The Depiction of St. Olga in the Povest' vremennyx let in European Context

Francis Butler, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

An examination of early medieval Western depictions of women who lived roughly between 500 and 1100 may help us to understand both the circumstances of Olga's regency and the choices that the chroniclers made in depicting her actions. First, I propose to examine resemblances between Olga's situation and those of roughly contemporary Western European queen-regents, such as the Merovingian queens Nantechild (regent 639–642) and Balthild (regent 657–c.664) and the Ottonian Theophanu (regent 984–991). I shall then discuss problems that the depiction of Olga seems to have presented to the chronicler(s), who wished to present the princess-saint in a positive light and as a strong ruler but could not readily use the topoi appropriate to male rulers. Their solution was to present Olga as a vengeful and devious woman (common topoi in the West and elsewhere), but as one whose vengefulness was well motivated and who used her cleverness for the good of Rus'. Western standards for comparison (noted for their vengefulness, deviousness, or both) include Rosimund of the Langobards, the Merovingian Fredegund, and Gudrun of the Atlakvida.