The Czech Impact on the Transmission of Christian Texts in Fifteenth-Century Ruthenia

The existence of fifteenth-century translations of Christian texts from Czech into Ruthenian is due to the intensive Western influence that Ruthenian lands experienced as a result of their political affiliation with Lithuania and Poland. What remains to be explained is the means by which Czech texts found their way into the Ruthenian cultural environment. This is the issue that I will address in my paper.

Of all the Slavs, the Czechs were the first to translate the Bible into vernacular language and those translations were well known both in Poland and Lithuania. A copy of one of the earliest Ruthenian translations from Czech, of the Song of Songs, has been preserved in a fifteenth–sixteenth-century codex (Syn. 558, Moscow). In accordance with the medieval allegorical exegetic tradition the text is arranged in the form of a dialog between the Soul Bride (Church) and the Bridegroom (Jesus Christ). The Biblical text is followed by original commentary, consisting of monastic exegesis of a traditional sort (prayers, meditations and contemplation about love). The rendering of proper names in the translation suggests that it was apparently adopted into the Orthodox milieu despite the fact that its source is a Roman Catholic canonical text.

The Ruthenian codex in which the Song of Songs is found also contains other texts either translated from the Czech language or imported from Czech territory. One of the latter is a Catholic Mass in honor of the Virgin Mary, which follows the Song of Songs and is copied by the same hand. This text is described at length by F.W. Mareš in Slovo 25, 1976. In Mareš’s opinion, the Mass was translated from Croatian Church Slavonic in the monastery of Holy Cross in Kleparz (a suburb of Kraków) in the middle of the fifteenth century.

The hypothesis that I will present is that both Ruthenian translations, from Croatian and from Czech, have the same origin. I will touch upon the connection between the Kleparz monastery and the famous Emmaus monastery in Prague that was established in 1347 by the Czech King and Roman Emperor Charles IV. Charles intended it for the Croatian Benedictines from Dalmatia whom he invited to establish a Slavic liturgy according to the Roman rite. Some scholars assume that Charles, being a zealous Catholic, contemplated missionary work in neighboring Slavic, non-Catholic countries and intended to use the Roman Slavonic liturgical tradition as a medium for bringing together Western Christianity and the Eastern Slavs. The foundation of the Kleparz monastery in Kraków where there was a large Orthodox community could thus be regarded as a confirmation of Charles’s design. However, this assumption has not yet been strongly supported by any evidence of textual transmission.

In the proposed paper I will try to confirm the realization of Charles’ intention by looking at the two above mentioned Ruthenian translations (and, probably, some other texts presently under examination) in light of the missionary activity of the Czech monks from Emmaus monastery.