Culture In Post Kievan-Rus’- The Minstrels

One of the more overlooked aspects of culture of post- Kievan Rus’ was the role of the minstrel.  The minstrel, or skomorokhi, was a musician, actor, and all-around entertainer that operated in a wide variety of venues.  These could range from small villages to large cities such as Novgorod.  The minstrel sub population moved Northeast in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries into the region more known as Russia.

It is very surprising to note that Minstrels often played secular music and preformed secular entertainment.  Despite this, they were not banned from performing for nearly 400 years in Novgorod.

The minstrels, as depicted by manuscripts from 1323, were always dressed in elaborate costumes, some with headdresses.  It is possible that these may have been religious in nature. This is reinforced by the fact that a large majority of the artifacts recording their existence are maintained in the north where their beliefs would be more tolerated.

The influence of Christianity continued to grow in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, thus creating working conditions for minstrels more difficult.  Since the skomorokhi were secular in nature, the church was vehemently against any of their behavior and work.  In 1470, they were banned from all of Muscovy by Iurii Dmitrov.  Maksim Grek continued this opposition into the sixteenth century, stating “the skomorokhi have learned their trade from Satan himself” and by virtue of this are already cursed and damned”.  Despite this, the minstrels continued to be a integral part to Russian Culture. Some were wealthy enough to even be required to pay taxes, but many were peasants or even serfs.

Why were minstrels more accepted in the north versus the south?

What was the gusli and what purpose did it serve to the skomorokhi?

Were the headdresses worn during performances religious?  Was this a reason for their eventual expulsion from Christian regions?


2 thoughts on “Culture In Post Kievan-Rus’- The Minstrels

  1. I am similarly curious about the role the minstrels played in society and am particularly surprised by the strong reactions they received. In certain communities, they seem to be regarded as an unwelcome nuisance. It appears that the elite culture looked down upon minstrels, so much so that minstrels were banned from certain towns and areas. However, in some communities, the minstrels received a tax-exempt status. I was not sure if that was a privilege given to them or if they were exempt because they lacked the funds to pay. I imagine the minstrels as being very similar to gypsies, in that they never stay in one place and travel in groups. Do you think this would be an accurate assumption or no? The minstrels arrival in a village must have been a huge commotion if the elites went to so much effort to keep them out. Was it the secular nature of their performances that caused such a negative reaction among elite culture?

  2. The minstrels seem to be an essential part of early Russian culture, whether for better or worse…They provided entertainment in times of cold, and desperation similar to a jester in Western Europe. They were much more accepted in the north because of the religious tolerance observed there as a appose to the south, where Russian Orthodox had began to completely take power. Russia has always had a prejudice against flamboyancy. Even today in Russia homophobia is a huge issue. Perhaps these minstrels were looked at in a similar vain in the eyes of christianity?

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