If You Write It, They Will Read It

Now let’s imagine you are a nobleman, living at the beginning of the 16th century in Middle Europe. You hang around the court of the Emperor and help to administer the Reich.
Your ruler decides to promote you and sent you as ambassador to the Czar.
What do you do ?
Certainly you turn to your database – that is the library – and look for a tome, manuscript or print, that describes what you need to know, like where to go, how to travel, whom to bribe.
Shock Hubbub, Panick & Confusion – no such book : You have to write it yourself !
Enter Sigmund von HERBERSTEIN (1486-1566) (Ger., Eng.).
Sigmund was a third son, so his chances to inherit a lot were pretty small. But his father took care to give his son a good education, and – what is even more important – this education fell on a good soil : Sigmund was interested in nearly everything, and very curious.
From 1514 on he lives at the court of Emperor Maximilian I. (1459-1519) (Ger., Eng.), he stays in service until 1553, for nearly forty years.
At the beginning of the 16th century existed only few permanent representations, usually a ruler choose one person for a special commission, a special envoy. HERBERSTEIN carried out 69 such missions, 30 saw him visiting Hungary, 15 took him to Poland and two into the Moscow State.
The first major journey was not successful. He was sent to Denmark in 1516 : Isabella (1501-1526) von Habsburg was married to king Christian II. of Denmark, who had earlier met an Netherlandish girl, taken her to Copenhagen and lived openly with her. The girl’s mother, an innkeeper called Willems, seemingly run the state. The king not only deeply insulted his wife, but also the house of Habsburg in toto, and there was no successor in sight due to a lack of consummation. Within a few years this remarkably dumb sovereign had insulted all rulers in the neighbourhood, was forced to flee the country and take asylum in The Netherlands where his legal wife died.
HERBERSTEIN should admonish the crowned ass, what he did to no avail, but in such a way that the king was not upset (and not cancelled his connection to the House of Habsburg). Interestingly Sigmund’s last mission in 1553 was to accompany another young Habsburgian princess, Catherine, to Cracow, right into another unhappy marriage.
Also Sigmund’s second mission in 1517 was not successful, when he was sent to Moscow to broker an armistice between Poland and the Moscow State. Nevertheless he showed great diplomatic skill in this mission – and he stayed in business. He reported to the Emperor personally, and old Maximilian seemingly was fascinated by the stories about this strange land & country in the East. So when a second mission to Moscow was necessary in 1526, now under the emperors Charles V. and Ferdinand I., it was only natural to have Sigmund take part in it – even Madrid (Charles V.) proposed his name. HERBERSTEIN was not only sent over in diplomaticis, but Ferdinand told him to collect any information about the country, the society, and put special emphasis on the religious situation. In the end Sigmund von HERBERSTEIN was sent to write the first regional and cultural study about unknown Russia.
He returned back to the Emperor’s court at the 13th of February 1527, and shortly afterwards presented his report. Sadly we know nothing about this report’s fate. In the 1530s Sigmund was looking for a humanist to work on his text, to have it stylistically improved, but we do not know what came out of this. It is not clear if the text that was finally printed 22 years later – in 1549 : Instant success, 20 more imprints until 1600 – is identical or, if not, how close related to the first version.
HERBERSTEIN lived on to see the success of his book, and in his autobiographical writings, which are also very instructive, he mentions that knowing the Slovenian language was very helpful for him. Sigmund was born in Wippach in Slovenia, and he put a lot of effort in learning the language of his peasants as a youth. So knowing a Slavonic language was very helpful for him on his travels in the East, less perhaps in Poland where the nobility was fluid in Latin and Italian, two other languages Sigmund verifiably spoke.
His text * is an interesting read, still after five hundred years.

* I used : HERBERSTEIN, Sigmund von : Das alte Rußland. In Anlehung an die älteste deutsche Ausgabe aus dem Lateinischen übertragen von Wolfram von den STEINEN. Mit einem Nachwort von Walter LEITSCH. Unter herausgeberischer Mitarbeit von Paul KÖNIG. 2. Auflage Zürich 1985 (Manesse Bibliothek der Weltgeschichte) (Rerum Moscoviticarum commentarii).
LEITSCH (1926-2010) was an Austrian professor of history at the university of Vienna, I used his Nachwort / postface.

11 thoughts on “If You Write It, They Will Read It

  1. Fascinating! I found this: Notes upon Russia, the English translation of Herberstein’s book by Richard Henry Major, with a long preface; vol. 1 online after reading your post. It’s just what I need to distract me today! xoxoox

  2. Wonderful coincidence, Savannah dearest – one of those that make one think that there are no “coincidences” or alleatorical contingencies, but only things that are meant to happen and interlock : I finally write about Herberstein & you find something to read while you cure the dreadful cold. I perceive this as satisfying.

    I see that it is published by the Hakluyt Society – a great source for travelling literature.

  3. How fascinating! I’m always impressed by diplomats, trying to balance and maneuver the challenges of dealing with different countries and cultures. And they get to travel and experience new things and see new places.

  4. It is the time when this starts LẌ. Earlier generations of rulers could more or less ignore what happened East of Cracow. In the 16th century the Osmans may have known more, and the Suedes – but both languages were not very common. And if descriptions of land people culture existed they were not necessarily printed and circulated.
    Russia opens over the following generations, comes in contact with the West, defines interests in this region, and becomes a major player in European politics. And when Sophie Auguste Friederike finally becomes Empress two hundred and fifty years later this process reaches a kind of climax.

    In those days still a real adventure Eroswings. Herberstein and Co nearly drowned through the spring floods when they had to travel on horseback. BTW the picture that is always reproduced showing him in a giant “Russian” frock or overcoat : This thing was a gift from the Czar, and was terribly expensive because it was made from finest fur. This thing guaranteed survival when one had to travel in winter on sledges. One could admittedly not move around, but carried a kind of house with oneself that protected against the killing cold.
    Thank you, just played around a bit.

  5. Frohe Ostern! The account of old Sigismund is very interesting. He was a well traveled man. I also read that he wrote tsar as czar. Little random trivia bits that are fascinating.

  6. Herberstein obviously had something about him to continue in his post after his first two missions weren’t exactly a stellar success. I am almost taken to search out that English translation Savvy mentioned. Almost. Instead, I am going to have an early night – back to work tomorrow :(

  7. Some people could reach old age even in the 16th century. Others, like some Emperors, died well before sixty. But the “average” inhabitant of a city or one who is living on the country … fifty would seem as a good age, Melanie.

    Frohe Ostern LẌ !

    HA – finally something that drives you out of the woodwork, dear FOAM !

    Yes – one could say that selling his first failings as successes qualified him for the office, dear IDV. Ach work …

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