- From Mongol Prince to Russian SaintA Neglected 15th-Century Russian Source on the Mongol Land Consecration Ritual
Hagiographical literature has long been acknowledged by historians of the medieval West as an important source for understanding the past.1 Yet its potential—and this is especially true in the case of medieval Russian sources—remains little explored by historians of Eurasia.2 Russian sources, with their largely parochial outlook and infrequent references to the outside world, cannot compete with the eloquence of contemporary Persian chroniclers or with the meticulousness of Chinese imperial scribes.3 In this respect, the Tale [End Page 647] of the Venerable Peter, Prince from the Horde (Povest´ o Blazhennom Petre, tsareviche ordynskom)—a 15th-century vita that describes the conversion of a Mongol prince to Christianity, his move to the Russian principality of Rostov, and the building of a church there—constitutes an exceptional source. The ritual that consecrated the land and the church betrays, in my opinion, the existence of a Mongol layer buried within the medieval Russian hagiographical text. It thereby offers a unique glimpse not only of Mongol religious practices but also of the process of conversion and converging religious beliefs.
At the core of the tale lies a legal dispute over fishing rights in Lake Nero between the ruling (Riurikid) family of Rostov and the descendants of a Mongol whom we know only by his Christian name, Peter.4 According to the text, Peter was a Mongol prince (porody khanska) who happened to witness the miraculous healing of his relative by Kirill, bishop of Rostov (d. 1262), while the latter was visiting the Golden Horde. Impressed by the power of Christian prayer, Peter began to question the Mongol worship of “the sun, the moon, the stars, and fire” and followed Kirill to Rostov.5 There, after seeing the church “adorned with gold and pearls” and hearing the liturgy, the young Mongol decided to convert to Christianity. Kirill, afraid to provoke the anger of the Horde, cautiously waited; and only after Berke Khan’s death (1267), which was later followed by civil war within the Golden Horde, did he finally agree to baptize his protégé. Some time passed; and one day, while hunting, the Mongol prince fell asleep and had a vision of the apostles Peter and Paul ordering him to build a church on this spot. He petitioned the prince (kniaz´ ) of Rostov to sell him the plot of land where the vision had occurred. The Russian prince, at first suspicious of Peter’s intentions (mostly due to the latter’s Mongol background), eventually agreed and later even befriended the young Mongol and granted him many lands from his [End Page 648] patrimony (votchina). The two princes eventually became sworn brothers; and Peter, after permanently settling in Rostov and marrying a girl from Rostov’s “Tatar” (i.e., Mongol) quarter, lived a long and happy life.6 He also founded a monastery, adjacent to the church he had built years earlier, to which he retired after the death of his wife.
The Tale then continues to describe a legal dispute between the grandchildren of the two princes about the ownership of the lake next to Peter’s monastery. The Russian side claimed that although their grandfather had sold the land to his sworn brother, the lake had not been mentioned in the agreement. Therefore, the lake belonged to them. Peter’s grandchildren appealed directly to the Horde, evoking their Chinggisid ancestry and their relationship to the Horde’s ruler, whom they addressed as “uncle.” The khan sent an ambassador to investigate the matter, and it was settled in favor of Peter’s family. The same issue arose in the next generation, however, and the entire process was repeated, with Peter’s descendants gaining the upper hand once again.
The text ends with Ignat, Peter’s great-grandson, who saved the city of Rostov from destruction at the hands of a Mongol raiding expedition. Coming out before the Mongol troops and again invoking his Mongol blood, Ignat explained that since his great-grandfather had bought the land from the prince of Rostov, it now belonged to his descendants and...