The author of the tale is Hermolaus-Erasmus , who came to Moscow from Pskov in mid 16th century to become a prototype of one of the palace cathedrals. In 1560s he became a monk and is thought to have left Moscow. Despite the established authorship of the piece, most scholars admit that at its basis lie the oral legends of Murom.
THE EVIL SERPENT
There is in the Russian land a city called Murom. I was told that this city was once ruled by a good prince named Paul. The devil, hating everything good among men, sent a serpent to the palace of Prince Paul’s wife to seduce and debase her. And when the princess was with the serpent, she saw him as he really was, while it seemed to others who visited the princess’ palace that not a serpent, but Prince Paul himself was with the princess. Time passed, and the wife of Prince Paul decided that she could no longer hide her secret. She revealed what had happened to her husband, for the serpent had already debased her.
Prince Paul tried to think of what to do with the serpent, and finally he told his wife: “I cannot discern how I am to deal with this evil spirit. I don’t know any means of killing it. But we shall do the following. When you talk with him, ask him cleverly whether he knows how he is destined to die. And when you learn this, tell me, and you will not only be rid of this evil spirit and its debauchery, of which it is disgusting even to speak, but also in the next life you will gain the mercy of our righteous judge, Jesus Christ.”
The princess became gladdened by her husband’s words, and thought: It would be good if it would only happen so. And when the serpent came, she began to converse slyly and cleverly with it about various things, keeping in mind her intentions. When it began to brag, she asked humbly and with respect: “You certainly know everything, and so you must certainly know to what kind of death you are destined.”
And the great deceiver was himself deceived by the deception of the faithful wife and unknowingly betrayed his secret, saying “My death will come from Peter’s hand and Agric’s sword.” The princess, hearing this, concealed it firmly in her heart. After the departure of this evil being, she told her husband, the prince, what the serpent had said. The prince, hearing this, was unable to understand what was meant by the words “My death will come from Peter’s hand and Agric’s sword.”
But, since he had a brother named Peter, he summoned him and told him what his wife had learned from the evil serpent. Prince Peter, learning from his brother that the serpent gave his name-sake as the cause of his death, began to think bravely of how to kill this serpent. Yet he was confused by the fact that he did not know what was the sword of Agric.
Prince Peter had the custom of going alone to church to pray. Once he came to the Church of the Elevation of the Holy Cross which belonged to a convent beyond the city wall. There he was approached by a youth who asked the prince if he wished to see the sword of Agric. The prince, desirous of fulfilling his desire to kill the serpent, answered: “Certainly! Where is it?” And the youth asked Prince Peter to follow him, and he showed him a niche in the bricks of the altar in which a sword was lying. Faithful Prince Peter took the sword and went to his brother, Prince Paul, and told him everything. And from that moment Prince Peter began to wait for the opportunity to kill this evil serpent.
Each day he visited his brother and his sister-in-law. One day, after he had visited his brother, he went to the chamber of his sister-in-law, and there he once again found his brother, sitting with the princess. Leaving her room, he met a man from Prince Paul’s retinue, and he asked him: “I was just in my brother’s room and found him there. Then I went directly to my sister-in-law’s chamber and again I found him there. How is this possible?”
And the man answered: “It is not possible, my lord. Prince Paul has not left his room since you left him.” He went to his older brother’s room and asked him: “When did you return to your room? When I left you, I went to the chambers of the princess without losing any time. And yet, when I came there, I found you next to her. I can’t understand how you could get there before me. Therefore, I left there, came back here, and now once more I see that you were faster than I in getting here. I don’t understand it.”
Then Prince Paul explained to Peter that he had not left his room nor had he been with the princess during this time. Then Prince Peter understood what had happened. “All this is the witchcraft of this evil serpent. In my presence he assumes your image for his own so that he would not be killed by me. Brother, do not leave this room, for I am now going to your wife’s chambers to fight the evil serpent. I hope that I will be able to slay it with the help of God.”
Prince Peter then took Agric’s sword and went to the princess’ chambers, where he again found the serpent in the form of his brother. He struck it with the sword, and the evil spirit returned to its true form and died in convulsions. Before it died, however, its blood spilled on Prince Peter. The body of Prince Peter became covered with sores and ulcers from this blood, and the prince became gravely ill. He was attended by many physicians, but none was able to cure him.
II. THE HEALING OF PRINCE PETER
Having heard that there were many physicians in the region of Riazan, Prince Peter told his servants to convey him there. Weakened by his illness, Prince Peter was no longer able to mount his horse. When he arrived in the land of Riazan, he sent all the men of his retinue to look for physicians.
