Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii
By Dr Rima Greenhill, Stanford University
The title page of this 1556 edition only provides a partial description of its contents. Translated from Latin into English, it reads:
"A rather brief description of Russia and its capital Moscow. Moreover, chorography of the whole Muscovite state with a mention of its neighbors. Included are various aspects of religion not in agreement with ours. Finally, there is an explanation what customs are there concerning the reception of ambassadors and their treatment. Together with the description of two journeys to Moscow. Besides only this edition contains several new illustrations added by the author and also many other items, which can be easily ascertained by any reader who has an opportunity to compare the book with its first edition."
This is an overly modest assessment of its contents. For here is a gem. The book is not only a well written and enjoyable travel narrative, but is the first accurate authentic and comprehensive ethnographic encyclopedia by an eyewitness about early 16th c. Russia, or Muscovy, as it was then known.
It is true that at the time he wrote Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii several works on Russia did exist, but they were not written by eyewitnesses. Herberstein stated that he wrote of things that others did not touch upon, and which "could only be known to an envoy." From its original publication in 1549, the book became a veritable 'Baedekers' of travel narratives, with a new edition appearing every few years. Although Herberstein was a seasoned diplomat with nearly seventy missions abroad, and a historian in his own right, he is now largely remembered for this text. He can be said to be almost singlehandedly responsible for the European image of Russia over several centuries. Although his two visits were not a great success politically (instead of permanent peace a six-year peace treaty was concluded), their contribution to European travel literature and knowledge about Russia cannot be overestimated.
Prior to Herberstein's missions, the West was virtually ignorant of Muscovy's geography, history and customs. Russia had lain buried from Western eyes for a quarter of a Millennium under the 'Mongol Yoke' (1237-1480) and contacts with the West during that time were severed. This resulted in a society largely unknown to the rest of Europe, and believed to be a strange land of exotic beasts and barbaric men.
A map of Moscow with its 41,500 wooden houses.
The publication of the work has a long and interesting history. The material for the book was collected between the times of Herberstein’s two missions, and the author said that he had been asked in 1526 by Archduke Ferdinand, the future Ferdinand I (1503-1564), to combine his experiences into a written account of his activities and observations.
The first edition, prepared by the author, was published in 1549 in Vienna by Aegidius Adler and Hans Kohl. In 1551, a new edition appeared in Basle, edited by the Viennese doctor, cartographer and historian to Emperor Ferdinand I, Wolfgang Lazius (1514-1565). It was printed by the famous house of Johann Oporinus, who in 1556, also printed the third edition, which is under consideration here. Oporinus’ printing house can be identified on the book’s cover by its distinctive logo of Arion riding a dolphin.
Rerum Moscoviticum Commentarii would serve as an invaluable reference to envoys, merchants and professionals seeking service in Russia. Between the second and third editions the book attracted much attention, particularly in England, which since its discovery of Muscovy in 1553 and the subsequent establishment of trade with Russia, was seeking sources of information about this new, exotic and distant land. That prompted the English translation, which came out in 1555. In 1557, the author’s own translation into German was published by Michael Zimmerman. That edition also included maps and illustrations found in Oporinus’ 1556 version. The events of the second half of the century, such as the beginning of the 23-year long Livonian War and the terror caused by Ivan IV (The Terrible), spread throughout the countries of the Baltic and beyond, kept European eyes focused on Russia and made Herberstein’s account even more valuable than before.
Sigismund Herberstein belonged to a German speaking noble family residing in what is now Slovenia. He was born in 1486 at Vipava near Trieste, then part of the Habsburg Empire. Since the 6th c., the area had been populated by Slavs, and Herberstein became fluent in their language, knowledge of which would be vital to his future diplomatic career. Sigismund entered the University of Vienna in 1499, where he studied philosophy and law, and graduated at 16. In 1506, he became an officer in the Imperial army, where his bravery in campaigns against the Venetians resulted in his being knighted by Emperor Maximilian I. Due to his erudition and diplomatic abilities he joined the Imperial Council in 1514. Between 1515 and 1553 he participated in missions as disparate as helping to create an anti-Turkish coalition and arranging the marriage between the Polish King Sigismund and Bona Sforza. Most of these assignments involved Hungarian and Polish affairs, which prompted his two missions to Russia described in Rerum Moscoviticum Commentarii.
A map of the whole of Muscovy and its neighbors.
Since Herberstein understood Russian, read Cyrillic and befriended high-ranking Russian noblemen, he was able to obtain original sources, such as chronicles and historical manuscripts. These included records of travel and annals of monasteries and formerly independent city-states. During his time in Russia Herberstein conversed with all strata of society: foreigners who had lived in Russia or had spent time there, court officials who provided him with inside information on the internal and foreign affairs of the Muscovite state, as well as, the local populations in the regions he visited. Prior to recording the information he collected, he would compare it for accuracy with the prior reports by ethnographers and cosmographers who had never set foot in Russia themselves (such as Paolo Giovio, Johann Fabri, Alberto Campense and others). When there was an issue where he felt he lacked adequate evidence to render a clear verdict, he left it up to his readers’ judgment.
