The history of the manuscript of the Slóvo has been often stated. In 1795 Count Musin-Puškin, a distinguished arcæologist, bought from the archimandrite of the Spaso-Yaroslávski monastery a bound volume of manuscripts, amongst which was the original of this text. In 1800 he published the editio princeps under the title of a 'A heroic song of the foray against the Pólovtsy of the hereditary Prince of Nóvgorod-Sěverski, Ígoŕ Svyatoslávič.' There were 1200 copies printed, a few of which survived the fire of Moscow in the year 1812 in which the original MS. and most of the printed copies perished.
Thus this printed book of 1800 was the only original, until Pekárski discovered a second modern copy amongst the papers of the Empress Catherine II, an account of which appears infra.
The editio princeps contains the text with a modern Russian translation, historical and other notes, an abstract of the action of the poem, and a preface giving the facts of the discovery. The text is printed as continuous prose, and there is a long list of errata at the end of the volume. The preface provides no sufficient detail as to the style, conditions or date of the lost original; nor to what extent, if any, the editors had adhered and followed it literally, or emended the orthography in conformity with the standards either of Russian or Church-Slavonic. From all accounts, Musin-Puškin was an ardent collector, but an indifferent critic; and, from contemporary evidence it has been gathered that only six of the learned men of the time ever had the opportunity of seeing this vanished MS.: amongst them Bantyš-Kamenski, A. F. Malinovski, A. I. Ermoláev, N. M. Karamzín, R. F. Tirnkovski and G. N. Boltin. †
In the preface Musin-Puškin says:--"The original MS. is in very ancient handwriting. It belongs to the editor who, through his own endeavours and help received from experts in the Russian language has, in the course of some years brought this translation to the degree of clearness desired, and is now at the request of his friends publishing it to the world at large. But, in despite of all this, there remain some passages which are unintelligible; so, I beg my kindly readers to submit their suggestions to me. . . ."
Since that date there has been a deluge of editions and criticisms, as a glance at the bibliography will show. Evidently Musin-Puškin underrated the interest of his casual purchase.
It appears from the criticisms of Bareov and Tikhonrávov, as well as from contemporary statements, that the lost MS. was in a sixteenth century hand unpunctuated and with the words undivided, and Barsov impugns the handwriting of Musin-Puškin as a contributory cause of error.
For some years controversy raged on the genuineness of the poem; but the drift of opinion confirmed authenticity. This poem was flashed on the world very soon after MacPherson had roused all the scepticism of London with his Ossian; but the historical exactitude of the Slóvo, the fact that it had been vouched by a few but notable and responsible persons soon allayed the doubts.
No other ancient copy has been traced. Petrúševi very plausibly opines that the reason of the rarity is that the author was a layman with a strong inclination towards Pagan superstitions--as is plain from the constant references of Slavonic deities--and that, for this reason, the poem was anathematized by the Church, which in medieval Russia, even more than in the rest of Europe was the sole custodian of written records and the art of writing. "Двоевѣрье" or double faith lingered on throughout the hastily converted immensities of the Russian Continent for a very long time; and certainly this poeth betrays no religious horror of the gods of olden time.
The poem must have been written and completed after 1185 and before 1187; and probably suffered in various transcriptions leading up to the XVI century original, which fell into Musin-Puškin's hands. Indeed I suspect that this lost text must have been in two hands; otherwise I cannot explain the variants in the terminations омъ омь етъ еть etc., the relative clarity of some parts and the utter corruption of others, e.g. the passages referring to Svyatopólk and Tugorkán, the digression on Vséslav of Polotsk; a cursory glance at my emended text will reveal how the corrections abound at certain points and cease at others. Other indications of this are slighter; e.g. Vladlmir is spelled in modern Russian style with -mir towards the end, in older fashion -mer in the beginning: and again the modern Russian genitives in аго and dative plurals in амъ occur at the end, but not in the beginning; and this suppositious second copyist seems to have been the more careless of the two.