One of the young men of his retinue came accidentally to a village called Charity. In this village he approached the gate of a house in which apparently no one was at home. He entered the house and found no one. Finally, he entered a room in which he found a beautiful maiden who was weaving. Before her a hare was jumping and playing about. The maiden said to the young soldier: “It is indeed unfortunate when the yard is without ears and the house without eyes.”
The young man didn’t understand the meaning of these words, but asked where the master of the house was. The maiden answered: “My father and mother have gone alone to weep so as to pay their debt in advance, and my brother has gone to view death between his feet.”
Once more the young soldier did not understand the maiden’s words, and things appeared to be strange to him. He again spoke to the maiden: “I came to your place and I saw you weaving and a hare jumping about before you. Now I hear strange words from your lips which I cannot understand. First you told me that it is unfortunate when a yard is without ears and a house without eyes. Then you told me that your mother and father have gone to weep alone so as to pay their debt in advance and that your brother has gone to view death between his feet. I have not understood a word that you have told me.”
The maiden smiled, and said: “Well, it is not too difficult to understand. You came into the house and found me sitting here weaving and dressed in house clothes. If we had a dog, it might have heard you and started barking. In such a case the yard would have had ears. If my brother were at home, he might have seen you coming here and warned me. In this case the house would have eyes. I told you that my parents went to weep alone so as to pay their debt in advance. Actually, they went to a burial and wept there. Once death has come to them, others will weep after them, and therefore they weep now to pay their debt in advance.
As for my brother, I told you that he had gone to view death between his feet. Actually, he and my father climb trees and collect pitch. He went just now to climb trees, and when he does so, he must watch his feet so that he will not fall. If he should fall, it would be his death. Therefore I said that my brother had gone to view death between his feet.”
The young soldier then said to the maiden: “I see that you are very wise. Please tell me your name.” Upon learning that the maiden’s name was Fevronia, the young soldier explained why he had come there: “I have come here on behalf of my lord, Prince Peter of Murom. My prince is sick and covered with sores and ulcers. He received these afflictions from the blood of an evil serpent which he killed with his own hands. Since that time many doctors have treated him, but none has been able to cure him. Therefore, he ordered us to bring him to this land, for he heard that there are many physicians here. But we know neither where they live nor what are their names.”
Fevronia answered, saying: “The only one who can cure the prince is the one who would order that your prince be brought to this place.”
“Who would that be? What do you mean by these words?” the young man inquired. “The prince will lavishly reward the physician who will cure him. Tell me the name of such a physician-who he is and where he lives.”
The maiden then told him: “Bring your prince to this place. If he is kind of heart and not proud in answering my questions, he will be cured.” The young soldier listened to these words and then returned to Prince Peter and told him in detail all that he had seen and heard.
Prince Peter then enjoined his retinue to take him immediately to this wise maiden. And they took him to the house wherein lived the maiden. The prince sent a page to the maiden asking: “Tell me, maiden, who is the man who can cure me? Let him cure me, and he will receive a large part of my wealth!”
Without hesitation the maiden answered the page: “I am the physician who is able to cure your prince, but I do not desire any part of his wealth. However, if I do not become his wife, I shall have no reason to cure him.”
The page returned to the prince and repeated to him the words of Fevronia. Prince Peter did not take her words seriously, thinking that it would be impossible for a prince to marry the daughter of a man whose station in life was as low as that of one who collects pitch. And he instructed his page to tell the maiden that she must cure him, and that if she did, she would become his wife.
The page repeated these words to the maiden. She then took a small pitcher and scooped up some leaven from a barrel and told the page: “Prepare a steam bath for your prince, and, after the bath, spread this leaven over the sores and ulcers on his body. But you must take care not to cover all of the scabs, but leave one uncovered. And then your prince will return to good health.” The young man brought the ointment made from leaven to the prince, and the servants immediately prepared the steam bath.
While the servants were preparing the steam bath, the prince decided to learn how wise this maiden really was, for he had only the word of his servant in this matter. To this end he sent her a small bundle of linen, asking that she make him a shirt, towel, and pants from this linen while he was in the steam bath, and if she were successful, she would thereby prove her wisdom.
A servant brought the bundle of linen to Fevronia and repeated the command of Prince Peter. Fevronia, without any hesitation, ordered the man to climb up on the stove and fetch down a piece of dry wood. When the servant gave her the piece of wood, she marked off a piece one foot in length and ordered the man to cut off this piece. When the servant had done so, she told him to take the block to his master and ask him to make from it a spinning wheel and a loom, while she was combing the linen in preparation for making the shirt, pants, and towel.
The servant took the block of wood to Prince Peter and repeated Fevronia’s request. The prince laughed, and said: “Go to Fevronia and tell her that it is not possible to prepare so many things from so small a block in so short a time.”
