Encyclopedia Articles

IURODSTVO (or holy foolishness for Christ's sake) is a peculiar form of Eastern Orthodox asceticism. This ascetic exploit is marked by the subversive behavior of its practitioners who feign madness in order to provide public with spiritual guidance and yet not be praised for their saintliness. Phenomenology of iurodstvo and its endorsement in hagiography reached their full development in the fifth-century Byzantium and then in the fourteenth-century Russia. A Medieval Russian iurodivy to a great degree resembles his Byzantine ancestor and displays all the attributes of the holy foolish paradigm: he feigns madness, goes around naked or half-naked, is homeless, talks in riddles, is eccentric, gives away whatever is given to him, is socially disruptive. On the other hand, he is a clairvoyant and a prophet, he performs miracles and, in most cases, only upon his death he is recognized as a saint.
    The holy fool's exploit is that of secret sanctity, which above all promotes the non-ontological understanding that all of God's created world is a sacred place. By his feigned madness the holy fool opts to say that the lowliest of the lowliest can be not the poor wretch that he appears to be, but a holy man and God's prophet. He shares his power and authority with all the weak, mocked, and despised thus symbolically destroying clear-cut distinctions between the irreconcilable for the profane mind opposites.
    The Greek term descriptive of the ascetic exploit of foolishness in Christ is salos (pl. saloi), which means "mentally deranged." While many languages simply added the Greek salos to their vocabularies (e.g. Georgian, Latin), Russian term is its own. The term iurodivy or urodivy, derives from Russian urod, which means ugly, crippled, an individual with congenital defects. Other words that initially designated the fool in Christ are bui, blazhennyi, and pokhab. These three words used to reflect such different facets of the holy fool's phenomenology as aggression (bui), state of beatitude (blazhennyi), and explicit indecency (pokhab). Unlike bui and pokhab, blazennyi continues to be synonymous to iurodivyi. In modern Russian language iurodivyi has a meaning of an eccentric, a simpleton, someone who pretends to be a fool with a purpose to make his point, someone who displays unorthodox behavior and trespasses against social conventions.
    In Russian Orthodoxy foolishness in Christ has long been a mode of popular religiosity. At the same time it is a theological category denoting one of the non-orthodox forms of Christian asceticism. The exploit of foolishness for Christ's sake belongs to opera superagotoria or is an optional ascetic exploit. It is regarded as the most difficult and controversial of all ascetic practices. Russian Church canonized about thirty-six of its holy fools and many more have been venerated locally. Unlike other ascetics the fool in Christ does not renounce the profane world. He feigns madness and instead of going into hermetic or monastic seclusion becomes a part of secular life.
    The figure of a paradigmatic iurodivy belongs to the fourteenth-sixteenth centuries, the heyday of Russian foolishness in Christ. Then iurodivy amounts to one of Russia's most popular spectacles and saints. He is to be encountered on the street, market place, and church steps where he is invariably surrounded by the crowd of onlookers. He goes around naked and barefoot even in the depth of winter. He wears chains and other iron objects. This extravagant attire and wild look allow the public to identify him as both an ascetic and a madman. His behavior is offensive and bizarre. By renouncing all communal norms and by continuously displaying offensive, controversial behaviors, the iurodivy makes himself a spectacle. The holy fool would disrupt church services and conspicuously break Lent. He would confront the highest authorities, including the Tsar, insult his audience, and continuously trespass against social regulations and norms of decency. At the same time he would utter prophecies, perform miracles and feats feasible uniquely for saints. While he makes his offensive and eccentric behaviors conspicuous, he keeps his saintly deeds secret from the public. According to holy foolish hagiographies, whenever someone finds out about holy fool's saintliness and hidden ascetic feat, the holy fool makes this person keep his secret. Only after the holy fool's demise his saintliness can be revealed to the public. The holy fool's uninterrupted performance is designed to provoke people's meditation on issues that ultimately lead to an understanding of the divine. Yet only the righteous ones see the iurodivy as God's messenger. For the sinners he is just a madman and therefore a source of amusement and an underdog. They violently react to the iurodivy's harsh criticism, invariably beating and chasing him away. The permanency of this public reaction testifies to the fact that profane minds are not capable of grasping the divine truth.
