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SL2: The History and Culture of Early Rus

This paper is available for the academic year 2023-24.

Three modern nation-states – Belarus, Russia and Ukraine – trace their historical and cultural inheritance to medieval Rus'. Any critical insight regarding the bonds between and tensions among these states and their neighbours is dependent on the understanding of their relationship to Rus' history and culture. The SL2 paper does just this; focusing on select topics and analysing primary written, pictorial and architectural sources together, it investigates the world-views of Early Rus’ authors, patrons and audiences from the mid-tenth century to the emergence of the grand duchies of Lithuania and Moscow.

Selected primary readings introduce students to the written language of Rus’ and familiarize students with a variety of literary genres, including chronicles, lives of saints, inscriptions on images, graffiti and birch bark letters. While students will be encouraged to read designated segments of the sources in the original language, which though challenging in places, is reasonably accessible with practice; all texts will be available in Russian, Ukrainian and English translation. (Part 1B students are not required to read texts in the original).

Similarly, the analysis of select monuments of art and architecture as primary sources in their own right will introduce students to the visual forms and pictorial language that formed the built environment of Early Rus’, and, in the case of icons and churches, enacted the transition between earth and heaven. The materiality and devotional function of art in Rus’ society will be explored in terms of the historical specificity of ‘seeing’.



Texts and Topics for 2023 and 2024:


  • The Primary Chronicle (Повѣсть временныхъ лѣт, to 1054)
  • The Life of Feodosii (Житие Феодосия Печерьскаго)
  • Instruction [of Volodimir Monomakh to his Children] (Поученье)
  • The Writing of Daniil the Prisoner (Слово Данила Заточеника)
  • Rus’ Justice (Правда роськая)
  • The Tale of Igor’s Camapign (Слово о плъку Игоревѣ)
  • The Tale of the Life of Prince Alexander [Nevskii] (Повѣсти о житии князя Александра)


  • Ostromir Gospel
  • Cathedral of St. Sophia, Kyiv
  • Mother of God of Valdimir
  • Mandylion (Icon of Christ “Not made by hands”)
  • The Mother of God of Pechersk with Saints Feodosii and Antonii
  • Hagiographical icon of Saints Boris and Gleb
  • Church of the Intersession of the Mother of God, Bogoliubovo
  • Icon of the Intersession of the Virgin
  • Cathedral of St. Sophia, Novgorod
  • Icon of the Mother of God of the Sign
  • Church of St. Panteleimon, Halych
  • Church of St. Paraskevi, Chernihiv
  • Church of St, Cyril, Kyiv
  • Chernihiv hrynia (Chernigov grivna)
  • Cross of Euphrosyne of Polatsk
  • Church of the Dormition, Gorodok
  • Icon of the Mother of God of the Don
  • Church of the Transfiguration, Novgorod
  • Trinity Chapel, Lublin Castle


  • Rus’ Lands
  • Christianization and Literacy
  • Saints and Icons
  • Dynastic Succession and the Princely Ideal
  • Historiography and Regionalism
  • Verbal and Pictorial Dexterity
  • Laws and Customs
  • The Mongols and the rise of Lithuania and Muscovy
Preparatory reading: 
  • Simon Franklin and Jonathan Shepard, The Emergence of Rus 750-1300 (London, 1996);
  • George Heard Hamilton, The Art and Architecture of Russia, Penguin Books (London, 1983), pp. 1-129;
  • Serhii Plokhy, The Origins of Slavic Nations (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 1-84;
  • Татьяна Миронова, Необычайное путешествие в древнюю Русь (Москва, 1994) – this is an introduction to Old Rus' culture and grammar for children; it reveals the image of Rus' culture that is popularly propagated in Russia and contains a concise grammatical section at the end of the book.


Teaching and learning: 

This paper is taught through 16 lectures and fortnightly supervisions in Michaelmas and Lent terms, and four longer revision seminars and two supervisions in Easter Term.

The course explores the rich medieval culture of Rus’ lands through primary written sources, art and architecture. These primary materials are organized around eight topics and supplemented with secondary readings. They present the opportunity not only for the analysis of a variety of literary, pictorial and built forms, but also for the contemplation of the dynamic interaction among them that engaged in the continuous re-shaping of the Rus’ cultural landscape. Specific primary sources are covered in the context of a given topic; however, as these sources reveal overarching formal, conceptual and aesthetic inclinations, as well as ideological concerns of Rus’ culture, they may be of relevance for multiple topics. The course encourages such layered and intersecting analysis of written and pictorial texts that allows for the pursuit of different approaches and interests.

For the SL.2 Moodle site, please see here. The password can be collected from the paper coordinator.


Candidates for Part IB:

Answer three questions, at least one from section A and one from section B. For each answer write no more than 1,300 words.


Candidates for Part II:

Lent Coursework essay

Answer a coursework essay that will be released at the end of Lent term.

For the coursework essay, you will be given three passages from primary sources in their original language. Write a commentary on the content and style of one of these passages.

Easter Exam

Answer two questions. One from section A and one from section B. For each answer write no more than 1,500 words.


Write a 3,000-word long essay on one of the starred questions from either section A or section B.


Candidates for this paper may not draw substantially on material from their dissertations or material which they have used or intend to use in another scheduled paper. Candidates may not draw substantially on the same material in more than one question on the same paper.


Course Contacts: 
Dr Olenka Pevny

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