Fevronia had anticipated this answer, and told the servant: Well, if your prince is unable to make a spinning wheel and a loom from such a small piece of wood in so short a time, how can I, in return, weave a shirt, pants, and a towel for him from such a small bundle of linen, while he takes a steam bath?” When the page returned to the prince, he was astounded by the wisdom of her answer.
Then Prince Peter went into the steam bath, and his servants applied the ointment over the sores and ulcers, leaving only one scab uncovered, as was ordered by Fevronia. When Prince Peter left the steam bath, his pains left him, and the next morning all his body was clear and healed excepting the one scab that had been left uncovered. He marveled at the curing powers of Fevronia. However, since Fevronia was the daughter of one of lowly birth, Prince Peter did not wish to marry her. He did, however, send her luxurious gifts, but Fevronia would not accept them.
Peter returned to his native city of Murom with his body completely healed excepting the single scab. Soon afterward, however, more sores and ulcers began to spread from the single scab which had not been covered by the ointment. And then his whole body was once again covered with sores and ulcers. Seeing that his affliction had returned, Prince Peter decided to return to Fevronia once again to undergo the proven treatment.
He returned to Riazan and to Fevronia’s house, and despite the fact that he was ashamed for not having kept his promise to marry her, he asked her to treat him once more. Fevronia was not the least bit angry, but said that she would treat him only if he decided to be her husband. This time the prince firmly promised that he would take her as his wife.
The maiden then prescribed the same treatment as before. And when he was healed again, Prince Peter took Fevronia for his wife. And in this way did Fevronia become a princess. And both of them went to Peter’s native city of Murom, and there they lived extremely piously, closely obeying the commandments of God. Soon after their arrival in Murom, Prince Paul died, and Prince Peter became the sole ruler of the city.
III. THE INTRIGUES OF THE BOYARS
The boyars of the city of Murom did not find Princess Fevronia to their liking. They, under the influences of their spouses, resented the princess because of her common origin. However, because of her charitable deeds, she was extremely popular among the simple people, and they prayed to God for her. Once, one of the courtiers, wanting to bring strife between Peter and Fevronia, came to the prince and told him: “The princess usually gets up from the table when she is not supposed to do so. Moreover, before leaving the table, she picks up the crumbs as if she were hungry.”
Prince Peter decided to see if these accusations were true. He ordered that Princess Fevronia sit beside him at the table. When dinner was over, Fevronia picked up all the crumbs and kept them in her hand as she was accustomed to doing since her childhood. Seeing this, Prince Peter caught her by the hand and told her to open her fist, but when she did so they found fragrant myrrh and incense in the palm of her hand. And from that day on, Peter never attempted to question his wife’s deeds.
Many years later the resentful boyars came once again to Peter and said: “Our lord, we want to serve you honestly and want you as our ruler, but we do not want Princess Fevronia as our princess, nor do we want her to rule over our wives. If you are to remain our lord, you must take another for princess. Fevronia may take her wealth and go away anywhere she may wish to go.”
Blessed Prince Peter was of gentle nature and did not become angry, but promised to talk to Princess Fevronia to learn what she would say of this. The shameless courtesans then decided to organize a banquet. They became drunk at this banquet and began to talk arrogantly like loudly barking dogs. And they began to deny Fevronia’s miraculous gift of healing, which she had received from God not only for this life but even for after death.
They began talking: “Our lady, Princess Fevronia, the whole city and all the boyars ask you to give back to us Prince Peter, because we want him.”
Fevronia answered: “You can have him. Only speak with him.”
Then the boyars all spoke at once, saying: “Our lady, all of us want Prince Peter to rule over us, but our wives do not want you to rule over them. Please, take as much wealth as you desire and go wherever you like.”
Hearing these words, Princess Fevronia told them that she would do as they desired but that now she must ask them to do one thing that she desired. The boyars, who were not very clever, rejoiced, and thought that they would easily rid themselves of her. So they pledged to do as she asked. And Princess Fevronia said: “I want nothing from you but my husband, Prince Peter.”
The boyars deliberated for a short while and then said: “If Prince Peter will have it this way, we will not contradict him.”
They hoped that they would be able to choose another ruler if Prince Peter did not wish to break the divine commandment, for it is written in the Gospel of Apostle Matthew: “But I say unto you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of unchastity, makes her an adulteress.” And Prince Peter, following the commandment of Jesus, gave up his rule over the city of Murom.
The evil lords prepared boats for Peter and Fevronia, for the city of Murom was situated on the river Oka. And so they went down the river in these vessels. On the princess’ boat was a courtier who, despite the fact that he was accompanied by his wife, was tempted by evil spirits and began to stare at Princess Fevronia with shameful thoughts. The princess immediately discerned his evil thoughts and exposed them to the man.