    The origins of the phenomenon of saintly madness can be traced back to Jewish prophets and later to the desert-dwellers of Syria and Egypt. While delivering the divine message Jewish prophets displayed outrageous and bizarre actions. The prophet's audience was aware of his status as the God's herald and attempted to discern the meaning of his message. Yet because of the abundance of false prophets and madmen, the prophet's message would be repeatedly neglected and the messenger himself would be chased away.
    In the Christian context the phenomenology of saintly madness received a new span of life as well as new semantics. In the first century AD Apostle Paul proclaimed that "the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God" (1 Cor. 1:19), and defined Christ's apostles as fools for Christ's sake. The Apostle Paul not only coined the term 'fool for Christ's sake', but also identified Jesus Christ as the initiator of the holy foolish paradigm. As the Pauline texts formed a part of Apostle, one of the most popular and widely circulated books in Russia, they exercised a continuous influence on Russian Orthodox believers.
    The theme of God's folly and foolishness for Christ's sake is prominent in the New Testament. Gospels present Passion as the sum-composite of humiliation, mockery, derision and powerlessness (Matt. 27:29, 39, Mark 15:29-32, Luke 23:35-39). The holy fool's behavioral complex testifies to his imitation of Christ as he constantly seeks and inevitably finds humiliation, scorn, and physical suffering. The holy fool accepts this situation with unconditional humility. Furthermore, according to the Christian commandment to love one's enemies "and pray for those who persecute you" (Matt. 5:44), the holy fool spends his nights praying for those who abused him during the day. Because of his non-allegiance to the profane values the holy fool, like Christ himself, is a carrier of the apocalyptic message. Similarly to Christ he reconciles in himself the divine and the profane. The holy fool's saintly status, just like that of Christ, is recognized only after his death. And, like Christ's, the holy fool's divine wisdom is always taken for folly.
    In the first centuries of Christianity the notion of foolishness in Christ received close attention of Church Fathers who championed the importance for a Christian of not polluting his mind by profane notions and values. The wisdom of the world was viewed as alienating one from God and therefore was deemed sinful and erroneous. The real wisdom was regarded only the one coming from God. Notwithstanding the fact that the Church Fathers constantly referred to apostles as 'idiots and simpletons,' they drew a clear distinction between pathological madness and God-inspired folly. Only the latter was viewed as exhibiting reason unpolluted by a priori notions, which alone could be susceptible to the teachings of Christ. One of the Byzantine theologians who were most influential in Russia, Simeon the New Theologian (d. 1032, commemorated March 12, October 12) maintained that an ideal Christian is a simple in heart and mind "uneducated man."
    If the Jewish prophet exhibits a behavioral paradigm similar to that of the fool in Christ, holy men of Syria and Egypt are among his direct predecessors. Inspired by Christian teachings, these ascetics engaged in exploits that were aiming at self-effacement and elimination of their own will. They practiced traditional Christian virtues of chastity, humility, and obedience in an untraditional way. By often behaving in an ostensibly grotesque and ludicrous manner they meant to hide their ascetic achievements. Thereby they attempted to eliminate the possibility of pride. Early Christian hagiographies, extensively exploited the theme of subversive sanctity. These stories question the value of Christian obedience and, by extension, dogma. Moreover, they endorse such features of early Christian asceticism as secret sanctity, paradoxes of unconditional devotion, simulation of madness and sinfulness, challenge to the conventional notions of sin and virtue, and others. These features of unconventional subversive holiness came to constitute an integral part of the holy fool's behavioral paradigm.
    The first paradigmatic adumbration of saintly folly found expression in the Life of Simeon of Emesa, which was written in the seventh century by Leontius of Napolis (d. 668). Simeon becomes a salos after many years of practicing other forms of asceticism. He relocates from the desert to the city where he gains for himself a reputation of a madman and a fool. He runs around naked, relieves himself in public, lives in the streets, washes in a women's bathhouse, and keeps the company of prostitutes. On the other hand, he performs miracles, acts as an exorcist, and exhibits the gift of prophesy and clairvoyance. He continues being an ascetic, but he does not let people know about his vocation. He prays and weeps only at night so that no one can see him. People learn about his saintliness only after his death. Simeon's Life served as a model to the hagiographer of St. Andrew of Constantinople, Nikephoros (10th c.). The Life of St. Andrew the Fool was translated into Old Russian as early as the twelfth century. It consequently became one of the most popular and widely emulated hagiographies. It supplied Russian Orthodox tradition with one of its most popular holidays, Pokrov (Transfiguration) (October 1).
