The Lake Chud Battle in 1242

By Donald Ostrowski

The description of the Lake Chud Battle in 1242 between the forces of Novgorod on one side and those of the Livonian Knights with their Chud allies on the other has gone through five stages of transformation between the thirteenth and twentieth centuries. The earliest layer dates to the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries and consists of the Military Tale of Alexander Nevsky, the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle (LRC), and the Laurentian Chronicle. No mention of ice or any chase appears in them, although the LRC reports that some knights fell on the grass. The Laurentian Chronicle has Alexander’s brother Andrei leading the Rus army.

© Andrey Fetisov

The second layer dates to the mid to late fourteenth century. The testimony of the Older Redaction of the Novgorod First Chronicle coincides with that of the Suzdal Chronicle about a chase occurring across the ice. But it also adds that the chase went all the way to the Subol shore (understood to mean the western shore of Lake Chud).

The third layer dates to the mid-fifteenth century. The author of the Life of Alexander Nevsky attempted to combine the testimony of the Laurentian Chronicle with that of the Novgorod First Chronicle. The hagiographer has Alexander going against the Germans as the Novgorod First Chronicle does. He incorporated the information about the place of the battle mentioned in the Suzdal Chronicle and Novgorod First Chronicle, as well as the account of the Novgorod First Chronicle of Alexander’s appeal to God and the chase across the ice. The noise of the battle is described as akin to the noise ice makes.

During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the Moscow chronicle compilations added a fourth layer to the story when they incorporated the Life of Alexander Nevsky into their narrative. They also added certain phrases not found in earlier versions of the Life, such as that the Master of the Livonian Order took part in the battle and that the 50 captured Germans were “prominent commanders”. These chronicles are the first sources to state explicitly that some combatants drowned in the polynyas of the lake. The Illustrated Chronicle Codex depicts soldiers of both sides in the water.

The notion that the ice on the lake gave way under the main body of fleeing Livonian Knights constitutes the fifth transformation of the account, as represented in Sergei Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky (1938). The scenario of the battle in the film may have been taken from the description of the war in heaven in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1674) when the forces of Satan fall into the abyss. The varied accounts of the Lake Chud Battle are a prime example of how the presentation of historical events can evolve over time.

This episode is featured in the current issue of Medieval World: Culture & Conflict!

Leave a comment

Related Posts