Kings or Princes? Why Do the Titles of Rusian Rulers Matter

December 2016
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Words matter, this is clear from even the most glancing look at the modern world.1 Whether it is names for groups, individuals, or sports teams, the words that we use define the respective phenomena in the minds of their readers and hearers. Words have not just denotations, but connotations. This is true not only for the modern world, but the medieval one as well. One place where it makes a particular difference is in regard to titles - titles can shape the perceptions of individuals, but also of entire kingdoms or empires. For medieval Rus’, this issue of titulature, compounded not just by issues of connotation but of translation, poses a particular challenge: at issue here is the question of whether Rus’ was ruled by princes, as is commonly understood, or kings, and what consequences this could potentially have for our understanding of the entire medieval Europe.

As far as scholars in the Anglophone world are concerned, the proper translation of the Old East Slavic, and modern Ukrainian, kniaz’, is prince.2 This has been the case since at least the Russian revolution of 1917. Before that time it was typically translated as duke. Largely, this matter is of little concern to either academics or lay people. However, in the context of medieval Europe, the title of the ruler of Rus’, and the ruler of Kyiv in particular, matters greatly when Rus’ is placed into the scheme of larger medieval European history.3 In that particular frame, hierarchy is created in the mental map of Europe through titles, thus: there are kings of England and France, Emperors of Byzantium and the German Empire, and then there are dukes of Poland and princes of Rus’. Clearly, there is a descending rank order in the language that we use for titulature as we move across medieval Europe. It is inevitable that such a hierarchy is then created in the minds of readers and hearers; with the result that Rus’ is considered less than the kingdoms and empires of Europe. But was it actually?

Christian Raffensperger's new book dedicated to the question of Kyivan Rus' in Medieval Europe. Available here: https://arc-humanities.org/products/t-84104-11539-19-6723/

The title kniaz’ is just one of the many titles that was used for the rulers of Rus’. Rus’ was deeply enmeshed in medieval European affairs and so it appears in the sources written in other places and in other languages, such as Old Norse and Latin. In the Old Norse sources, the rulers of Rus’ were given the title konungr, just like the rulers of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, who are traditionally given the title king in English. However, there are also a host of additional people who bear the title konungr in Scandinavia, and so among medievalists there is some contention as to whether or not konungr does, in fact, always equal king. The Latin sources, which discuss Rus’ in a variety of particulars, including its leaders, trade, and dynastic marriages, also use a title for the Rusian ruler, and that is uniformly, rex.4 Rex, when applied to the ruler of France is king. Rex when applied to the ruler of England is king. But when it is applied to the ruler of Rus’, something gets lost and the medieval sources are overwritten by modern ideas and prince is the chosen translation. One example of this comes from the excellent translation of the Latin chronicle of Henry of Livonia. Henry, an early thirteenth century chroniclers of the Baltic crusades included many Rusian rulers in his book. In the English edition, the translator, James Brundage, translated the title rex as king, but then added an explanatory footnote, for example regarding Volodimer, saying, “Vladimir was a Russian [Rusian – CR] prince, not a king, as Henry calls him."5 One can clearly see how this footnote changes the perception of Volodimer in the mind of the reader, as well as alters the chronicler, Henry of Livonia’s, original intent. I do not suggest animus of any kind on the part of modern scholars, such as Brundage, who persist in describing the ruler of Rus’ as prince. In fact, this is typically done out of an abundance of caution and good citations. These scholars have decades, even centuries (with duke instead of prince), on their side.

In fact, there are legitimate concerns when attempting to think through such changes in translation. The modern connotation of king is monarch - sole ruler. But for medieval Rus’, this does not quite work as there were multiple kniaz’ia (rulers), one in each of the major cities, and then spreading throughout Rus’, even if all of them were subordinate to the pater familias in Kyiv. This is indeed different than the example for France. But it is not different than for other places throughout medieval Europe. In England, there are examples from the Latin sources of people with the title rex who are subordinate to other people with the title rex. In Scandinavia, as noted, there were multiple konungr (50 in the year 800 throughout Scandinavia, for example), and some of them were subordinate to others. In Ireland, there was a similar situation, with even more people bearing the title of (ruler or king).

Medieval people, politics, and sources were much more fluid in their ideas of organizational structure and power relationships. It was common knowledge in Rus’ that the ruler in Kyiv was the head of the clan, as well as the ruler of the other cities – something that can be seen when he orders rulers or levies from those cities to make war on external threats to Rus’, such as the Polovtsy. In the modern world we crave order and organization, and we would like that to extend to our history, but such is not always the case. We can make a change, and shift the translation of kniaz’ from prince to king, without having to rewrite the entire book on what makes a king. We just need to pay attention to applying this change throughout the system and being as flexible in our use of it as we are in our understanding of medieval political systems.

Medieval Europe in 1000 AD. Map by Ian Mladjov, https://sites.google.com/a/umich.edu/imladjov/maps

What seems like a small corrective - taking medieval sources at their word and translating titles consistently across Europe - would have major effects. Rus’ would no longer be a principality, or series of principalities, next to the seemingly more majestic kingdoms and empires of medieval Europe. Instead, Rus’ would also be a kingdom, and, geographically, for the eleventh and twelfth century, it would be the largest kingdom of medieval Europe.6 Labeling it as such on maps of the medieval world and in the minds of modern scholars then has the potential to reshape the way that we think about medieval Europe as such and potentially about its present.

  • 1.Please note: The spelling "Rusian" in the title of this article is in reference to Kyivan Rus', the medieval kingdom (rather than modern Russia, to which "Russian" would refer). (Ed.)
  • 2.Kniaz’ shares a common root with many other Indo-European words for ruler, such as konungr (Old Norse), cyning (Anglo-Saxon), and king (English). They all come from the Old Germanic root *kuningas, which means ruler. This is the most common word for ruler in the earliest sources from Rus’. Foreign rulers occasionally have foreign titles, such as tsar for both biblical kings and Byzantine emperors, and korol for Hungarian kings (who are called kral in other sources).
  • 3.Which is where I place it in my Reimagining Europe: Kievan Rus’ in the Medieval World (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012).
  • 4.The dynastic marriages, and the rich source base in Latin, can be seen in my Ties of Kinship: Genealogy and Dynastic Marriage in Kyivan Rus’ (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, 2016). Additionally, there is an interactive map of the dynastic marriages that visually depicts their spread across Europe, and includes a variety of tools that allow users to explore the maps and marriages in different ways: gis.huri.harvard.edu/rusgen
  • 5.Henricus Lettus, The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia, transl. James A. Brundage (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), Bk. 1, fn. 39, Bk. 3, fn. 8.
  • 6.For more information about this subject, please see my forthcoming book The Kingdom of Rus’ (Kalamazoo, Mich.: ARC Humanities Press, 2017), available here: https://arc-humanities.org/products/t-84104-11539-19-6723/
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