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Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii

Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii (1549) (literally Notes on Muscovite Affairs) was a book in Latin by Baron Sigismund von Herberstein on the geography, history and customs of Muscovy (the 16th century Russian state). The book was the main early source of knowledge about Russia in Western Europe.

Table of contents


Herberstein was an Austrian diplomat who was twice sent to Russia as Austrian ambassador, in 1517 and 1526. Born in Vipava (German Wippach), Slovenia, he was familiar with Slovene, a Slavic language, which became important later on his mission in Russia, when he was able to communicate with ordinary Russians in Russian, another Slavic language.

These visits occurred at a time when very little was known about Russia outside the region. The few published descriptions of Russia were in some cases wildly inaccurate.

Historical note on Muscovy and Russia

Muscovy in the 16th century was the Russian state which succeeded the Kievan Rus' in the 14th century and the 15th century before it evolved into the Russian Empire under Peter the Great starting at the end of the 17th century. Russia was the region, Muscovy was the state. Muscovy was then ruled by the Muscovite monarchy, starting with Ivan III[?] (1462-1505) who unified Muscovy.

In this article, Russia and Muscovy are treated as similar entities. In land area there is not much difference between Muscovy and Russia west of the Ural Mountains. Herberstein wrote about Muscovy (region based on Moscow) because that is what it was known as then. We know the area as Russia, so that is how it is referred to here.


Herberstein developed a keen interest in all things Russian, and researched in several ways:

  • using his knowledge of Slavic, he questioned a variety of people on a wide range of topics.
  • careful review of existing publications on Russia, comparing what he read with his own observations. He viewed most publications sceptically, because he knew that most of the authors had not been able to actually visit Russia.
  • corroboration. He was careful to make sure not to accept anything that was not well corroborated. As he wrote, he "did not rely upon this or that man's account, but trusted only to the unvarying statements of many."
  • investigation of Russian written publications, which provided him with information on Russian culture completely unavailable at the time in Europe.

The Book

As a result, Herberstein was able to produce the first detailed eyewitness ethnography of Russia, encyclopedic in its scope, providing an accurate (very accurate for the time) view of trade, religion, customs, politics, history, even a theory of Russian political culture.

The book contributed greatly to a European view held for several centuries of Russia as a despotic absolute monarchy. This view was not new, but previous writers presented an idealized view. Herberstein influenced the development of this view in two ways:

  • he accentuated the absolute power of the monarchy even more than previous works had done. Writing about the Russian Tsar, Herberstein wrote that "in the power he holds over his people the ruler of Muscovy surpasses all the monarchs of the world." No mean claim in the 16th century!
  • he presented a view of Russian political culture quite opposite to that argued by other writers. Where others claimed Russians were fanatically loyal to their ruler and treated in return with great fairness, Herberstein saw and wrote differently.

His investigations made it clear that Muscovy, contrary to the view of fanatical loyalty, had suffered a violent political struggle and that Muscovy had emerged only very recently as the dominant power in the region. What's more, the man who achieved the unification of Muscovy, Ivan III[?] was characterized by Herberstein as a cruel tyrant, drunk, and a misogynist; far from being a ruler of great fairness and equity.

His description of Ivan's unification campaign was a series of banishments and forced relocations of whole populations to break the power of regional rulers. This culminated in, as Herberstein wrote, Ivan's "plan of ejecting all princes and others from the garrisons and fortified places" all the formerly independent princes of Russia, "being either moved by the grandeur of his achievements or stricken with fear, became subject to him." All very much at odds with previous perceived reality, but much closer to currently understood Russian history. Similarly the previously touted ideal of the fairness of the Muscovy monarchy was contrasted with Herberstein's depiction of serfs as being in "a very wretched condition, for their goods are exposed to plunder from the nobility and soldiery".

Tsar vs Czar

One final thing for which Herberstein and his book was noted, though not widely understood, was his contribution to a spelling confusion which did not emerge until the end of the 19th century and still causes disagreement: he recorded the spelling of tsar as czar. This cz spelling is against the usage of all slavonic languages; although the spelling varies, slavonic languages use the ts pronunciation, and usually that spelling in the Romanised form. English and French moved from the cz spelling to the ts spelling in the 19th century. Note that cz was as good a spelling as any at the time Herberstein recorded it.

English Translations

The book has been referred to under at least 3 different English titles, as well as the literal translation of Notes on Muscovite Affairs used at the start of this article. The book was translated at least twice into English:

  • Notes on Russia. R.H. Major, London: Hakluyt Society, 1851-1852; reprint, New York: B. Franklin, 1963.
  • Description of Moscow and Muscovy. Bertold Picard, ed., J. B. C. Grundy, London: Dent, 1966

Marshall Poe, who has written extensively on Herberstein and Russian history generally (see http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~mpoe/) uses the English title Notes on the Muscovites consistently, but appears to be the only one to use this translation of the Latin title Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii. Poe gives Notes on Russia as his source for cited text.

External links and References

  • the main source of information on Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii and Herberstein is Marshall Poe's publications at http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~mpoe/, particularly Herberstein and Origin of the European Image of Muscovite Government, which cites many other contemporary publications such as Giorgio, Fabri and Campense. See also the notes above in the section English Translations.
  • for the derivation of tsar and Herberstein's contribution of czar, see the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, entry on tsar.

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