The Poet Behind The Song of Igor’s Campaign

We don’t know exactly who wrote The Song of Igor’s Campaign, Russia’s most famous and enduring medieval epic poem from the 12th century. It’s believed that he was someone hired to write a poem commemorating the campaign shortly after it happened (Nabokov). There are significant differences between the events in the poem and the history recorded in The Chronicle (Wikipedia), which would indicate that the poem and the historical record were written by two different people at different times, possibly with access to different pieces of information. The styles of writing are also very different from one another. The Song takes artistic license (and possibly plays loosely with known facts) to create a more interesting, creative work. The poetry itself displays a masterful grasp of rhyme and meter (Nabokov) that has helped it endure over the centuries as the best known work of literature from medieval Russia.

The poet makes several references to another bard named Boyan. Although we don’t have any historical reference to Boyan outside this poem (Nabokov), the Song poet refers to him as a famed “song-maker of the times of old” (831-832), a poet/seer with a magical power for inspiring those who listened to him. The poem uses the word veshchiy – a word that connotes not just the power of inspiration, but also a magical ability. It’s possible that Boyan was a real artist known to the Song poet, but whose own work was never recorded (or has been lost).

Nabokov, Vladimir. The Song of Igor’s Campaign: An Epic of the 12th Century. New York: Ardis Publishers, 1960. Online version:

“The Tale of Igor’s Campaign.” Wikipedia, 2016.

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The Origin of The Song of Igor’s Campaign

Russia’s most famous and enduring medieval epic poem from the 12th century, The Song of Igor’s Campaign, is known in Russian as Слово о плъкоу Игоревѣ (Slovo o plŭku Igorevě). This has been translated alternately as The Lay of Igor’s Campaign, The Tale of Igor’s Campaign, etc. Слово literally translates as “word.”

The original poem only survived in a single manuscript that was discovered in 1795 in Spaso-Yaroslavsky Monastery in Yaroslavl. Alexei Musin-Pushkin (not to be confused with Pushkin the poet) bought the manuscript and transcribed it for Catherine the Great, then published it in 1800. This original (along with Musin-Pushkin’s entire library of antiquities) is believed to have been destroyed during the great Moscow fire of 1812 (Wikipedia), when Russians decided they’d rather nuke everything than give it to Napoleon.

The lack of an existing manuscript has led to questions regarding the poem’s authenticity (Mann); however, most scholars agree that it was indeed written in the 12th century for several reasons – largely to do with its language corresponding linguistically with other writing from that time period.

Further disagreement regards whether the poem was originally meant to be performed orally or as a written work. While the language fits into its time period, some have speculated that it was written using a formula based on motifs that point to an oral tradition similar to other early epics (Nabokov), especially considering this poem’s pace and emphasis on nature and the supernatural – the latter of which feels almost anachronistic within the context of medieval Christianity. It’s possible that the Christian elements were tacked on when the poem was composed in written form based on an older, oral tale.

Mann, Robert. “The Forgotten Text of Nikolai Golovin: New Light on the Igor Tale.” Oral Tradition, 26/1 (2011): 145-158.

Nabokov, Vladimir. The Song of Igor’s Campaign: An Epic of the 12th Century. New York: Ardis Publishers, 1960. Online version:

“The Tale of Igor’s Campaign.” Wikipedia, 2016.

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Historical Setting for The Song of Igor’s Campaign

Russia’s most famous and enduring medieval epic poem from the 12th century, The Song of Igor’s Campaign, is based on a series of real, historical events that took place in 1185-87. Russian culture was centered further east of the area we think of as Russia today – more in the Ukraine.

Igor, the prince of Novgorod-Seversk, and his people had been battling the Cumans, a nomadic Turko-Mongolian people who lived around the Don River in the grassy steppes north of the Black Sea. In Turkic languages, “cuman” is related to words for light yellow or blond. This race has also been named Polovstian, derived from the Slavic root polv’, which can mean light yellow, blond, or straw.


Figure 1: Kievan Rus on the map. Prince Igor ruled Novgorod-Seversk. The Cumans lived in the area north of the Black Sea by the Don River.

In 1183, Igor’s father, Svyatoslav, had defeated the Cumans and pushed them back east. In 1185, Igor and his brother, Vsevolod, along with their nephew (also named Svyatoslav) and Igor’s son Vladimir, marched east to Cuman territory to pick a fight with them.

Igor’s campaign was not as fortunate as his father’s. His brother Vsevolod and nephew Svyatoslav died in battle. Igor and his son Vladimir were taken hostage. With the Rus state weakened, the Cumans were free to push further west into Rus territory and take over several cities. Igor escaped two years later. Vladimir managed to escape a few months after his father, married the Cuman chieftain’s daughter in the process in the interim.

The historical accounts of these events can be found in two different sources: the Ipatiev Chronicle, which covers four centuries of Kievan history up through the end of the 13th century, and the Lavrentiev Chronicle, a briefer account with some differences in dates and details. Most scholars consider the Ipatiev Chronicle to be the more dependable source, and closest to The Song of Igor’s Campaign – though The Song has its own differences in details.

