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Index by Period

Early Eastern European Literature


Schlegel says of the Russian Nation:

"Her subjection to the Greek Church was alone sufficient during the Middle Ages, and is in some measure sufficient even in our own time, to keep Russia politically and intellectually at a distance from the rest of the Western world."

Little if any part was taken by the Slavs in the Crusades. They had hardly any of the spirit of chivalry, and their belief, during their period of barbaric heathenism, was not so romantic and ideal as the Gothic.

The heroic prose tales of Russia are older and more popular than her ballads. They are told in the nurseries, and recount the heroic deeds of Vladimir the Great. The ballads are mostly a recital of the feuds between the Poles and the Tartars, not unlike the Border ballads of Scotland.

Their greatest hero is Yermak, who conquered the Mongols, and in the fifteenth century won for the Czars the country that is now called Siberia. Yermak's deeds and praises are sung from one end of Russia to the other, even at the present day; and the poorest peasants usually have a colored print representing him on horseback, nailed to the wall of their cabins.


The popular poetry of the Slavic race, which still survives, is found in its perfection among the Serbians and Dalmatians, while it is almost extinct among the other nations. It is of unknown antiquity, and has been handed down from one century to another.

The Slavs have always been a singing race, and must have been so from Pagan times, as their songs abound with heathen gods and customs, dreams, omens, and a true Eastern fatalism. Love and heroism are the usual themes, and among the Serbians the peculiar relation of sister and brother forms the principal subject of interest.

A Serbian woman who has no brother is considered a fit subject for sympathy. The Serbian poetry is nearly all Epic, and in this particular class of verse no modern nation has been so productive. There is a grand and heroic simplicity in their song, as it recounts their daily life; the hall where the women sit spinning near the fire, the windswept mountain side, where the boys are pasturing their flocks, the village square where youths and maidens dance, the country ripe for the harvest, and the forest through which the traveller journeys, all reecho with song. This Serbian poetry first became generally known in Europe through Goethe and Grimm in Germany, and Bowring and Lytton in England.


The Finnish race reached a high degree of civilization at a very early period. They have always been distinguished by a love of poetry, especially for the elegy, and they abound in tales, legends and proverbs. Until the middle of the twelfth century they had their own independent kings, since then they have been alternately conquered by the Russians and Swedes; but like the Poles, they have preserved a strong national feeling, and have kept their native language. Their greatest literary monument is the Kalevala, an epic poem. Elias Lonnrot, its compiler, wandered from place to place in the remote and isolated country in Finland, lived with the peasants, and took from them their popular songs, then he wrote the Kalevala, which bears a strong resemblance to Hiawatha. Max Muller says that this poem deserves to be classed as the fifth National Epic in the world, and to rank with the Mahabharata and the Nibelungen-lied. The songs are doubtlessly the work of different minds in the earliest ages of the nation.


The Magyars, or Hungarians as they are called, came into Europe from Asia, and first settled between the Don and the Dneiper. They possessed from remote antiquity a national heroic poetry, the favourite subject of which was their migration and conquests under the Seven Leaders. They laid claim to Attila as being of their nation, and many of their most warlike songs recounted his deeds and those of the other Gothic heroes. The Magyars have never taken kindly to foreign influence, and when, in the fifteenth century, Mathias Corvin tried to bring Italian influence to bear on them, the result was a decline in literature, and neglect of the old poems and legends. During the Turkish invasions the last remnants of the national songs and traditions disappeared; and under the Austrian rule the Hungarians have become decidedly Germanized.

Within the past century Kisfalud has sought to restore the national legends of his country, and a new impetus has been given to the restoration and preservation of the Hungarian language and literature.


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