15.11.15, Verkholantsev, The Slavic Letters of St. Jerome

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Anne Laurence Caudano

The Medieval Review 15.11.15

Verkholantsev, Julia. The Slavic Letters of St. Jerome: The History of the Legend and Its Legacy, or, How the Translator of the Vulgate Became an Apostle of the Slavs. DeKalb, IL: NIU Press, 2014. pp. . ISBN: 978-087-580-4859 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Anne-Laurence Caudano
University of Winnipeg

The Slavic Letters of St Jerome is the subtle and fascinating study of a little-known legend according to which St Jerome, whose birthplace was believed to be situated at the border of Dalmatia and Pannonia, had not only invented an alphabet for the Slavs--Glagolitic--but was also behind the creation of a liturgy in Church Slavonic. The legend became prominent after the late thirteenth century, particularly in Croatia, where it provided support for the Slavonic rite, but it also received a welcoming ear in Bohemia a century later. Curiously, there has been no exhaustive study of this intriguing story, beyond the specific focus of Slavic national histories. Verkholantsev's inclusive approach and the geographical span of her study offer, therefore, invaluable depth and texture to the religious history of Western Slavic areas under Roman Catholic jurisdiction, namely Croatia, Bohemia, Silesia and Poland. As is made clear throughout the book, this is a complex issue. Roman jurisdiction of Slavic lands did not lead necessarily to the wholehearted adoption of the Slavonic rite by the Slavs themselves (36).

The book is divided into five chapters and an epilogue. The first offers a clear and accessible introduction to the thorny question of the Cyrillo-Methodian missions and their impact, particularly on the Western Slavs. This is a most welcome and up-to-date discussion of the relationship of the Byzantine brothers with the papacy, as well as the question of liturgical languages, and the disputed reasons behind the creation of two different alphabets, Glagolitic and Cyrillic. Due to the overall lack of primary sources, much is still unknown about these issues, a situation that has given rise to a range of speculations often marred with nationalistic claims. While Verkholantsev does not pretend to solve these issues, she discusses the most important among them, clearly justifies her preferences, and offers a detailed bibliography of the subject. She concludes that for the papacy, the use of Glagolitic and of a liturgy in Slavonic were not doctrinal issues. Instead, in the emerging context of increasingly heated debates with the Byzantines about the procession of the Holy Spirit, it proved difficult for the Latin Church to verify how accurately these texts had been translated, and whether or not they were transmitting heretical thoughts in this process. Ultimately, the mission strongly influenced the Bulgarians, the Serbs and the Rus, as is well-known, but largely failed in those regions under Latin jurisdiction. While the Slavonic rite had a longer lasting legacy in Croatia and survived in Bohemia until the late eleventh century, it disappeared early from Moravia and is unlikely to have affected the Poles at all.

The following four chapters focus on the fate of the Slavonic rite and the development of the legend of St Jerome in Croatia, Bohemia, Silesia and Poland respectively. In Chapter 2, Verkholantsev explores the success of and challenges faced by the Glagolitic alphabet and the Slavonic rite in Croatia from the time of the Cyrillo-Methodian mission until the fourteenth century. Disagreements over the Slavonic rite started soon after its arrival in Croatia. Limits were put to its use after the Councils of Split in 925 and 1060, which notably forbade the ordination of Slavic clergy. According to the author, once again, the reasons behind these restrictions are not be found in intrinsic objections to the use of another language, but in the difficulty to verify the orthodoxy of these translations, a fear likely borne out of a perceived threat to the unity of the Church. The Slavonic rite was therefore confined to monastic communities, who showed relentless support to the Roman Church to ensure their survival and success. The appeal of Philip of Senj to Innocent IV for the use of Slavonic in the liturgy may be understood in this context. In his rescript of 1248, our earliest testimony to St Jerome's legacy to the Slavs, the pope reiterated Philip's belief that the Slavonic rite and the Glagolitic script had been brought to the Croats by the Latin doctor. No mention is made of Cyril and Methodios. Ultimately, the adoption of St Jerome as the patron of the Slavonic rite and letters was not just advantageous to Croatian Glagolites, it was also a useful means of integrating these communities into the Catholic fold. This legend may even have Latin origins. Although she acknowledges that evidence is tenuous (and it certainly is), Verkholantsev suggests that the fanciful alphabet at the end of Aethicus Ister's Cosmographia, also attributed to Jerome, may be reminiscent of the Glagolitic alphabet.

Chapter 3 focuses on the relocation to Bohemia of Dalmatian Glagolite monastic communities at the request of Charles IV. The 1346 request to pope Clement VI was followed a year later by the foundation of a Slavonic monastery in Prague, aimed at commemorating St Jerome as the "distinguished translator and exegete of the Holy Scripture from Hebrew into Latin and Slavic" (67). Curiously, scholarship has focused so far on this community's other patron saints, although Verkholantsev shows convincingly that official documents and the monastery's iconographic program clearly highlighted St Jerome's chief position among them. This foundation is analyzed in the backdrop of an emerging Slavic identity in Bohemia--primary sources notably emphasize the existence of strong ties between the Croatian and Czech languages. More importantly, the monastery played a part in Charles' use of Bohemia and Prague as platforms for his imperial ambitions: historiography, forgeries, arts, architecture and cults were matters of the state. The Glagolite community participated in Charles' universalistic program through feasts, processions, and literary productions, but was not narrowly construed as Slavonic. Bohemian culture and that of the monastery were in fact multi-scriptorial. The connection established between St Jerome, the Glagolitic alphabet and the Slavonic rite did not just contribute to the development of a literature in Slavonic, it also raised the Slavic vernacular to a noble language and, ultimately, "the position of the Slavs in Western Christendom" (114-115). In the Czech context, such links likely legitimated the translation of the Bible in Czech although, as the author acknowledges, more research is needed on this issue.

Chapter 4 focuses on the establishment in 1380 of the Monastery of Corpus Christi in Olesnica (Silesia), a daughter monastery of the Bohemian Glagolite community. Little is known about the circumstances that brought about this institution. Probably founded by Charles IV's former chancellor John of Neumarkt, it likely did not survive beyond the middle of the fifteenth century. While scarce documentation may explain the very short length of this section--a mere eight pages, it raises the question of whether the subject warranted a specific chapter in the book.

The last chapter analyses the foundation of the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Cracow in 1390, when Jadwiga and Wladislaw Jagiello invited the Prague Glagolites to Poland. Verkholantsev addresses two common interpretations of this event: that it was either inspired by the cult of Cyril and Methodios in Poland, or that it was established as a springboard for Catholic missions among the Orthodox Rus, after the Union of Krewo. To the first, the author objects quite reasonably that, although the Glagolite rite was indeed understood as a continuation of the Cyrillo-Methodian mission by the sixteenth century, no cult to the Slavic missionaries is attested in Poland before the founding of the monastery. Regarding the second, while she acknowledges that literary contacts existed between the Ruthenians and the Glagolites, she considers that understanding this foundation in the light of missionary activities, though not to be dismissed entirely, is an explanation based exclusively on circumstantial evidence. The key to her interpretation resides in the reconsideration of evidence found in the works of Dlugosz, who in the later fifteenth century considered Queen Jadwiga as the monastery's real patron and inserted its foundation among her achievements. Largely circumstantial as well, though plausible, the context of Czech influence at the Polish court also provides clues. For Verkholantsev, the foundation of a Polish Slavonic Benedictine monastery supervised by its Czech mother house was consistent with the belief in Prague's spiritual leadership at the time, along with a renewed interest in the Slavic vernacular. Yet, lack of funds, the death of Queen Jadwiga and the condemnation of Jan Hus sealed the fate of the monastery. By 1474, Slavonic was no longer used. For unknown reasons, the Slavic origins of St Jerome never played a part in the promotion of the Polish monastery, however. Glagolite monks ultimately returned to Croatia in the fifteenth century. Yet, the belief that St Jerome was the patron saint of the Slavs had a longer lasting legacy in Bohemia (until the eighteenth century), in Poland (from the sixteenth century), and among Western scholars like Erasmus, Tyndale and Postel, until the Bollandists straightened the story in 1762.

Verkholantsev's thorough analysis, based on an impressive bibliography, is a solid contribution to a subject often caught up in competing nationalistic claims. It is to the author's credit to have pieced together the disparate elements of this legend. Because the collections of these monasteries have been lost, evidence is indeed difficult to find, particularly regarding St Jerome's place in this story. In this regard, the book is more essentially a study of the Slavonic rite among the Western Slavs. This excellent work will be of interest to scholars focusing on the conversion of the Slavs and the Cyrillo-Methodian missions, the development of a Slavic identity and its place within Western Christendom, but also to those interested in the question of the rise of vernacular languages. Written in a fluid and clear prose, the book is also (relatively) accessible to a graduate audience: the open discussion of historiography and the clear explanations as to why some hypotheses are more solid than others may lead to interesting discussions regarding methodology. Keywords on the side of each paragraph, as well as two indexes (of names and subjects, and of primary sources) prove helpful in navigating the text and its arguments.

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