Boĭkova, Elena Vladimirovna; Rybakov, R. B. (2006). Kinship in the Altaic World. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. ISBN 978-3-4470-5416-4. Cited in

Dragosani-Brantingham, Justin. (19 October 2011) [1999]. “An Illustrated Introduction to the Kipchak Turks” (PDF). Cited in

Map of Kievan Rus. Wikimedia Commons, 2010.

Nabokov, Vladimir. The Song of Igor’s Campaign: An Epic of the 12th Century. New York: Ardis Publishers, 1960. Online version:

“The Tale of Igor’s Campaign.” Wikipedia, 2016.

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Challenge of the Traveling Scholar 1/5: Midlands

[This is an in-persona post based on the Challenge of the Traveling Scholar.]

A bow from Sofya Chyudskaya Smolyanina to my fellow scholars on this traveling challenge. My travels recently took me to the Shire of Ravenslake in the north Midlands, where I taught my first class in my challenge on September 17.

Many good people at this event were engaged in teaching and learning martial arts so that they may better defend our fair realm, likely from the nomadic tribes which continue to encroach upon our lands. I, however, joined a small band of artisans in teaching more peaceful arts. I set up camp along a small path and offered to share my knowledge in the ways of leathercrafting to any and sundry who expressed an interest.

In total, I had eight students over the course of the day. The first was a small boy who — while very enthusiastic about hands-on learning — might have given me a gray hair or two under my povoinik. I turned to talk to another student for all of ten seconds, and when I turned back to him, he had found my sharpest and most dangerous knife. No fingers were lost, luckily, nor skin broken, and the other student was patient enough to come back later in the afternoon when the child had been reunited with his parents. She and another student made covers for ax blades; two others made scissors sheaths, and a few more practiced carving and stamping. One student began a small pouch for a brooch, which we agreed she could finish when I meet her in two weeks at a Fox Hunt. Enough students also were kind enough to donate a few rezanas for the cost of leather so I can request more from my supplier for future lessons. All in all, I consider this teaching experience a success.

There was also time to cool my wearied feet in the waters of a small, babbling brook below a copse of trees next to our site. While I now live in the booming metropolis of Novgorod and am used to large bodies of water like the Volkhov River and Lake Ilmen, it reminded me of small brooks that fed into the Dniepr by my childhood home near Smolensk.

Now, I am resting at home. And as the saying goes, at home, even one’s own walls are a comfort. Yet I must look to my books and continue preparing for my next class in another region. Where and when that will be, I know yet not…

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My Challenge of the Traveling Scholar

Earlier this summer, I was chatting with a friend of mine who said she felt like she needed a new way to challenge herself in the arts and sciences. She’s done the research, she’s made things, she’s entered pentathlons in A&S faires, and she’s taught classes. What next?

So I suggested, “Why not teach a pentathlon of classes?” Since we live in the SCA kingdom of the Midrealm, we have five regions — so she could teach one class in each region. Each class would represent the divisions of the A&S faire, in the same way as a pentathlon faire entry.

She happened to like this idea, and because it dovetails with another issue — encouraging more people to travel to events outside their home regions, and get more people to learn about and recognize each other — we decided to make it into a challenge to more teachers in the kingdom.

And, well, I found myself getting swept up in the momentum. I haven’t been teaching as many types of classes for a while, so I figured this challenge would give me a much-needed push to do a little more research and share more about what I’ve been learning and doing.

The rules are simple:

Time duration of the challenge — from August 1, 2016 to July 31, 2017

Teach at least 5 classes, one in each region (Midlands, Constellation, Pentamere, North and South Oaken)

Each class needs to represent a different division of A&S (or total 4 out of 5 divisions among the 5 classes):

  • Division 1 – performing arts
  • Division 2 – fiber arts
  • Division 3 – technical sciences (including research)
  • Division 4 – studio arts
  • Division 5 – domestic arts

Post a message in a Facebook group for the challenge, in character for your persona about your experience traveling to the event and teaching the class.

There is more to the challenge for those who want to go above and beyond this scope and try to teach a pentathlon of classes in each region, or at each event. Knowing where I’m approaching this challenge from, and how many classes I’ll be able to attend in each region before the end of next July, I’ll consider it an accomplishment if I can achieve the bare minimum.

I’m giving myself an additional challenge to prepare more of my classes in Russian topics. I just taught a general leatherworking class yesterday, however, so I’m not sure if I’ve already lost that challenge or if I’ll pull together a Russian-themed studio arts class by then. I’ll count it for now, because…I taught a class and it applies to the challenge. 🙂

Other classes I’m preparing:

One on The Song of Igor’s Campaign for Division 1 (and because I’d like to do more teaching of literary topics anyway).

Division 2 — I’ve done a variation of a class on ozherele (Russian collars) that I could teach again, or teach a hands-on class about Russian embroidery techniques, or one about various Russian costume accessories.

