“They sank as lead in the mighty waters”:
the Bible and the Battle on the Ice
Usually the story of the Battle on the Ice is associated in our consciousness with the picture of the breaking ice and sinking knights. However historical sources contain no information to support the view that the ice broke under the weight of the armored western warriors. Only the 1st Sophia chronicle mentions that some of the crusaders drowned: “And they were driven for seven versts over the ice to the Subolitsa bank, and nine hundred Germans fell, and the Chud fell without number; the rest were captured alive and brought to Novgorod, and others drowned in the water” (Yu. Begunov, Alexander Nevsky, Zh.Z.L., Moscow, 2003).
In the beginning of Eisenstein and Prokofiev’s film “Alexander Nevsky” the crusaders execute Russian infants (“Crusaders in Pskov”). At the end of the battle on Chudskoe lake the villains in white cloaks with black crosses perish sinking under the ice (“The ice breaks”). These stories are the most colorful and the best remembered ones, they form people’s stereotypes of the Battle on the Ice.
Having taken Pskov, the Germans “took children from good people hostage” (the 1st Novgorod chronicle). According to the evidence of Russian chronicles after the Battle on the Ice Alexander Nevsky rescued the hostage children by exchanging them for the captive knights. The stories about burning children in Pskov monasteries by the brethren of the Teutonic order can be found in various copies of the ancient Russian “Story of Dovmont” and almost in all Russian chronicle collections (V.I.Okhotnikova, Story of Dovmont. Study and Texts. Leningrad, 1985). The idea of the crusaders as of children torturers is typical for the cultures of the Baltic peoples – we may take Juozas Grushas' drama “Herkus Mantas”, Marijonas Giedrys' film with the same title, as well as Giedrius Kuprevichius’ opera “The Prussians”.
Numerous battles on the ice held by the Teutonic order are well known from historical sources – the military tactics of the crusaders recommended to choose rivers and lakes covered with ice for a battle field in order to ensure the highest crushing force of the wedge arrayal, which was called “the iron hog”. The Livonian rhymed chronicle, written for edification of the knight-brethren of the Order, mentions the danger of getting on the thin ice: “When Mindovg came to Wenden, he understood the Russians lured him onto thin ice on purpose” (V.I.Matuzova, E.L.Nazarova. Crusaders and Russia. The end of the 12th century – 1270. Texts, translation, comments. Moscow, 2002). There is nothing unbelievable that on the 5th of April, 1242, the knights might get to the places where the ice was thin because of certain springs running into the lake.
The crusaders who slew the Orthodox infants remind us of the servants of the biblical pharaoh and king Herod. The legend about the enemies of the Holy Russia who drowned in Chudskoe lake is also closely related to the Christian symbolism. The Holy Scripture of the Old Testament relates that pharaoh ordered the Egyptians to kill the newly born children of Israel: “Every son that is born [of the Jews] ye shall cast into the river” (Ex. 1:22). But finally the Egyptian warriors drowned in the Red sea as a punishment for their drowning innocent infants. The film “Alexander Nevsky” is a vivid illustration to the Old Testament song addressed to God: “Pharaoh's chariots and his host hath he cast into the sea: his chosen captains also are drowned in the Red sea. The depths have covered them: they sank into the bottom as a stone… Thou didst blow with thy wind, the sea covered them: they sank as lead in the mighty waters. Thou in thy mercy hast led forth the people which thou hast redeemed” (Ex. 15.4-13).
“Life of St. Prince Alexander Nevsky” draws parallels between the works of Alexander Nevsky and prophet Moses. Before the Battle on the Ice Prince Alexander prayed: “Help me, o Lord, as you helped Moses in ancient times…” Returning to Pskov as the victor, the holy leader willed the Orthodox people to cherish the memory of the defeat of the Latin crusade against Russia: “If you forget it, you will be like the Jews, who forgot their God who led them through Moses out of bondage in Egypt” (Life of St. Prince Alexander Nevsky, second redaction, translation by Yu.Begunov).
An Orthodox prayer service written in the 16th century also compares the victory of Alexander Nevsky and Russian warriors with salvation of God’s people from bondage in Egypt: “Walking through waters like over dry land and running away from the bondage in Egypt, an Israelite cried: We sing to our Lord the Redeemer: it is worthy to glorify with songs the awesome wonder-worker. Grant me the thought and the word, Oh Christ my God, to glorify in singing and joy the memory of Him. O godly and wise Alexander, if the newly enlightened Russian land could give birth to you, then you were granted ancient honor having worthily received the gift of working wonders… Rejoice the one, who freed the town of Pskov of the infidels! Rejoice the one, who rejected the Roman teaching and made their spiritual deception fade into nothingness! Rejoice, the defender of the Russian land!” (Prayer service to the most Orthodox Prince St. Alexander Nevsky, Yu. Begunov, Alexander Nevsky, Zh.Z.L., Moscow, 2003).
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