The Tale of Sts Peter and Fevronia of Murom as Exemplifying Russian Royalism
Matthew Raphael Johnson
This story was written, according to some, in the early part of the 16th century, and was meant to be held up as a model for royal rule and its problems. The beginning of the story concerns St Peter's father, Prince Paul, as he justly rules the city of Murom. As it happens, a demon regularly comes in the guise of Paul in order to debase and defile the princess. The demon is called a “serpent” and is solely concerned with destroying this Christian marriage. Since Paul cannot be in two places at once, it does not take long to figure out that this person in the princess’ bed is not the Prince, but a demon, a changeling so common in medieval literature. A changeling in medieval literature can be one that has no integrity, a vapid figure that serves whoever is in power. It can also be a monster, a wizard that has mastered the science of genetics and hence, can change his makeup at will. Even more, a changeling can be an illusionist, one who depends on misdirection and double talk to get his way. All might be summarized in the form of the demon here, one who seeks to defile the princess because she is an Orthodox ruler, the worst affront to Satan, who seeks rulers only after his own heart.
Prince Peter is called in to kill the changeling, and the blood from the serpent stains the skin of Peter, creating an attack of a severe skin disease that leads to severe scabbing. It will not go away, but does refer to the lifestyle of demonic people: blood was and is considered in the medieval era as the source of life, the basis of one's “genetic makeup” and, in some sense, the very life of one's mentality, the lifestyle of the person. Hence, in this case, the demon or wizard who is capable of becoming the prince has a lifestyle that seeks to debase pious women, turning them to a worship of himself, and hence, his lifestyle, his blood, can harm all that see it, or come in contact with it. As a result, Peter seeks to be cleansed, and he goes to the village of Charity, not far from Murom, that is famed for its doctors.
The doctors of Charity are all female. They represent the Russian view of women at the time: smart, strong, wise, and the guardians of tradition and piety. The female doctor completely outwits Peter's machinations, and hence gains his respect. The maiden he first meets and the doctor she introduces him to are all quite talented and wise, all of whom are pious and seeking of moral rule.
However, the first maiden he meets is Fevronia, a woman of low station, as her father is a collector of pitch for construction. Noah used pitch to cement together the pieces of the ark in the Old Testament, and it might be the case that the symbol of pitch is used to show that her father is very pious, and might well be the laughing stock of the area for so being, as Noah was. It may also mean that the author sees that a storm is coming in society, and hence, the symbol of pitch is used to show how pious people must all band together for safety in the face of danger. Either way, Fevronia's low estate is important because it leads to many problems later on. For her part, Fevronia holds that if she assists in the curing of Peter, then she must web him, and thus, become Princess of Murom.
The cure itself concerns the application of a salve made primarily from leaven, upon the wounds of Peter, all except one scab, which must remain uncovered. The central ingredient of leaven can only be the Eucharist itself, where the Orthodox world holds that the leaven is representative of the Holy Spirit, the leaven of the Orthodox community and the cause of its improvement and growth. Since Peter has been infected by the lifestyle of the demon, fornication and the notion of sex as conquest, he needs the purity of the Eucharist, as well as the humility to take Fevronia as his mental superior and his wife, though she is of low station. Repentance comes before communion in that Peter is forced to concede that the women of this village are smarter and wiser than he, and thus, is humbled by it. The purpose of leaving one scab uncovered is to remain in some level of sin, since St. Paul holds that these sins can serve to humble us, the “thorn in the side” of our moral life that keeps us mindful of our own low station as sinners.
What is truly significant is that when Fevronia weds Peter and, after the death of Paul, becomes princess of Murom, the boyars become angry, “outraged” that such a low born woman should rule over them. The aristocracy, especially the women of the upper classes, rain down abuse on the new princess for the most trifling of issues, especially her habit of eating all the crumbs off her plate after dinner like a commoner. The behavior of the boyars are central to this story: they are the principle of division in Russian society, they care not for justice, but only for that which justifies their money and oligarchical rule. In disgust, Peter and Fevronia abdicate the throne, to the horror of the nobility.
