Rus’ in the 13th century: the nature of cultural transformations

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Rus’ in the 13th century: the nature of cultural transformationsThe middle of the 13th century is traditionally viewed in Russian archaeology as certain limit dividing not only two periods in social and political history of ancient Rus’, but also two separate blocks of its material culture.
The idea on the disaster and following discontinuity in cultural traditions is based on impressive and reliable evidences of the written sources and abundant archaeological material that seem to fit perfectly.

The thesis on military crash Russian principalities underwent in 1237-1240 being directly connected with a number of transformations in Russian culture that had consequently lost numerous characteristic features formed in the 10th—12th cc. gradually has become a commonplace in the works devoted to medieval history and archaeology of Eastern Europe. Yet recent investigations of archaeological monuments of the 12th - 14th cc. in different regions of ancient Rus’ reveal more contradictory a picture of development displaying the qualities of crisis and discontinuity combined with those of cultural continuity and stability of the traditions established during the pre-Mongol period. Archaeologists improve their methods of investigations, they are aimed at more objective evaluation of archaeological information, and accumulate more data testifying that cultural transformations of mid 13th c. cannot be explained by outward pressure only. Evidently, the time has come for considering cultural situation of the 13th c. from the standpoint of working out more clear ideas on the nature of cultural development in the period under discussion, and re-evaluation of traditional opinions, proceeding from the new material available.
Field investigations of the recent decades have contributed greatly to the list of archaeological associations that can be reliably connected with the dramatic events of 1237-1240. At the same time, new excavations have brought to light a great number of phenomena unknown before which strongly change traditional ideas on cultural situation of the 13th c.
First, it was established that the 13th c. was a period of profound changes in the system of rural settling. Archaeological surveys of rural regions demonstrate that in this period formation of a new cultural landscape started. Its main feature was movement of the dwelling sites to interfluves (“flight to hills”) and wide-scale clearing forests in these regions. In the central and north territories of Russia new territories were settled that had never been settled and managed as agricultural grounds before. At the same time, great deal of dwelling sites were abandoned or changed their location, that had emerged in the 10th - the first half of the 12th cc. and developed firmly for one or more centuries ever since.

Second, more detailed and thorough studies of the artefacts originating from ancient Russian towns, dwelling sites, and cemeteries reveal more complicated character of cultural shifts that took place since the late 12th till the early 14th cc. Popular thesis that in the middle of the 13th c. a great number of artefacts’ types and categories considered as vivid indications of ancient Russian culture came out of use practically at once should be seriously corrected. Though the 13th c. did represent a period of essential transformation of material culture, they developed in the course of rather a long chronological span and were more smooth than it seemed before.
Third, archaeological material produces vivid evidences of rapid development of numerous urban centres and rural regions of 13th century Rus’, including the second half of the century. The rise of new centres accompanied by devastation and decline of old ones is a well-known point met with in historical publications dealing with the situation of the 13th c. Still, serious archaeological data able to confirm it were obtained mostly recently.
The material accumulated more and more convincingly points to the fact that Russian society entered the period of profound inner transformations as early as the first half of the 13th c., the changes affecting various aspects of its existence. These transformations turned to be screened from our attention by the perils and stresses of 1237-1240. The thesis that the historical situation of the 13th c. in Rus’ should be considered mainly as inner crisis has been for the first time formulated by British historian John Fennell. Russian version of his impressive book was published just before the crisis of 1989. But Fennell viewed the period of the 13th c. only as a crisis of power and degrading the ancient Russian political system. In his opinion, no principal changes occurred in economy and culture of ancient Russia in this time. At present we may discuss inner transformations, characteristics of inner crisis on the basis of different sources and concentrating on quite different aspects - settling, economy, and culture.

Obviously, material and natural resources that served as the ground for rapid rise of ancient Rus’ in the 10th—12th cc. by the 13th c. had turned to be exhausted to a great extent, while economic stereotypes and social mechanisms that guaranteed growth before had lost their effectiveness. Reduced volume of long-distance trade, change of traditional systems of agriculture, compulsory transition of great share of population to more limited consumption - these are only several indications of the crisis. The crashing blow dealt by the Mongols chronologically coincided with the period of inner historical changes, aggravated and accelerated their development, but was not the only cause of the recorded transformations.

N. A. Makarov