Herberstein’s love of history is evident in his treatment of Russia and the chronicles to which he had access. He provides an extensive overview of Russian history from its earliest records, and expands upon the life and manner of the ruling Grand Princes up to the time of Herberstein’s host, Vasily III. He explores the sad history of the once wealthy and powerful autonomous city-state of Novgorod until its conquest by Ivan III in 1477. Herberstein makes it clear that Ivan III was a cruel tyrant and that his son inherited his father’s attributes, as would his grandson Ivan IV, 'The Terrible.'
Russian religion also receives scrutiny. This was of particular interest to Ferdinand I, who saw an immediate need to avoid conflict between Poland and Russia as he hoped to bring them together as a shield against the advancing Islamic menace. Herberstein details the Russian adoption of Greek Orthodoxy, and describes their holidays, saints, manner of baptism and their belief that theirs alone was the true faith. He also describes Vasily’s habit of washing his hands after shaking hands with foreign envoys, and correctly concludes that the Russians saw Catholicism as defiling.
Of particular importance to future travelers and traders to Russia are Herberstein’s comments on its monetary system, trade and commerce. Barter was encouraged by the Grand Prince, in order to prevent the export of silver and gold. Herberstein reports that before coinage was introduced, small transactions were settled with snouts and ears of squirrels. Not only does he know that furs were the common Russian export item, but he even discusses their quality and explains what makes sables and other furs more precious and how much the skin of a black fox brings. Also of importance to prospective merchants was the fact that they would not be able to exhibit their goods or offer them for sale until the Grand Prince had had the first choice. This inevitably led to substantial delays and monetary loss.
The dishonest dealings of the Prince paralleled a duplicitous monetary system in which counterfeiting of coins went unpunished and any goldsmith could mint coinage. In describing Russian merchants, Herberstein makes many uncomplimentary remarks about their lack of trading ethics and finds their haggling similar to that practiced in the East. He believes they are cunning and deceitful, both in their words and actions, and not to be trusted. The English would have found this information useful before initiating trade there in 1555.
Herberstein extended his unflattering comments about Russian merchants to hostile observations on the character of the people in general. Included were their propensity for heavy drinking, thieving, loose morals, and especially their deceitfulness and guile. These were all characteristics that would often be reiterated by English and other foreign envoys later in the century.
As many foreigners after him, Herberstein was shocked by the Russians’ apparent love of their enslavement and their submission to it. Even the mightiest Boyars viewed themselves as the Grand Prince’s slaves. His gentle but poignant humor often seeps into the narrative. For example, he mentions the custom of the Grand Prince to send a loaf or piece of bread to a select few during a meal as an indication of special favor. Herberstein observes that the bread was baked in a shape of a horse-collar, and that those who enjoyed it “have earned it by heavy toil and hard service.”
This bizarre love of submissiveness extended into family life. Herberstein reports that a wife would feel neglected and unloved unless her husband occasionally beat her. The same 'preferential treatment' extended to the servants: “with servants it is as I told earlier of the wife: they think their master does not love them if they go unthrashed.”
Herberstein’s humor continues throughout his narrative. A good example is his suggestion that one could avoid the inebriation, which Russian hosts forced upon their guests, by pretending to be drunk and asleep. He exhibited great courage in dealings with his Russian hosts. An incident which Herberstein took great pleasure in retelling was when he outwitted the Great Prince’s messenger. The latter had been sent to meet him, and expected Herberstein to dismount first in order to show respect to the Great Prince. Herberstein did not want to do so as he felt this would belittle the Emperor, and kept sitting upon his horse, waiting for the Russian to dismount before him. When the latter would not budge, Herberstein slowly began to take his foot out of the stirrups, pretending he was about to get off his horse. The messenger followed suit, but ended dismounting first when Herberstein stalled his descent.
Herberstein’s book combines a travel narrative with a description of his diplomatic duties. He describes the discomforts and even hunger suffered by him and his companions on their journeys because the native population was forbidden to sell him food even though he was willing to pay for it with his own money. Herberstein describes all the pomp and ceremonies upon arriving in Moscow, and reports the great assemblage of nobles sent to meet and greet foreign delegations. He saw through the façade, mentioning that all the gorgeous clothes in which the nobles are dressed were not theirs, but belonged to the Grand Prince’s personal wardrobe. He notes that, after the event, the nobles returned them, spotless, to the Prince until summoned once again to dress for another important visitor.
Herberstein had an astute eye for interesting and relevant details, especially for the customs that he found strange. During the ceremony of signing the armistice with the Lithuanian ambassadors of the Polish King, he witnessed the Russian method of binding an oath by kissing the cross. This description of Russian oath making would be confirmed in the reports of later envoys.