This must have been written during the reign of Ivan IV, since he too abdicated the throne and was followed by the boyars who could not rule without him. The coincidence is too striking. In both cases, the nobles cannot rule, since the people hate them and, more importantly, that they will merely fight each other for honors and thus, the city will fall into civil war. This is the real purpose here: the Russian aristocracy is the enemy of the state and of Russian Orthodox unity. A true monarch cares about the Law of God and the common good, while the aristocracy cares only about honors and wealth. But in order to enjoy this, they must defer to the monarchy, placing them in a humiliating position.
Like the case of Ivan IV, Peter and Fevronia come back to rule, and the author, in some detail, holds out the nature of their rule and as a result, gives us a real glimpse of how literature Russians in the 16th century viewed royal justice. The points the anonymous author makes are these:
First, that alms giving is one of the first duties of monarchs. They are to give of their own personal fortune to the poor, to the building of churches, schools and hospitals. This is the first mark of a just ruler, the giving of himself and, unlike the aristocracy, taking no account of the money itself, but the good that it will do in society. Second, the monarch will love all equally, without regard to station or place in life. This was one of the things that Fevronia was attacked for by the aristocracy: she took no account of class, but only of the person as God's image. But this becomes important for the Russian view of monarchy, that class should not have any bearing on royal justice, bit only God's law should be done.
Third, the royal family should hate, but hate only those who exploit the people, that is, the aristocracy, the old boyars who care nothing for law or the common good. Historically, the wealthy of a society overthrew European monarchs in the 19th century solely in order to create capitalism and democracy, where only the wealthy rule, but they do it through “free elections” where one faction of the wealthy can be elected over another. Democracy, as the 19th century view had it, was a means for the wealthy to overthrow the monarchy and hence, divide up the country among themselves, and succeed in calling this “freedom” and “legal equality.” This was the ultimate upshot of the 19th century revolutions, the wealthy, including substantial parts of the old nobility, sought once and for all to overthrow the old monarchy and hence, replace it with oligarchy.
Fourth, though the monarch should always hate these exploiters and their double-talk ideology, they should never be angry. This is taken as central to royal rule in this Tale, as anger might lead to acts that are not tempered by law or mercy and hence, the monarch must always keep his temper in check. Fifthly, the monarch should use his own money, as well as that of the wealthy, to always make sure that the poor are fed and housed. Poverty is not going away, some will always lose out in the immoral race for wealth. The most that a good state can do is make sure that the poor never go below a certain point, and for this author, this safety net should come from the wealthy themselves, including the royal family. And lastly, the royal family, as exemplified in this piece, should take royal vows at their retirement, so as to do penance for their own sins as well as to serve as an example to others.
Hence, the story of Sts Peter and Fevronia of Murom can be taken as a mirror for Russian princes. Though the story is simple and easy to follow, it is saturated with moral ideas and concepts that give us a glimpse of the basic social ideas of the time. Marriage and woman were sacred as they represented the transmission of the Orthodox faith and the piety of woman was to be an icon for all to follow. Women were not to be weak or timid, but strong defenders of the faith and keepers of the folk wisdom of the people, a fold wisdom that brought the Russians through the Mongol occupation, mass slavery from the southern tribes and the endless wars with Poland and Sweden to an empire. While many alienated academics scoff at “folk wisdom,” the fact is that it has done more than the artificial and plastic morality and TV-pop culture of today to maintain a strong, hardy population that was capable of dealing with a level of suffering that the American couch potato could never imagine, let alone survive.
Hence, this Tale should be read and made a part of one's emotional and intellectual baggage. It is itself an icon of Old Russian piety and political ideas, simple and based on common sense. It shows the power of folk wisdom and its ideals, in that it is this wisdom that has brought Russia through its intense sufferings to see a growing population and a strong empire. How “primitive” can it be? Folk wisdom is nothing other than the practices that have brought a people though suffering and form the very backbone of the organic nation—the folk, the people. Without it, you have the modern couch potato, the most oblivious product of western “progress” and “positive science.”