The British Myth of Russia

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In the novel Russia is depicted as an island (!) surrounded by a “great” sea. Its inhabitants are not only exaggeratedly viewed as mighty warriors (they “number in the thousands”, “rush into battle”, can “capture much loot and make big conquests”), but also are endowed with non-human, partly zoomorphic and partly “monstrous” characteristics. Zoomorphic features can be exemplified by an extended metaphor comparing the Russians to the bees: “And just like bees, / They come out from different hives / In large and mighty swarms…” Depicting Russians as a single organism (“the people come out”) that can “attack large kingdoms” and “cause massive bloodshed” helps to cultivate an image of a “monster” (an archaic non-human being).[1] Apparently, in the image of Russians the chivalric myth overlaps with ancient mythological ideas of hostile underwater or underground forces (e.g. the Fomorians in Celtic mythology or Grendel in Beowulf).

It is noteworthy that even in Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous work, The Canterbury Tales (started circa 1387, the earliest printed edition is dated 1478), the Russian image is linked with the theme of war and, more subtly, with the ideology of the Crusades. Russia (Ruce) is mentioned as a faraway country where one of the characters, the Knight, took part in a war (reysed – “attacked suddenly”). This association between Russia and themes of chivalry, the Crusades and wars “in God’s name” in Chaucer’s work corresponds with a similar episode in Saint-Maure’s Chronicle.

The association between the image of Rus’ and chivalry themes in medieval English literature has its source in history: English knights participated in military campaigns of the Teutonic Order in Lithuania and Russia.[2]

On the whole, 13th century has a special place in the history of British works on Russia: a swift and victorious advance of the Tatar-Mongols further into Eurasia which includes their invasion of Russian lands sparked interest in the state of the country. This interest was reflected in monastic chronicles, particularly in The Greater Chronicle (Chronica Majora, 1200–1259) by Matthew Paris.

Rus’ is mentioned by Matthew for the first time in his entry for 1237 as “innumerable people of Russia”, among the “great nations” listed by the patriarch of Constantinople as “obedient unto us as their mother church” and persisting in the “ancient orthodox faith”. Further notes for the same period are about “tartars” – “a detestable nation of Satan”, “indefatigable” and “invincible” monsters that “are more ferocious than lions or bears” who drink blood and eat raw meat, even human flesh; “they are without human laws” and know no mercy.[3]

[1] E si crei bien que c’est Rosie, / Qui est de la grant mer salee/ De totes parz avironnee./ Dunc autresi com les euetes/ De lor diverses maisonnetes/ Gitent essains granz e pleners,/ Ou moct a nombres e millers,/ Ou com de ceus qui sunt irie/ Sunt en estor glaive sachie,/ Tost e isnel d’ire esbrasez,/ Trestot eissi e plus assez/ Seuct cicl poples fors eissir/ Por les granz rennes envair/ E por faire les granz ocises,/ Les granz e les conquises. / Matuzova V.I. English Medieval Sources, 9-13th centuries. Texts, Translation, Commentary – Moscow. Nauka, 1979. 268 p. P. 240

[2] Dansey J.C. The English Crusaders. L.: Dickinson and Co, 1850. 384 p.; Hall F.R. Chaucer and Chivalry // Reprinted Knight Templar Magazine. August 2001. P. 16-17; Asimov I. The Shaping of England / tr. by Glebovskaya L.I. Мoscow: “Centrepolygraph” CJSC, 2007. 319 p.

[3] Matthew Paris. The Greater Chronicle // English Medieval Sources, 9-13th centuries. P. 135. P. 135–136. P. 137–138.

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