     Byzantine hagiographic texts presenting Lives of holy fools were among the first samples of canonical literature transplanted to Russian soil. The Lives of such saloi as Isidora the Fool in Christ (4th c.), Serapion the Sindonite (d. 350), Simeon of Emesa (6th c.), and Andrew of Constantinople (6th c.) were available in Slavonic translations as early as thirteenth century. Subsequently these holy fools were included in Russian pantheon of saints.
     Russian holy fools were not long in coming. Already in the eleventh century Kievan Rus had its first holy fool, St. Isaac the Recluse (or the Cave-Dweller) of Kiev Cave Monastery (d. 1090). St. Avraamii of Smolensk (d.ca. 1220) was the next. The first paradigmatic holy foolish Life was devoted to Procopius of Ustiug (d. 1302) It says that he was "of the Western countries, of the Latin language, of the German land." He arrived to Novgorod as a foreign merchant but loved Orthodox Christianity so much that he decided not only to convert but also to embark on the ascetic exploit of saintly folly, becoming a fool in Christ. Procopius's Life was modeled after that of St. Andrew from where the Russian hagiographer borrowed not only paradigmatic elements of holy foolish asceticism but also many scenes and events. The Life of Procopius is one among many Lives that offer Russian Christians the example of holy foolish piety by copying their Byzantine models. There were many more holy fools to come: Theodore of Novgorod (d. 1392), Nicholai "Kochanov" (Cabbage-Head) of Novgorod (d. 1392), Maxim of Moscow (d. 1433), Michail of Klop Monastery (d. 1453), Yury of Shenkursk (d. 1465), Isidor "Tverdislov" (Firm-Word) of Rostov (d. 1474), Ioann of Ustiug (d. 1494), Galaction of Therapont Monastery (d. 1506), Lawrence of Kaluga (d. 1515), Jacob of Borovichi (d. 1540), Basil the Blessed of Moscow (d. 1552), Arseny of Novgorod (d. 1572), Nicholai "Salos" of Pskov (d. 1576), Ioann "Vlasatyi" (The Hairy One) of Rostov (d. 1581), Simon of Iurevets (d. 1584), Ioann "Bol'shoi Kolpak" (Big-Cap) of Moscow (d. 1589), Kiprian of Suzdal' (d. 1622), Procopy of Viatka (d. 1627), Maxim of Tot'ma (d. 1650), Andrew of Tot'ma (d. 1673). These holy fools received conventional holy foolish Lives that were included in numerous hagiographic collections and were recited and sung during the church services. Subsequently these fools in Christ were canonized by the Russian Church Cathedrals.
     The Muscovite period, especially fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, yielded the biggest number of holy fools. During the canonization processes of 1547-1549 holy fools were definitely favored for canonization. By the end of the seventeenth century there were twenty-three canonized fools for Christ's sake. Yet the canonized holy fools constitute just an insignificant part of the total number of Russian fools in Christ. The list of holy fools who were locally revered without being canonized and of those who were canonized only locally is endless.  
     The status of fools for Christ's sake within Russian Orthodox Church has changed throughout history. The sixteenth century amounts to the Golden Age of iurodstvo. At that time foolishness in Christ was promoted and sponsored by the Church. The manifest veneration and support of the holy fool by the Church comes to an end when the Byzantine structure of the Russian state is displaced in favor of the European pattern. This historical change started with the Church reforms of Patriarch Nikon (1605-1681) and was finalized by the reforms of Peter the Great (1668-1725), who subdued the Church to the State.