What made Rerum Moscoviticum Commentarii even more invaluable for future travelers to Russia is Herberstein’s introduction and explanation of a host of Russian words. Even more valuable for non-Russian speakers was the explanation of notions, non-existent in the West, such as boyars - 'nobles', boyarskie deti – 'lesser nobility', voevoda – 'military commander', pristav – 'constable in charge of supplies and accompanying the envoys', kholopy – 'slaves', nartyn – 'snow shoes', and many other terms. He even lists the names of furs unavailable in Germany.
Russian weapons were unquestionably fascinating to Westerners. Herberstein explains what a shestopero is – a Hungarian mace made of ivory, and one of the weapons used by their military. Russia indeed was then a large and backward country, and Vasily III was perpetually at war with his neighbors and enemies: Livonians, Lithuanians, Swedes and Tartars.
In comparison with those of the Western Europe, the Russian military arsenal was crude and primitive, akin to that used by the nomadic Tartars, accustomed to fighting on horseback. It is no wonder that many of the illustrations in this expanded 1556 edition depict Russian forces and their weapons. The edition contains woodcuts of Russian archers in their quilted clothing, the mounted Muscovite noblemen, 'Muscovite arms' consisting of bows and arrows, saddles and the above mentioned Hungarian mace. Both men and military supplies show a strong Tartar influence. Worthy of note are also drawings of a bison and an ox, as well as Herberstein’s armorial bearings.
Winter travel (the sleigh).
Although the book did not immediately attract English attention, this changed dramatically after the summer of 1553 when three ships set sail in search for China, and one of them inadvertently ended up on the shores of northern Russia. Suddenly England was desperate to know about this exotic and remote world. Herberstein's book was translated into English for the first time in 1555 (then again in 1577 and 1600) and quickly became the definitive guidebook for any traveler to that part of the world. Just how indispensable it became can be deduced from the advice of the English poet George Turberville. In one of his letters from Russia during the mission of 1568-69, headed by Thomas Randolph, Turberville advised his friends never to venture to this barbarous land and, to stress his point, referred them to Herberstein’s Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii: "To Sigismundus' book repair, who all the truth can tell." To the present day no serious study of Muscovy can be undertaken without reading Herberstein.
The best known modern English translation of Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii is a two-volume edition by R. H. Major, Notes Upon Russia, printed by the Hakluyt Society in London in 1851-52. There is also a 1969 English translation of the book’s 1966 Austrian edition, edited by Bertold Picard and translated by J.B.C. Grundy. The first Russian translation appeared at the end of the 18th c. on the order of Catherine the Great. The latest one is a two-volume edition of parallel Latin, German and Russian texts, printed in Moscow in 2008. Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii is also available in numerous other editions and languages.
Trinity College library is in possession of three editions: that of 1556 of Oporinus, that of 1557 published in Antwerp by the printing house of Joannes Steelsius, and one dated 1600, printed in Frankfurt by Claude de Marne & Johann Aubry. Two more copies of the 1600 edition can also be found in Marsh's Library and the Edward Worth Library.
1557 edition, Antwerp.
1600 edition, Frankfurt.
To access the catalogue entry for the 1556 edition of Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii click here.
To access the catalogue entry for the 1557 edition of Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii click here.
To access the catalogue entry for the 1600 edition of Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii click here.
- Baron, Samuel H. "Herberstein's Image of Russia and Its Transmission through Later Writers", Sigismund von Herberstein, Kaiserlicher Gesandter und Begründer der Russlandkunde und die europäische Diplomatie. Ed. Gerhard Pferschy. Graz: Akademische Druck-u. Verlaganstalt, 1989: 245-273.
- Baron, Samuel H. "Herberstein and the English "Discovery" of Muscovy." Terrae Incognitae, XVIII. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1987: 43-54.
- Graham, Hugh F. "Herberstein, Sigismund Freiherr von, (1488-1566)". Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History. Ed. by J. L. Wieczynski. Vol. 14, Florida: Gulf Breeze, (1979): 6-10.
- Gross, Irena G. "The Tangled Tradition: Custine, Herberstein, Karamzin, and the Critique of Russia". Slavic Review, Vol. 50, 4 (Winter, 1991): 989-998.
- Poe, Marshall T. "Herberstein and the Origin of the European Image of Muscovite Government". 450 Jahre Sigismund von Herbersteins Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii 1549-1999. Ed. by F. Kampfer and R. Frotschner, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2002:131-171.
- Poe, Marshall T. "Muscovy in European Cosmographies, 1504-1544". Russian History/Histoire Russe 25 (1-2) (1998): 89-106.
- 450 Jahre Sigismund von Herbersteins Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii 1549-1999. Ed. by F. Kampfer and R. Frotschner, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2002. A compilation of articles on Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii.