The Biggest Kingdom in Medieval Europe (that you’ve never heard of!)

By territory, what is the biggest kingdom in Medieval Europe?

  1. France
  2. England
  3. Germany (German Empire)
  4. Byzantium (Roman Empire)
  5. None of the above

If you answered “5” you are correct! While England and France are the two most well studied medieval kingdoms among American and Anglophone medievalists, they are not the largest by territory. This is despite the specificity they get on maps in modern textbooks. It is also not the German Empire which did cover a swath of central medieval Europe. Nor is it the Byzantine (Roman) Empire which for most of the Middle Ages was shrinking, not growing, in territory – despite the best efforts of Basil II.

The correct answer to the question is: the kingdom of Rus’. “What?” you may say or perhaps “Where?” Both are valid questions because not only was Rus’ the largest kingdom in medieval Europe it is also the most unknown. It is rarely talked about it in medieval European history textbooks or classes, and even the scholarship on it is largely consigned to “area studies” or “Slavic studies” subgenres rather than integrated into the larger world of medieval history.

There are many possible reasons for this relegation of the Kingdom of Rus’ to the margins, but one large one is simply the fact that until recently this kingdom was not even acknowledged as a kingdom at all! The publication by ARC Humanities Press of The Kingdom of Rus’ is the first attempt to make a clear claim that Rus’ was actually a kingdom – and in so doing shift the way that we think about medieval Europe.

The Kingdom of Rus’ focuses on correcting the idea that though the rulers of Rus’ have historically been called “princes” in English-language scholarship, they should be called “kings.” This historical preference for “prince” has lowered the profile of Rus’ such that it was a “principality” or a series of principalities rather than one kingdom. The natural inclination, in English, when hearing the title “prince” is to place it lower than a king, or certainly than an emperor. In so doing, not only was Rus’ territorially on the margins, but it was politically marginalized.

Yet this is really a modern, or more appropriately an early modern, phenomenon. In the medieval world, the ruler of Rus’ bore a title in Old East Slavic (kniaz’) that shared roots with konungr, cyning, and even king. Moreover, when we look at the titles given those Rusian (people from Rus’) rulers, they are typically titles such as konungr in Old Norse and rex in Latin. In fact, according to Karl Werner, Pope Gregory VII’s Register included “152 lay addressees…

including, besides forty-five kings, eighty princes: the dukes of Poland and Bohemia, the princes of Salerno, Capua and Benevento, dux Beatrix, Duke Godfrey and the Margravess Mathilda, the doge of Venice, Duke Robert Guiscard of Apulia, Calabria and Sicily, Margrave Azzo of Este, the dukes of Suabia, Bavaria, Carinthia, Lotharingia and Saxony, the margrave of the Saxon East Mark, the dukes of Normany, Acquitaine and Burgundy, the counts of Flanders, Brittany, Blois-Champagne, Anjou, Toulouse and Provence, to name only the most important.” Werner, “Kingdom and Property,” 243-44.

Where was Rus’ among that group? It was one of the forty-five kingdoms to which Pope Gregory VII sent letters. With all of the wealth of titles at his disposal, Pope Gregory VII opted to include the Rusian ruler not among the princes or dukes (two common modern titles for Rusian rulers) but among the kings. In so doing, Pope Gregory VII acknowledged Rus’ as one of the kingdoms of medieval Europe.

The Kingdom of Rus’ stands alongside other scholarship, including my own Reimagining Europe and Ties of Kinship, which make the point that Rus’ was part and parcel of the larger medieval European world. And in so doing, it helps to create a more accurate historical picture of medieval Europe that stretches from the Atlantic sea coast to the Ural Mountains and from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean.

Credit: Wittenberg University

Christian Raffensperger
Associate Professor of History
Wittenberg University