The Forgotten Text of Nikolai Golovin: New Light on the Igor Tale

The Forgotten Text of Nikolai Golovin: New Light on the Igor Tale

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The Forgotten Text of Nikolai Golovin: New Light on the Igor Tale

Mann, Robert

Oral Tradition, Issue 26, Number 1, (2011): 145-158


Sometime around 1792, a collector of antiquities in the service of Catherine the Great discovered a compendium of ancient texts, including a unique secular tale (Slovo o polku Igoreve —The Tale of Igor’s Campaign, or simply the Igor Tale) that was rooted in events of the twelfth century. It was a splendid epic poem about the defeat of Igor Sviatoslavich, Prince of Novgorod- Seversk, at the hands of the Polovtsy, a steppe people who were later displaced and assimilated by the Mongol hordes. The text of the Igor Tale was published in 1800, twelve years before the manuscript itself was destroyed during the Napoleonic occupation of Moscow.

As decades passed, scholars began to find textual parallels to passages in the Igor Tale— especially in a group of literary tales about Moscow’s first great victory over the Mongols on Kulikovo Field in 1380. This group of tales is customarily referred to as the Kulikovo Cycle. It includes two distinct chronical accounts of the Kulikovo Battle, five more or less complete versions of a “poetic” tale about the battle (Zadonshchina, or The Battle Beyond the Don), and a much longer, more sober tale extolling the Russian Church and the victorious Russian armies (Skazanie o Mamaevom poboishche, or Tale of the Battle against Mamai). The Skazanie has numerous redactions and has survived in over 100 manuscript copies. It is clearly the work of lettered authors who appear to have inserted occasional passages from the more poetic and dynamic Zadonshchina into their comparatively dry narrative.

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