecessor) the decision was made to publish for the first time in Russia the Kormchaia kniga.

To go into details about the various redactions and compilations is beyond the scope of this review note. What is important to emphasize here is that by the time of work on the print edition (1649-53), for practical reasons, the most used versions of collections of canon law did not necessarily include anything like the full original Byzantine corpus but had been supplemented by other documents such as monastic rules, individual decisions by Russian church councils and prelates, and polemical texts against other Christian denominations and non-Christians. Thus, the printed Kormchaia is a complex document, whose final emergence was delayed while it was being reviewed, leading some to claim erroneously that there were two separate editions. Of some interest is the fact that the basic text is the Serbian, not the Russian redaction, the choice made in part on the basis of what was most widely used already and was compact enough to be practical. An effort back in the 16th century under Metropolitan Daniil, akin to the project of compiling the Velikie chet’i minei, was too massive and uncritical a compendium to be of practical value. On the other hand, the so-called Godunov Kormchaia, probably produced in conjunction with the establishment of the Patriarchate toward the end of the 16th century, was one of the direct sources.

Not in the 17th-century edition, though logically they might have been included, are some of the penitentials and an important body of texts pertaining to the question of whether re-baptism is to be required of other Christians who would convert to Orthodoxy. One of the explanations for the omissions here is that the material was to be found in other Muscovite editions and thus need not have been repeated in the already large text of the Kormchaia. In the matter of rebaptism, the issue is complex, as we learn from Oparina’s compelling long essay (pp. 309-404; see below for details) tracing the history of the relevant texts and arguments.

Beliakova’s analysis of the printed Kormchaia includes a careful description of its contents and their sources (pp. 206-49). She is able to provide details of the actual editorial and printing practices, since the key manuscript used for preparation of the edition has been preserved, replete with pasted in additions, marginal notations by the editors, instructions to the typesetters, etc. (RGIA, f. 834. Op. 4. No. 548; sample pages in the excellent color plates). Such an opportunity to get inside the work is a rare window into the world of Muscovite printing. As the process of finally getting the book into circulation was a long and complicated one, she lays out fully the variant versions of the printed text (pp. 250-71).

One of the most important features of this Muscovite edition was an introductory long tale (Skazanie) about the establishment of the Patriarchate in Muscovy, which, as Beliakova suggests, was the fullest statement up to that point of the theory of “Moscow the Third Rome”. This was inserted in the final stages of editing, replacing a much shorter, conventional introduction. She devotes a section to examining the sources of the Skazanie (pp. 272-93) and provides in an appendix (pp. 412-47) parallel texts of the “Izvestie ob uchrezhdenii patriarshestva” (MS RGADA, f. 135. Prilozhenie rubr. I. No 8) and the printed “Skazanie” from the Kormchaia.

Another chapter (pp. 294-308) deals with the subsequent work on translation of canon law involving Evfimii Chudovskii, who was sharply critical of the rendering of some texts in the printed edition. He had apparently been brought in on the production of the printed edition, but only in its final stages at a still early point in his career when presumably he had little influence on the result.

While not directly relevant to the subject of the print edition of the Kormchaia (as Beliakova admits), Oparina’s essay on the rites for conversion certainly has a place here and in many ways is the most compelling part of the book, for her ability to evoke and contextualize the passions which underlay the disputes. It is a subject that Oparina has already published on extensively, while engaged in her other admirable work on foreigners in Muscovy and their legal status. Here she explicitly notes that her study focuses on the normative texts and the narratives about the disputes, not on the realities of Church practice, which would involve a separate monograph.

This history goes all the way back to the responses received in the 12th century by the Novgorod priest Kirik from his bishop, whom he had queried on ritual practice. Over the centuries that text had frequently been copied, and its common-sense recommendations followed. The critical question was whether anointment as opposed to full re-baptism by immersion would be necessary for a convert to become an Orthodox Christian, a distinction being made for those who were “merely” schismatics but not heretics. How Catholics and later Protestants were to be classified then became a serious issue. In Muscovy the matter became complicated from the time of the Livonian War until after the Time of Troubles, with the influx of foreign prisoners, the trauma of the Polish intervention, and then the growing importance of enrolling foreigners in Muscovite service. During that period the more rigorous requirement of re-baptism came to be applied, and this continued to the mid-17th century. Opinions on the matter were shaped by the growing polemical literature against non-Orthodox belief. One of the important episodes in the dispute occurred when the marriage of the Danish Prince Waldemar to a daughter of Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich was being entertained in the 1640s, the Tsar and some of his advisers arguing against insisting on re-baptism, since that would sabotage the negotiations. As is well known, they lost, and Prince Semen Shakhovskoi earned exile on account of his arguing in favor of the less rigorous rite for Protestants.

As Patriarch Nikon was overseeing the final changes in the printed Kormchaia and in the immediately subsequent years and facing criticism by visiting Eastern hierarchs regarding the then Russian insistence on re-baptism, he seems to have been unable to decide what should be required of Western Christians for conversion. So in fact no text specific to that issue was included in the printed Kormchaia or in a subsequent Trebnik. Eventually the council in 1666-67 which deposed Nikon declared re-baptism of Western Christians to be uncanonical, a position the Church subsequently maintained.

There is much in this book that helps us understand the importance of canon law throughout the early centuries of Slavic Orthodox history and the fact that it was an evolving corpus, amended as necessary to address local issues. Bishops were expected to know the texts and use them, at least major monasteries held them in their libraries (and, interestingly, if a bishop retired to a monastery, he usually brought his copy with him). The printing of the Kormchaia kniga made it possible for parish churches and individual priests to own the book, and some copies were acquired by laymen. The Muscovite edition quickly became a rarity; as a result, many manuscript copies were made from it. (See the list of all the complete manuscripts of the various versions of the Kormchaia and the extant copies of the print edition on pp. 469-79.)  For the Old Believers, it was a very important text, reflecting as it did the pre-Nikonian norms. The printed Kormchaia of the 17th century in fact cast a long shadow.

One cannot expect of this exciting work of detailed scholarship a close examination of how church law was applied in practice. The little said on that here suggests that practice might in fact not always follow prescription, but this is a subject for other studies. Even short of such, the evidence here certainly is relevant to any inquiry about what texts were read and used amongst the educated Orthodox. The evolving body of canon law was essential to the functioning of the Church in a society where the religious and secular spheres were in many ways inextricably linked. We now know a lot better than before the variant forms that law assumed and the circumstances in which its emendation and copying were undertaken, not just in the early centuries after the conversion of Rus, but also on the cusp of the “modern” era.