However, in 1864, Pekárski, whilst burrowing among the private archives of Catherine II, lighted on six folios of manuscript, consisting of chronological and historical notes, many of them in autograph. The Empress was a keen student of medieval Russia, and, as appears from the autobiography of Musin-Puškin, very much interested in his collections of original records. She graciously allowed the Count to lend her some of his treasures, and, in return gave him access to papers in her own cabinet, asking him to elucidate manuscripts she found hard to decipher.
It follows that he must have been her chief informant on ancient Russian history: a fact confirmed by the discovery of a second copy of the Slóvo from the lost eriginal, together with a special abstract of its contents, special notes, and a new manuscript translation into modern Russian for her use, She evidently conned this with great attention, as some of her pencil notes on the margins go to prove. This text is known as the Архивный списокъ the Archive copy, and is designated "E" [Екатерининцкій] in this edition, the printed text of 1800 being called П [Мусинъ-Пушкинъ]. In the same folio the Empress inserted in her own hand a number of genealogies of the princes of Kíev.
The variants in these two copies are important and significant. First,the vocalization of E is generally more in accordance with Russian than Church Slav usage; in the second place, in a number of corrupt passages, E supplies a better reading; in fact I take it that in E we are spared the additional mistakes of the printing house, and I have adopted it as the original in this book, incorporating the corrected readings of E. in Simoni's edition of it (1890). The explanatory documents--the translation, commentary etc.--also differ very slightly. Thus Yaroslávna is made out to be the wife of Vladímir Ígoŕevič, instead of Ígoŕ's; the abstract is shorter and more concise; the grammatical forms especially in regard to the rather indiscriminate use of terminal ъ and ь regular, though still pointing to an original confusion in the lost MS. The numerals in E. are marked with the modern Arabic symbols, not with the old Slav letters with numerical values, a difference of some considerable critical value in one passage at least, where E. reads Зояни for Трояни; this possibly proving some connection between the incomprehensible word Троянъ and the numeral 3, confused with the Russian letter З. In other cases, where words occur, probably derived from Eastern sources, already unintelligible to the sixteenth century copyist [e.g. Карнаижля, дивица] E. gives us a better, if more difficult reading; probably leaving the original as it stood, uninterpreted.
Obviously, in all these uncertainties and this hopeless field of conjecture, it would be ridiculous to attempt to fix on an author. But, as stated in the historical section of this Introduction, the date of composition is fixed by the eclipse of the sun, by the reference to Yarosláv of Galicia as alive, and by the appeal for help to contemporary princes, and must have been in 1185 and 1186; in the latter year the jubilant conclusion celebrating Ígoŕ's escape (uncontemplated in the first two parts of the poem) was added to the first draft.
Furthermore, the author must have been an eye-witness; for,his account of the battle confirms and corroborates the tales of the Chronicles, supplying other detail; he had strong sympathies with the faction of the Ólgoviči and the independent house of Polotsk, and shows little kindliness towards the branch of the ruling family of whom Vladímir II
was the greatest and the best. Lastly, the author has a strong and markedly individual style, avoiding exaggeration and grotesque figures [such as are found in the folk-tales, e,g. as extraordinary magic, many headed monsters etc.]; and is also free from the loose and inchoate profuseness of the Ballads, with their rather sploshy and irregular metre.
Lastly, to hazard a guess, the headings in the Ipatíevski Chronicle for the years succeeding the events of 1185, often fall into a poetical style, not altogether dissimilar; and as the writer of the Slóvo shows accurate acquaintance with the records of the past and often repeats almost verbatim the expressions used in these Chronicles, it is not improbable that he may have been associated with the production of them.
This Introduction is intended to generalize and collect impressions, for the proof of which the reader may be referred to the notes on the text, where instances of such echoes of the Chronicles, and the reading of MSS, will be found set out at length.
But, it is very unfortunate that the original authority for this poem is so deficient and faulty.
i:† Malínovski stated (teste Dubenski) that the MS. was of the end of the XIV century; Ermoláev that it was of the middle of the XV: Kalaidovič (who did not see it) pronounced it for the XVI century. At all events it was not the contemporary copy.