     The modernization of Russia went parallel with the severe persecution of fools for Christ's sake, whose paradoxical figure came to be singled out as subversive, and whose saintliness had been declared false. Regulations of 1646 and 1731 proscribed holy fools from entering places of worship. In the seventeenth century holy fools took the side of the schismatics fiercely opposing Nikon's reforms. Many of them became martyrs. Peter the Great and his successors initiated legislation that outlawed holy foolishness and other forms of non-orthodox piety declaring them a threat to public order. After 1762, madmen were no longer banished to the monasteries. Starting with 1766 according to Ukaz No. 12754 by Catherine the Great (1729-1796), the lunatics became the domain of police. In the eighteenth century there appeared the first lunatic asylums where holy fools could be detained along with conventional madmen.
     Notwithstanding severe repression foolishness in Christ survived. The eighteenth century produced one of the most popular miracle workers, Xeniia of St. Petersburg, the Holy Fool in Christ who was canonized in 1978 by the Russian Church in exile and later on by the all-Russian Cathedral of 1988. In the nineteenth century the abundance of holy fools was compared to an epidemic. This time witnessed appearance of first Russian theological works either discussing or exclusively devoted to holy foolishness. Many Medieval holy foolish vitae were rewritten so as to meet the classical Byzantine pattern; many a vitae were composed anew. Influence of holy fools on the society was such that they would become real celebrities and seers. For example, the mental institution to which was committed Ivan Iakovlevich Koreisha (1780-1861), became the genuine place of pilgrimages. Other important nineteenth-century fools in Christ are Pelagia Ivanovna Serebrenikova (1809-1884) and Kievan monastic fool in Christ Feofil (1788-1853). None of these holy fools were canonized, yet their graves continue to be places of attraction for the pious.
     If compared to the classical Byzantine paradigm, phenomenology of the nineteenth century iurodivyi exhibits not only continuity but also numerous modifications.  Thus, in the nineteenth century the holy fool is considered a saint even as he lives, therefore mocking of his figure comes to be considered a sin. Many of iurodivye's extrinsic attributes also change considerably. They are no longer naked. Though they could be half-naked and barefoot, could wear usual paraphernalia of the type (chains and other metal objects), they could also be dressed as ordinary people. Not all of them were aggressive and some were even meek. Nor were the nineteenth century holy fools necessarily perpetual wanderers. Many of them had homes, some lived in rooms supplied by their benefactors, some lived in monasteries or were committed to mental institutions. A major confusion and most of the ambiguities in the assessment of the nineteenth-century holy foolish phenomenology result from the fact that the holy fool was venerated concurrently with genuinely mad. Indeed, veneration of cripples and lunatics was common. The "poor in spirit," because of being dissociated from mundane concerns, had in popular understanding a connection with the sacred realm. Madness was regarded the source of their power. The twentieth century brought forward many holy fools who perished in the Gulag and who were persecuted by the Soviet authorities. Their Lives are documented in numerous hagiographic and historical accounts.
     The distinguishing characteristic of Russian iurodstvo is its global character. When compared to its Byzantine model Russian iurodstvo is clearly greater in scope. If in Byzantium holy foolishness is a vocation of the chosen few, in Russia we find an overwhelming number of holy fools, who, canonized or not, were venerated not only after their death but even as they lived. Later in history foolishness in Christ was no longer confined to religious domain but became thoroughly secularized. If Byzantine holy fools were mostly monks and ascetics, then Russian holy fools were predominantly lay people and urban dwellers. As holy foolishness developed and changed it became a part of Russian religious consciousness, and even influenced behavioral pattern of both secular and ecclesiastical individuals among whom such figures as Ivan the Terrible, Archpriest Avvakum, Rozanov and Leo Tolstoy are just a few. Phenomenology of foolishness in Christ has continuously provided material for the country's aesthetic self-expression.
     Bibliography: English translations of holy foolish Lives are several. Byzantine holy foolish hagiography is represented by two books. Derek Krueger, Symeon the Holy Fool: Liontius's Life and the Late Antique City (Berkeley-Los Angeles-London, 1996) is a critical study of the holy fool's Life against the backdrop of Late Antiquity. The book includes English translation of the saint's Life. Besides being the first expose of holy foolish paradigm this Life also contains important comments of Simeon's hagiographer. The second volume of Lennart Ryden (ed.), The Life of St. Andrew the Fool (Stockholm, 1995) presents the reader with the Life's Greek original and its English translation. The discussions contained in the first volume of the book address literary, historical, chronological, cultural, bibliographic issues related to St. Andrew's Life.
