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Book of Degrees


The Book of Degrees of the Royal Genealogy is the first narrative history of the Russian land. The massive text filling some 780 manuscript leaves composed between 1556 and 1563 is one among various ambitious literary projects initiated by Metropolitan Macarius, archbishop of Moscow and head of the Russian church during the reign of Ivan the Terrible as tsar (15471584). Ivan, whose Moscow-based ancestors had ruthlessly appropriated vast tracts of territory for their domain, encouraged writers to craft defenses of his legitimacy. Churchmen responded with a version of the dynasty's history conveying their own perspective on the country's future course. Conflating chronicles, saints' lives, and legends, the book traces the ancestry of the Moscow princes in seventeen steps or degrees from Augustus Caesar and highlights the noble deeds of each ruler from Grand Prince Vladimir I (9801015) to Tsar Ivan. The book's purpose was not just to praise the tsar. The larger aim of its writers was to portray the Muscovite state as a divinely protected empire whose rulers would flourish as long as they obeyed God's commandments, listened to the metropolitans, and supported the interests of the church.

The Book of Degrees is a work of both historiographical and literary significance. As an exercise in historiography, its scope and ideology are comparable to ninth-century compilations of Frankish history glorifying the line of the Carolingian rulers. Like the Carolingian historians, its authors define their country as the "new Israel." By so doing, they legitimize members of a lesser princely clan whose founders had neither political nor dynastic claims to power, but who wished to be treated as the equals of the Byzantine emperors. Elite political circles accepted the book's representations as authoritative proof of the rulers' imperial descent. The portraits of the Moscow princes as champions of their faith commanded no less authority for the church. Lives, newly composed for the book, depicting rulers as saints equal to the apostles or as wonder-workers, served as testimony for the canonization of some Moscow princes and members of their families.

As a literary work, the Book of Degrees marks a critical turning point between the predominantly monastic, fragmentary medieval writings and early modern narrative prose. Entries culled from annalistic compilations (primarily the Nikon, Voskresensk, and Sophia chronicles) and saints' lives supplied its building blocks, but the book transcends traditional generic categories and has no single literary model. Guided by the priest Andrei (Metropolitan Afanasy), writers unified their materials in a systematic way, fashioning fragments into expansive tales and integrating each tale into a progressively unfolding story of a tsardom whose course was steered by divine providence. A preface sets forth the book's theological premises in terms of metaphors serving as figures or types for Russia's historical course: the tree (linking the genealogical tree of the rulers, the Jesse Tree, and the tree in King Nebuchadnezzar's prophetic dream); the ladder (a conflation of Jacob's ladder and St. John Climacus's divine ladder of perfection); and water (baptism). Readers are directed to a detailed table of contents, the first of its kind, which sets forth the book's unique design and permits individual chapters to be swiftly located. Comparison of the three earliest surviving copies of the text (the Chudov, Tomsk, and Volkov copies, all dated in the 1560s), shows how original entries were altered, supplemented, and sometimes shifted from their initial textual positions by the editors to support their ideological interests.

The book's value as an authoritative source and a statement of the nation's identity was recognized by Peter the Great, who in 1716 ordered a synopsis to be used for his own planned, but never executed, history of Russia. Because of the book's importance for the canon, the Russian Academy commissioned a printed edition in 1771. As the first cohesive narrative of national history, the Book of Degrees served as a model for subsequent histories of Russia and as a sourcebook for mythological and artistic reconstructions of an idealized past.

See also: chronicles; ivan iv; makary; muscovy


Lenhoff, Gail. (2001). "How the Bones of Plato and Two Kievan Princes Were Baptized: Notes on the Political Theology of the'Stepennaia kniga.'" Welt der Slaven 46:313330.

Miller, David. (1979). "The Velikie Minei Chetii and the Stepennaia Kniga of Metropolitan Makarii and the Origins of Russian National Consciousness." Forschungen zur osteuropäischen Geschichte 26: 263282.

Gail Lenhoff

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