Approaching him, she ordered him to scoop up water from the river on one side of the boat and drink it. When the man had done so, she ordered him to go to the other side of the ship and do the same. When the man had drunk the water, Fevronia approached him, and asked: “Tell me, did you find that the water tastes the same on both sides of the ship, or was it perhaps sweeter on one side than on the other?”
The man answered: “No, my lady. The water tasted the same on both sides.”
Then she replied: “And so is the nature of all women. Why then do you want to leave your wife and think about another woman?” The courtier then realized that the princess possessed the gift of reading the minds of men. Becoming afraid, he gave up his evil intentions.
In the evening the boats docked, and when the travelers were disembarking, Prince Peter became seized with doubts as to whether he was right in giving up his rule in the city of Murom. His sagacious wife perceived his doubts, and comforted him, saying: “Do not grieve, my Prince, for merciful God, our Creator, who directs our life, will never forsake us to misfortune.”
That same evening the servants began to prepare dinner for the prince. They cut down branches of some trees and, making a spit, put the kettle on. Princess Fevronia, who was walking along the shore, came upon these branches that had been cut from the trees. Seeing them, she said: “Bless them, for before morning these branches will grow into great trees with rich foliage.” And so it happened, for when the travelers got up in the morning they found that these branches had grown into great trees with rich foliage.
And when the servants began to load the boats, there came a lord from the city of Murom, saying: “My lord, Prince Peter, I come to you on behalf of all the courtiers of the city of Murom. They ask that you do not desert them, your poor orphans, but that you return as ruler to your native land. Many lords of the city have perished by the sword. Each, wanting to become ruler of the city, killed the other. Those lords who have survived and all the rest of the people beg you to come back, my lord, and rule over us. And we will neither anger nor irritate you again. Some of our ladies did not wish to be ruled by Princess Fevronia, but now these ladies have perished in the feud. Those of us who remain alive do love her, and we beg you not to leave us alone, your humble servants.”
Thus Prince Peter and Princess Fevronia returned to the city of Murom, and they ruled according to the commandments of God.
IV. THE PASSING AWAY OF PETER AND FEVRONIA
Peter and Fevronia always helped their people with alms and prayers. They treated all as if they were their own children. They loved everyone equally, and disliked only those who were proud or who exploited the people. Peter and Fevronia lay up their treasures, not on earth, but in heaven. They were real pastors of their city. They always ruled with truth and humility, and never with anger. They gave shelter to pilgrims, fed the hungry, and clothed the naked. And they helped the poor in their misfortune.
When death was nearing, Peter and Fevronia prayed to God that they both might die in the same hour. And they requested that they be buried in the same tomb and in a common coffin in which their bodies would be separated only by a partition. And together they took monastic vows, Prince Peter becoming Brother David, and Princess Fevronia, Sister Euphrosinia.
And it happened that, shortly before her death, Princess Fevronia was embroidering a figure of the saints on a coverlet for the chalice of the cathedral. And a messenger came from Prince Peter, now Brother David, saying: “Sister Euphrosinia, I am ready to die, and wait only for you, so that we may die together.”
But Princess Fevronia, now Sister Euphrosinia, answered: “You should wait, my lord, until I finish the coverlet for the chalice of the holy cathedral.”
Then Brother David sent another messenger, who announced: “I can wait for you only a short time.” Shortly after, another messenger arrived, saying: “I shall soon depart this world. There is no time left for waiting.”
Princess Fevronia was just finishing the embroidering of the coverlet, but, hearing these words; she placed the needle in the coverlet and wound up the thread she had been using. Doing so, she sent a message to Brother David saying that they would now die together. And, having prayed, they offered up their souls to God on Friday, the 20th day of June.
After their deaths, some of the people decided that Prince Peter should be buried in the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin, which was within the walls of the city of Murom, and that Princess Fevronia should be buried in the Church of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, which was outside the walls of the city. And they actually did so, saying that it was not becoming for a man and woman who had taken monastic vows to be buried in the same casket. The body of Prince Peter was put in a casket and was placed in the cathedral, where it was left overnight. The body of Princess Fevronia was put in another casket and placed in the church outside the city walls. A tomb, which had been carved from a huge rock as a resting-place for Peter and Fevronia, remained empty in the yard of the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin.
The next morning the people went to the caskets of Peter and Fevronia and found them empty. The bodies of the holy prince and princess were found together in the tomb of stone, which they had ordered prepared for them. The people, not under standing the meaning of this event, once more placed the bodies in separate caskets. On the following day the bodies of Prince Peter and Princess Fevronia were once again found together in the tomb of stone. Since that time no man has dared to disturb their holy bodies, but left them in their common tomb in the yard of the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin, which is located in the city of Murom. And whoever touched with contrition the tomb wherein lie the holy relics of Peter and Fevronia always received comfort and healing.
English translation is from ” in Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles and Tales by S. Zenskovsky (New York: Meridian, 1974