Lord Brother Aleksandr and Lord Father John Damascene: A Fifteenth-Century Rus' Monk's Encounter with the Art of Interpretation

Robert Romanchuk, University of California, Los Angeles

In the top margin of a sheet from signatures containing the Lives of Constantine and Helena, written by the Kirillov monk Oleshka before 1441, a reader left a note for the scribe himself: "Write the Life of John Damascene, for God's sake, Lord Aleksandr." The request was fulfilled in 1441: Oleshka/Lord Aleksandr (like "dominus frater," "gospodin" was a title of monastic esteem) copied out the Life of the 8th c. Church Father, "Great Lord John Damascene," which was later compiled together with the Lives of Constantine and Helena and other of Oleshka's scribal labors into a single codex (now coll. Sof. 1248). Here Oleshka gave to John Damascene the same monastic honorific he carried -- "Lord" -- not found in the Greek original of the text. What is the background to Oleshka's apparent identification with, and admiration of, John Damascene?

Another book of Oleshka's, now coll. Kir.-Bel. 10/1087, gives us insight into this question. This book, finished in 1446, opens with the "Grammar" falsely attributed to John Damascene, and Damascene's own Dialectics or Philosophical Chapters -- a resume and restatement of Aristotle's Categories. Oleshka wrote a brief colophon to these texts, in which he notes the difficulty of the Dialectics: it is a work "having great wisdom and much sense, yet not all, nor to all, comprehensible; but in much, and to many, difficult to comprehend, and demanding experience." While Sof. 1248, with the Life of Damascene, was destined for broad circulation among the literate brethren, Kir.-Bel. 10/1087 was not. This book, which never entered the monastery's catalogue, remained the private reading material of an elect, the monastic elite at Kirillov.

With the appearance of Damascene's Dialectics in Oleshka's book begins a period of truly "literate" thought at Kirillov. At the monastery before this time -- as was the case, to a great extent, elsewhere in Rus' before the mid-fifteenth century -- an archaic conception of the book held sway, which considered composition to be the extension of the human voice, and reading, a memento of authoritative voices. Such an "oral" concept of the book was reflected in its organization on exclusively memorial-associative, situational, or ritual-calendar principles. The Dialectics prescribed conceptual, abstract thinking as the duty of the Christian: to seek God is to seek the Truth, and Truth is organized in logical, fixed categories by the written word. Literate, or conceptual, thinking, encouraged the copying and logical arrangement of works which had been neglected, or little available, concerning history and the natural world.

With conceptual thinking comes a radically new hermeneutic as well, spelled out by John Damascene in his introduction: the thinking man, or monk, must develop his skill (Slav. xitrost', Gr. techne), to penetrate the meaning of the text. The claim that the literate monk has a craft or skill -- a "techne hermeneutike" -- was new, and implied a mediation between the world, or word, and man, such as could not be conceived by the oral mentality, which "heard" the text as a voice, an unmediated message directed to the reader. The suspicion of the text brought about by the literate mentality thus allowed old texts to function in new ways: sermons for holidays could be mined for historical facts; parables, for the information they contained about the natural world.

I will look at various innovations, the results of a literate mentality, present in the books of Oleshka, and the Kirillov monk Efrosin, whose copyings from Oleshka's books are more extensive than has been noted by previous scholarship. Finally, I will discuss the diffusion of literate modes in Rus' monastic culture, on the basis of the partial compilation of Oleshka's book containing the Dialectics into the popular florilegium of the late 15th/16th c., the Golden Chain.