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Iurii Moiseevich Eskin, Ocberki istorii mestnicbestva v Rossii XVI-XVII vv. (Essays in the History of Precedence in 16th- and 17th-Century Russia).

Iurii Moiseevich Eskin, Ocberki istorii mestnicbestva v Rossii XVI-XVII vv. (Essays in the History of Precedence in 16th- and 17th-Century Russia). 509 pp. Moscow: RosArkhiv, Kvadriga, 2009. ISBN-13 978-5904162061.

Irina Borisovna Mikhailova, I zdes" soshlis" vse tsarstva...: Ocherki po istorii Gosudareva dvora v Rossii XVI v. Povsednevnaia i prazdnichnaia kul'tura, semantika, etiketa i obriadnosti (And Here All Kingdoms Met: Essays in the History of the Sovereigns Court in 16th-Century Russia. Everyday and Celebratory Culture, Semantics, Etiquette, and Ritual). 648 pp. St. Petersburg: Dmitrii Bulanin, 2010. ISBN-13 978-5860076341.

Thirty-five years ago, Paula Fichtner openly lamented the fact that "historians have given little sustained attention to the customs of royalty," and that any historian who studied "court pageantry" was deemed then--in 1976, and in previous generations--to be displaying their "intellectual mediocrity" and "lack of scholarly integrity, or both." (1) Fichmer recorded this lament in a pioneering article on Habsburg dynastic marriage in the 16th century, an article that in many ways jumpstarted the study of symbol and ritual (in her case, the symbols and rituals pertaining to royal marriage) and infused it with insights drawn from other disciplines--including, mostly, cultural anthropology. A similar plea was independently made a few years later by Robert Crummey in his groundbreaking study of court rituals in Muscovy, a study one colleague called a "preliminary stab at describing and understanding court spectacles in the seventeenth century." (2) Both Fichmer and Crummey offered innovative models in their respective fields for analyzing symbols and rituals in the early modern period, laying an early claim to this subject for legitimate and serious study, even if both were, in their day, offering only "preliminary stabs."

Happily, times have changed. The study of the "customs of royalty" has matured into a valid and valuable dimension of cultural, political, family, and women's history. The symbols and rituals of kings, queens, and tsars now serve as rich and decipherable primary sources that can be "read" for insights into cultures that left behind few reflective descriptions of their political values. Royal rituals are now understood to be useful lenses onto political culture, serving, in the words of Michele Fogel, as "ceremonies of information" (les ceremonies de l'information)--broadcasting a carefully crafted message about power, identity, or religious belief (depending on the ritual) that a king's or tsar's subjects could apprehend in their own time and context, and that historians today can use to comprehend the "rules" of a now-defunct political culture. (3)

The two books reviewed here are both recent contributions to the thriving literature on the "customs of royalty" in early modern Russia, building on the model provided by Crummey more than 25 years ago. Irina Mikhailova's debt to Crummey is clear and enormous, even though she does not cite Crummey's article (nor, of course, Fichtner's). However, Mikhailova's book follows in the solid tradition established more than a century ago by Ivan Egorovich Zabelin and elaborated today by a range of Russian and non-Russian scholars of Muscovite royal ritual, including Sergei Bogatyrev, Nancy Shields Kollmann, Daniel Rowland, Michael Flier, Priscilla Hunt, Viacheslav Shaposhnik, Isolde Thyret, and others. (4) Mikhailova's book is perhaps the first attempt at a synthetic survey of the Problematik of symbol and ritual: in many ways, it is a modern, updated, and richly expanded version of Zabelin's classic treatment. As for Eskin, his is a vast and magisterial (a word that is often overused, but here is entirely appropriate) investigation of precedence (mestnichestvo), revealing more that is genuinely new about the system than any study before it. Even so, he almost entirely ignores the symbolic and performative aspects of the system, despite the fact that this important aspect has been successfully studied by Western scholars--if again, only as a "preliminary stab." (5) As a result, Mikhailovna's survey of royal rituals and Eskin's study of precedence only partly overlap, and so setting these two books side-by-side risks some forced comparisons. Reviewing these two books together does, however, illuminate just how far work on Russian royalty, the sovereigns court, and symbol and ritual has progressed since Fichmer and Crummey first ventured into this territory.

In her book, Mikhailova offers a survey of many of the royal rituals performed by Muscovy's rulers in the 16th century. The author divides her book into five lengthy sections (ocherki). These treat the coronation of Russia's rulers and the meaning of their royal regalia (the longest and perhaps most substantive of the five sections); the set of rituals performed at court (receptions of foreign diplomats, banquets, and so on); the construction of, and pilgrimages to, churches, monasteries, and other holy sites in Muscovy; the tsars' celebration of various religious festivals; and finally, the grand princes' and tsars' weddings. The treatment of these five areas of ritual life at court is detailed and based on a large set of sources, though most of these are published and will already be familiar to specialists.

Coronations and royal weddings offer two examples of the kind of sweeping surveys that Mikhailova provides in this book. With regard to coronations, Mikhailova runs through the ritualized words and actions of participants--both clerics and courtiers--from beginning to end, stopping along the way to explore more deeply several selected features of the ritual-the crown worn by the tsars, the regalia, the showering with gold coins--or to enter the fray of disputed questions about the history of coronations. For example, Mikhailova asks whether Dmitrii Vnuk's coronation in 1498 was the first ever in Muscovy. She shares the view held by some that it was not the first coronation. (6) For Mikhailova and others, there is ample evidence in the form of brief chronicle entries to conclude that some kind of installation ritual was routinely performed in the late Kievan period--probably a coronation--despite the fact that these chronicles only speak of a prince being "seated" in a principality, not actually "crowned." (7) Mikhailova also ventures into the even more disputed topic of the origin of Muscovy's coronation rituals, asserting or implying (depending on the ritual) a link between Rus' coronation practices and regalia and those in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, ancient Israel, and other ancient and far-flung cultures, treating them all as if they belonged to a single developmental process (57-68). It is a proposition that strains credulity, whether it is here in her discussion of coronations and the accoutrements of kingship, or in her discussion of other Muscovite rituals (e.g., diplomatic audiences and wedding customs, among others).

Mikhailova's treatment of Muscovite royal weddings is just as detailed and expansive, and sometimes just as problematical. Mikhailova leads the reader through all the stages of the wedding ritual, from the bride-shows that were organized by the court, to the liturgical rites, fertility ceremonies, speeches, processions, gift exchanges, showering with hops, and costuming (501-30). Along the way, Mikhailova provides her own assessment of some of the more spectacular moments in Muscovite royal marriage history, such as the scandal surrounding the remarriage of Vasilii III (531-35) and the marriages and death of Ivan IV (503,593-603). What Mikhailova has given us in this ocherk is a new, highly readable, and detailed treatment of royal marriage in Muscovy, updating previous accounts by historians and ethnographers and grounding her analysis in better citations to more (and more current) sources than do the older surveys (though these should still be consulted). (8) The real concern for readers, particularly nonspecialists, is the way her summary is based on very different kinds and quality of sources--foreigners' accounts (always tricky to use), chancellery documents, the Domostroi, and secondary literature--all cobbled together into a synthetic narrative, The goal is clear: to produce a lively and readable description of royal wedding rituals, and this she achieves brilliantly. But the undiscriminating use of sources introduces inaccuracies and anachronisms. Setting folk songs about the marriages of common people side by side with chancellery documents about royal weddings without a careful delineation of the origins and quality of these sources leads to a very polished, but also uncritical, introductory survey. (9)

But then, that is what Mikhailova's book precisely is--a sprawling, 647-page introductory survey. The simple observation leads me to my last two points. First, perhaps because it is an introduction, the author has a hard time fitting semiotics into this general survey, despite promises in the early pages that this book is, at its heart, a study of the semiotics of royal customs. There is no definition of semiotics for the novice and, for the specialist, no development of how it can help us "read" Muscovite royal rituals. Second, the book appears to have the larger goal of advancing the claim (as it does on 6, and in numerous other places) that "Muscovite Russia in the 16th century was an orthodox state, the Russian people worshiped [poklonialsia] Jesus Christ, the Mother of God, the saints, and believed in their help and intercession." The idealized thesis finds itself again expressed, indirectly, in the earthy references to "the people" (sootechestvenniki) (17, 18) who collectively "think" or "believe" or "decide" things, or who share a collective "consciousness of the Russian people" that accounts for "national" reactions to common crises.

Many readers who flinch at such romanticized language will be tempted to set the book down after encountering it, but they would do well to pick it back up after a breather. There are few places besides Mikhailova's book where one can find a useful survey of Russia's royal customs. This book is a very good starting point. And shed of its efforts to romanticize Russia's past or to link its royal customs with those of ancient civilizations, or to cobble together very different kinds of sources, the book effectively points readers to the areas of research in cultural history that are today important and active. That alone is reason enough to have the book handy on the bookshelf.

Iurii Moiseevich Eskin has long been the leading scholar of the system of precedence in early modern Russia, and for good reason. His published inventory (reestr) of precedence litigations and royal proclamations has become the indispensable resource for anyone interested in the subject, (10) and his numerous smaller case studies of precedence disputes are among the finest examples of how these essentially legal sources can be exploited by historians interested in understanding the Muscovite court and boyar elite. (11) This is very high praise, since mestnichestvo has attracted the attention of many important historians over the past century and a half, none of whom have achieved as much as Eskin has in his body of works, including, especially, this monumental book. (12)

Despite all the attention, mestnichestvo has remained highly resistant to interpretation. We know what it was: a system of seniority among elite families in service to the ruler--a system that both determined the posts servitors filled in court ceremonies and on military expeditions, and that provided rubrics for determining the ranking of males in individual clans who were eligible to hold these posts. But we know very little about many other things: its origins, its judicial procedures; its clerical and administrative norms; and the full range of social and cultural controls that the system placed on the lives of those serving the tsar. Eskin's book is the best attempt yet to address these topics.

The book begins and ends with the sources. It is based on the complete surviving corpus of original documents that were generated by mestnichestvo disputes, as well as every reference to these disputes found in an array of other administrative and narrative sources. The book is also based on a complete list of mestnichestvo-related edicts and other legal pronouncements, which provide a structure for Eskin's analysis of individual cases and the system overall. Eskin's source-based approach to this topic began with his earlier inventory of mestnichestvo cases and edicts (his reestr), which includes 1,720 entries dated between 1332 and 1694. His new book supplements this listing with nearly two dozen new entries (documents found by Eskin after the publication of the reestr), though his analysis in it seems only to have used a small fraction of that large collection of documents (see 6, 405-24).

Eskin's analysis of precedence-related documents does more than merely establish for posterity's sake the exact dimensions of the surviving source base. It allows him to reconstruct the mestnichestvo archive: the "colossal number of documents" (401) that today are scattered in the collections (fondy) of several different archives, and that, in the 16th and 17th centuries, were scattered in the repositories of central Muscovite chancelleries and private family archives. This alone is an enormous achievement, illuminating the way mestnichestvo records were composed and preserved, as well as their textual relationship to other important court documents, such as the Sovereign's Muster Book (Gosudarev razriad) and the Sovereign's Genealogy (Gosudarev rodoslovets).

But this book is more than a narrow source study. We learn that mestnichestvo was a far more expansive system socially and culturally than we ever knew, not only affecting the lives of courtiers with the highest court ranks but also regulating the careers and fates of provincial elites and even chancellery staff. We learn more about the giant exception zone in mestnichestvo: the occasional decrees that designated certain court happenings as falling outside the rules of precedence (bezmestie). Some court happenings, such as royal weddings, required more flexibility in the appointment of courtiers to posts than the system would normally permit. The tsars' brides, for example, so often came from the middling ranks of the service landholding elite that, if the rules were not bent at least a little, no member of the bride's birth family would by rights be able to attend the wedding, much less perform even the smallest (though still symbolically potent) duty during the three-day wedding celebration. Sometimes rules just had to be suspended, and Eskin is the first to give us a source-based glimpse of how that happened within the otherwise firm rubrics of Muscovite precedence. Finally, we learn about mestnichestvo edicts and adjudication procedures. The book's rich treatment of civil procedure--for lack of a better word--could easily be overlooked by some readers who might not expect to find it in a work about the tsar's court, but Eskin is actually making a very important contribution to the study of Muscovite law, which, as George Weickhardt has argued, was highly elaborated, procedurally complex, and, in some areas of the law, quite efficient. (13)

The only thin spot in this rich and impressive book is the treatment of the origin of the system, which is probably explained by the fact that the sources Eskin meticulously collected say next to nothing about it. What the sources permit Eskin to do, however, is to place the origin of mestnichestvo in the context of the relationship between the ruler (the grand prince or tsar) and the court aristocracy (the boyars and other servitors in Duma or court ranks). This is very consistent with the received view, which sees mestnichestvo either as the concoction of a centralizing monarchy out to control the boyars or as a defensive mechanism devised by the boyars to thwart the increasingly capricious rule of Muscovy's rulers. Which of these two possible models better fits the surviving evidence remains an open question. (14)

Mikhailova's and Eskin's books do not overlap very much, but it might be pointed out, by way of concluding, that they probably should. It is, after all, odd that Mikhailova omits any discussion of mestnichestvo in her survey of court rituals in Muscovy, and that Eskin omits any discussion of ritual in his magisterial study of mestnichestvo, despite its important symbolic dimensions. The upshot of the comparison of these two books may therefore be that, despite all the good progress made since Fichtner and Crummey issued their pleas, a lot of work remains yet to be done on the "customs of royalty." Thanks to these two very different books, however, we now have more material at hand to do that work.

(1) Paula Sutter Fichmer, "Dynastic Marriage in Sixteenth-Century Habsburg Diplomacy and Statecraft: An Interdisciplinary Approach," American Historical Review 81, 2 (1976): 243-65, here 243.

(2) Robert Owen Crummey, "Court Spectacles in Seventeenth-Century Russia: Illusion and Reality," in Essays in Honor of A. A. Zimin, ed. Daniel Clarke Waugh (Columbus, OH: Slavica Publishers, 1985), 130-58. The colleague was Richard Hellie, and the quotation above appears in his review of the Festschrift for Zimin in Slavic Review 4 5, 3 (1987): 554-56, here 555.

(3) Michele Fogel, Les ciremonies de l'nformation dans la France du XVIe au milieu du XVIIIe siecle (Paris: Fayard, 1989), see esp. 11-19.

(4) I. E. Zabelin, Domashnii byt russkikh tsarei v XVI i)(VII stoletii, vol. 1, pts. 1 and 2, of Domashnii byt russkogo naroda vXVI i XVII stoletii, repr. from 1918 and 1915 eds. (Moscow: Iazyki russkoi kul'tury, 2000-03); Zabelin, Domashnii byt russkikh tsarits v XVI i XVII stoletii, vol. 2 of Domashnii byt russkogo naroda v XVI i XVII stoletii, repr. from 1901 ed. (3rd ed., with additions) (Moscow: Iazyki russkoi kul'tury, 2003); and Zabelin, Materialy, repr. from various editions, with overlapping pagination (Moscow: Iazyki russkoi kul'tury, 2003). See also Sergei Bogatyrev, The Sovereign and His Counsellors: Ritualised Consultations in Muscovite Political Culture, 1350s-1570s (Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2000); Nancy Shields Kollmann, "Pilgrimage, Procession, and Symbolic Space in Sixteenth-Century Russian Politics," in Medieval Russian Culture 2, ed. Michael S. Flier and Daniel Rowland, California Slavic Studies 19 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 163-81; Michael Flier, "Breaking the Code: The Image of the Tsar in the Muscovite Palm Sunday Ritual," in Medieval Russian Culture 2, 213-42; Priscilla Hunt, "Ivan IV's Personal Mythology of Kingship," Slavic Review 52, 4 (1993): 769-809; Daniel B. Rowland, "Moscow The Third Rome or the New Israel," Russian Review 55, 4 (1996): 591-614; V. V. Shaposhnik, Tserkovnogosudarstvennye otnosheniia v Rossii v 30-80-e gody XVI veka (St. Petersburg: Vita Nova, 2006); Isolde Thyret, "'Blessed Is the Tsaritsa's Womb': The Myth of Miraculous Birth and Royal Motherhood in Muscovite Russia," Russian Review 53, 4 (1994): 479-96; Cornelia Soldat, "The Limits of Muscovite Autocracy: Relations between Grand Prince and Boyars on the Basis of IosifVolotskii's Prosvetitel ," Cahiers du monde russe 46, 1-2 (2005): 265-76; and Russell E. Martin, A Bride for the Tsar: Bride-Shows and Marriage Politics in Early Modern Russia (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2012).

(5) On the ritual aspects of mestnichestvo, see Nancy Shields Kollmann, "Ritual and Social Drama at the Muscovite Court," Slavic Review 45, 3 (1986): 486-502; and Robert Owen Crummey, "Reflections on Mesmichestvo in the 17th Century," Forschungen zur osteuropdischen Geschichte 27 (1980): 269-81.

(6) For a view similar to Mikhailova's, see M. E. Bychkova, "Obriady venchaniia na prestol 1498 i 1547 godov: Voploshchenie ideia vlasti gosudaria," Cahiers du monde russe et sovietique 34, 1-2 (1993): 245-56, esp. 246.

(7) For a view opposite to Mikhailova's and Bychkova's, see George Majeska, "The Moscow Coronation of 1498 Reconsidered," Jahrbueher fur Geschichte Osteuropas 26, 3 (1978): 353-61. See also, generally, C. J. Potter, "Making Tsars: Coronation and Legitimation in Russia, 1498-1645," in The Legitimation of New Orders: Case Studies in World History, ed. Philip Yuen-sang Leung (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2007), 197-243; Olga Novikova, "Le couronnement d'Ivan IV: La conception d'empire a r l'Est de l'Europe," Cahiers du monde russe 46, 1-2 (2005): 219-32; Marie-Karine Schaub, "Les couronnements des tsars en Russie du XVIe au XVIIIe siecles," in La royaute sacree dans le monde chritien, ed. Main Boureau and Claudio-Sergio Ingerflom (Paris: Editions de I'EHESS, 1992), 139-48; and Novikova, "Les couronnements des tsars, XVI-XVIIIe siecles: Etat de la question et perspectives de la recherche," Revue des etudes slaves 61, 4 (1989): 391-401.

(8) A. I. Kozachenko, "K istorii velikorusskogo svadebnogo obriada," Sovetskaia etnografiia, no. 1 (1957): 57-71; N. I. Sumtsov, O svadebnykh obriadakh, preimushchestvenno russkikh (Khar'kov: I. V. Popov, 1881); I. P. Sakharov, ed., Skazaniia russkogo naroda, vol. 2, bk. 6 (St. Petersburg: Guttenburgovaia tipografiia, 1849); N. I. Novikov, ed., Drevniaia rossiiskaia vivliofika, soderzhashchaia v sebe sobranie drevnostei rossiiskikh, do istorii geografii, i genealogii rossiiskoi kasaiushchikhsia, 2nd ed., 20 vols. (Moscow: V tipografii Kompanii tipograficheskoi, 1788-1791), see vol. 13.

(9) See Russell E. Martin, "Archival Sleuths and Documentary Transpositions: Notes on the Typology and Textology of Muscovite Royal Wedding Descriptions in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries," Russian History 30, 3 (2003): 253-300; and Martin, "Muscovite Royal Weddings: A Descriptive Inventory of Manuscript Holdings in the Treasure Room of the Russian State Archive of Ancient Acts, Moscow," Manuscripta 50, 1 (2006): 77-189.

(10) Iu. M. Eskin, Mestnichestvo v Rossii XVI-XVII vv.: Khronologicheskii reestr, spravochniki po russkoi istorii 1 (Moscow: Arkheograficheskii tsentr, 1994).

(11) In addition to the list of Eskin's works in Ocherki istorii mestnichestva v Rossii, 440, see his "Duel' v Moskovii 1637 goda," Arkheograficheskii ezhegodnik za 1997 god (1997): 456-63; and Eskin, "Smuta i mesmichestvo," in Realizm istoricheskogo myshleniia: Problemy otechestvennoi istorii perioda feodalizma. Chteniia, posviashchennye pamiati A. L. Stanislavskogo (Moscow: Moskovskii gosudarstvennyi istoriko-arkhivnyi institut, 1991), 266-68.

(12) See the comprehensive bibliography of works on mestnichestvo in Eskin, Ocherki istorii mestnichestva v Rossii, 428-41.

(13) See, especially, George Weickhardt, "Registering Land Grants in Muscovy," in Rude and Barbarous Kingdom Revisited, ed. Chester S. L. Dunning, Russell E. Martin, and Daniel Rowland (Bloomington, IN: Slavica Publishers, 2008), 441-58.

(14) For the best historiographical surveys on mestnichestvo's origins, see Eskin's Mestnichestvo v Rossii XVI-XVII vv.: Khronologicheskii reestr and his book reviewed here. See also Nancy Shields Kollmann, By Honor Bound: State and Society in Early Modern Russia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), esp. chap. 5.

Russell E. Martin

Dept. of Religion, History, Philosophy, and Classics

Westminster College

New Wilmington, PA 16172-0001 USA
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