     The Life of the first Russian fool in Christ, Isaac the Cave-dweller is a part of The Paterik of the Kievan Caves Monastery (Cambridge, MA, 1989). Seraphim's Seraphim: The Life of Pelagia Ivanovna Serebrenikova, Fool for Christ's Sake of the Seraphim-Diveyevo Convent (Boston, 1979) and Vladimir Znosko, Hieroschemamonk Feofil, Fool for Christ's Sake: Ascetic & Visionary of the Kievo-Pecherstaya Lavra (Jordanville, NY, 1987) are translations of the nineteenth-century Lives.
     Aleksii Kuznetsov, Iurodstvo i Stolphichestvo, (Moskva, 1913) discusses Russian holy foolishness as a part of Christian ascetic tradition. Ivan Kuznetsov, Sivatye Blazhennye Vasilii i Ioann, Khrista Radi Moskovskiie Chudotvortsy (Moskva, 1910) contains Lives of and services to these saints. Ioann Kovalevskii, Iurodstvo o Khriste i Khrista radi iurodivye Vostochnoi i Russkoi Tserkvi, (Moskva, 1895) is the first Russian theological exploration of holy foolishness. It also gives overviews of the Lives of Byzantine and Russian fools in Christ up to the eighteenth century.
     The Life of Kseniia Peterburzhskaia can be found in Pomestnyi sobor Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi (Troitse-Sergieva Lavra, 1990).
     A number of twentieth-century holy fools are described in a collection by Ieromonakh Damaskin (Orlovskii), Mucheniki, ispovedniki i podvizhniki blagochestiia Rossiiskoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi XX stoletiia (Tver', 1992).
Articles dealing with Russian foolishness in Christ are Richard W. F. Pope, "Fools and Folly in Old Russia" (Slavic Review, Vol. 39, no. 3, 1980, 476-481); Michael Petrovich, "The Social and Political Role of the Muscovite Fools-in-Christ: Reality and Image," (Forschungen zur osteuropaeischen Geschichte, Band 25 Berlin, 1978, 283-296); and Natalie Challis and Horace W. Dewey, "Byzantine Models for Russia's Literature of Divine Folly (Iurodstvo)"  (Papers in Slavonic Philology, 1, Ann Arbor, 1977, 36-48)
     Chapters on iurodstvo in Gerge Fedotov, The Russian Religious Mind (New York, 1960), George Fedotov, Sviatye Drevnei Rusi (10-17th st.), (New York, 1959), Ioann Kologrivoff, Essai sur la saintete russe (Bruges, 1953), are good introductions to the subject.
     John Saward, Perfect Fools, Folly for Christ's Sake in Catholic and Orthodox Spirituality (Oxford, 1980) is an exploration of Eastern Orthodox and Catholic traditions of foolishness in Christ. Irina Gorainoff, Les fols en Christ dans la tradition orthodoxe (Desclee de Brouwer, 1983) discusses lives and exploits of Russia's most famous fools in Christ.
     Aleksei Panchenko, Smekh kak zrelishche. In: Dmitrii Likhachev, Smekh v Drevnei Rusi (Leningrad, 1984) remains one of the most important studies of culturological aspects of Russian foolishness in Christ. Sergei Ivanov, Vizantiiskoie Iurodstvo (Moskva, 1994) is the most complete study of historical and culturological aspects of the Byzantine version of the holy foolish paradigm. It explores the genesis, evolution, and decline of Byzantine foolishness in Christ.  The book'bibliography is the fullest on the subject.
Harriet Murav, Holy Foolishness: Dostoevsky's Novels. The Poetics of Cultural Critique (Stanford, 1992) and Michael Epstein, After the Future (Amherst, 1995) make use of the behavioral paradigm of foolishness in Christ for an analysis of Russian literature.
Svitlana Kobets
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
© 2016 by Svitlana Kobets. All right reserved.