Division 3 — I’m still puzzling this one out. My best bet is probably research. Or, it could be a lecture class on Russian metalworking finds….hmm.

Division 4 — Technically I’ve already accomplished this one, though I might do something more Russian-oriented in the way of leatherwork, birch-bark writing (or craft), or maybe even decorative metalwork if I learn more about making jewelry bits. 🙂

Division 5 — This could be something on food and beverages, advice from the Domostroi on running a Muscovite household, or lessons learned about Novgorodian domestic issues by reading birch-bark letters (I recently read Letters One Thousand Years Old and gleaned quite a bit that could be shared in a class. Literate peasants had plenty to say!).

Again, this is all subject to change. Nothing is final until I’ve taught the class and completed the challenge. Here goes!

Each time I complete a class and write about it in persona, I’ll share the written entry here on this blog.

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Shakespeare Update

Every time I come back to this blog, my first reaction is “Yikes, it’s been a long time since I’ve last updated!” So, yeah. This past year has been a hectic one in many ways, and taken a huge chunk out of my time and energy away from the research and making I’d like to do.

But the good news is that I’m finally getting back on that horse, so to speak — and thought I’d share a quick update on my Shakespeare exposure this summer.

King John — I finally went back to this after abandoning it sometime last year and finished the play. The biggest takeaway is that there are good reasons why it’s not performed, largely to do with a few plot holes and awkward transitions. But there is an interesting character in Falkenburg (?), a bastard son of Richard the Lionheart (who cares if history says Richard was gay?) whose irreverent sense of humor gets him a knighthood and position leading Eleanor’s army. He enters the story with a conflict with his brother, the second-born, legitimate son, in a dispute over the inheritance of land and title. It draws an interesting parallel with John’s claim to the throne when his elder brothers both have their own sons. There is also a lot of soliloquy given to Constance (?), the mother of Geoffrey’s son whom John kidnaps. It might be interesting to see a couple of these scenes performed, though I doubt there are that many performances out there to choose from.

Twelfth Night  — I finally saw this performed live this summer, when some friends had a spare ticket to see it at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. All in all, it was an enjoyable performance, set in the 1910s.

Hamlet — We saw this at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival as well — 1 1/2 times, in fact. The first time was canceled just after Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy” because of rain. As much as I was disappointed in the weather interference, it lent to some unique dynamics in the play itself, notably when guards complain of chill even as the actors and audience are suffocating on a very hot, humid evening, and when one of the players describes a storm just as the thunder rumbles in the distance. Outdoor performances have their dramatic advantages as much as their setbacks.

This production is also noteworthy for its casting of a woman as Hamlet, Deborah Staples. This is the first time I’ve seen any performance with a woman in this role, and she played it beautifully. She didn’t try to “butch up” the character by overtly pretending to be a man, but just played the character, channeling the spirit while everyone else used male pronouns. There were notes of outrage that I haven’t picked up in other famous portrayals that fit well with the character and reminded me of a few women I know in real life. I still haven’t seen that many productions, but I’d place this well above Kenneth Branaugh’s and Kevin Kline’s respective movie roles. David Tennant is the only other actor I’d put on this par in terms of making the character and story come alive.

One last entertaining interaction with the greater outdoors came at the very end of this show (when we saw the entire, uncanceled performance). Just after Horatio says “May flights of angels carry thee to thy rest,” a plane flew overhead. I rode home imagining that the plane was taking Hamlet to rest in Cancun. My thoughts devolved from there to imagining Hamlet on vacation in Mexico…

“Oh, that this too too pallid flesh would burn, fade, and resolve itself into a tan…”(Well, he is a Dane after all, and probably burns more easily than tans, right?)

“Alas, poor Yorick! They’ve painted his skull for Dia de los Muertos, Horatio.”

Ahem. Anyway, in other Shakespearean news, I’m rereading Taming of the Shrew, which I haven’t read since college. There’s a lot more that I’m picking up now that I’m not reading it all in a few hours the night before class. There’s still a lot of baggage I’m unpacking about gender roles in Elizabethan marriage, though it’s interesting to note the essay by Anne ___ accompanying the play in the Riverside Shakespeare comparing Petruchio’s method of taming a woman against other practices considered in pop culture at the time that we today would revile as a hundred times more abusive. There’s still a lot of abuse leveled at a woman who’s already powerless in marriage as defined by Elizabethan culture, however, and I still prefer modern adaptations, but there are some comic elements in the original play that help make it bearable.

It’s also come up in conversation a few days ago that it’s been a while since I last read A Comedy of Errors, since I didn’t recognize a passage from it — so I know what I’ll be reading next. After that, I have the Song of Igor’s Campaign cued up and a couple other books on medieval Russia. It’s good to get some reading goals again.

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I first began experimenting with cordials sometime in the early 2000s. For the latter half of that time, I’ve been keeping track of my recipes and notes on a wiki that I threw together for cooking-related stuff.

I’ve had some hits and misses…and sometimes, I’ve lost track what I’ve done with a bottle or notes before I could add them to this page. By and large, however, what I’ve made can be found here.

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