Towards an Understanding of the Function of Medieval Lay Poetry: The Occasion of Dimitri Kantakuzin's "Prayer to the Virgin"

Vessela Valiavitcharska, University of Texas, Austin

Dimitri Kantakuzin's poem "Prayer to the Virgin" is a most notable achievement of South Slavic fifteenth century lay poetry. A confessional work, subsuming the deep religious feelings of its author into an intense personal vision, it has received much scholarly attention, yet most studies have focused primarily on its religious contents as an outlet of its author's personal sense of tragedy and despair. There have also been attempts to analyze the poem as a reflection of Kantakuzin's sense of social tragedy, i.e., the fall of Constantinople and the Balkans to the Ottoman Turks. As of now, however, it is still unclear how the poem functioned in its contemporary and later context, or in what circumstances it was composed—beyond the obvious desire for confession.

In my paper I examine the work in the context of some of Kantakuzin's epistles and canons and also in relation to the cycle of services of the Orthodox church year. I propose the following hypothesis: the Prayer was created together with or shortly after Kantakuzin's "Epistle" to his personal monastic confessor and during the period of Great Lent (a traditional time for confession), in the period between 1469 and 1475. The "Prayer" came to enjoy great popularity among both lay and monastic circles and was included in service books, although it was still, perhaps, meant for individual reading. When compared to the collective lyrical voice of Orthodox church poetry, the intensely individual voice of the Prayer possibly marks the beginning of the "individualization" of late medieval religious experience.