The historical novel I am currently working on takes place in the southern fringes of medieval Kievan Rus‘ (Russia).
Did I know anything about medieval Russia when I began this project? No. But sometimes ideas come along in the most unexpected of places. For me, it was this painting:
I saw Konstantin Makovsky’s The Boyar Wedding Feast at the Hillwood Museum in Washington, D.C. Makovsky, a Russian painter living at the end of the 19th century, painted this and many other scenes and portraits of medieval Russia. His work was a product of the same era of Russian patriotism that produced War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov.
My sister-in-law gave us a print of the painting and we had it framed for Christmas. As I was brainstorming ideas for my novel-writing class, I kept coming back to our newly hung print. Here was a story: in my mind’s eye, a political drama with a romantic subplot. See all the machinations going on in the background? The shabby furs of the land-rich, cash-poor boyar, the father of the groom with the goblet raised? The juxtaposition of opulence and poverty? The rich traditions of a Russian wedding – the goose, the chicken, the first kiss, the matchmaker? The romantic tension?
At first I tried to write a futuristic medievalish story based on the painting, largely because I didn’t want the trouble of doing historical research on top of my classwork. But I stole Russian elements for my futuristic story, and, as I wrote and read, the story began to shift back in time.
Then I discovered them: the Brodnici.
A little-known ethnic group on the outskirts of Russia, living along important trade routes, vassals to the larger Russian principalities? Yes, please!
The painting above is a 16th century Russian scene, but with a little maneuvering, I turned its characters into 12th century Brodnici nobles.
The Brodnici lived in what is now eastern Romania, Moldova, and southern Ukraine along the Dnieper and Dniester rivers, the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. We know they existed because we have textual evidence from a papal bull of the “Brodnici lands” as well as some Russian records of their military service to Kiev in the mid 12th century. We know that they were vassals of Suzdal (modern day Moscow) in the early 13th century and that they fought with the Mongols against Kiev in 1223. All this, but I have yet to see the Brodnici on any map of historical Russia.
The Brodnici themselves left no written record nor archeological evidence. The name “Brodnici” means “wanderer”; likely they were a nomadic warrior clan with little time or ability for writing, being in constant battle against perhaps the Russians, but likely the Cumans and Pechenegs as well.
One source I found in the school library said that the Brodnici “never accepted the rule of Kiev.” I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like a story waiting to be written!
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons