Sigismund Herberstein: an “Ambassador” of Lithuania to Europe

On a peacekeeping mission to Lithuania

Sigismund Herberstein was born in 1486 at Vipava Castle in Styria region, now in Slovenia, which at that time was part of the Holy Roman Empire. From 1499, he studied at the University of Vienna, which was a centre for Renaissance ideas, where the famous geographer, historian and humanist Conrad Celtes taught. Shortly after finishing his studies in 1506, Herberstein began his long service at the court of the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor. At the beginning, he served as a soldier; and later, when he became well known as a linguist and an orator, he started out on a diplomatic career. He spoke Latin, German, Spanish, Slovene, and other south and east Slavic languages. Herberstein was responsible for the eastern policy of the empire, looking after relations with Hungary, Bohemia, Poland, Lithuania, the Ottoman Empire and the Duchy of Muscovy.

He came to Lithuania on two missions, in 1517 and 1526, playing the role of peacekeeper and mediator. In the name of his rulers, the Emperor Maximilian (the first mission) and the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand II, he tried to reconcile two warring rulers: Sigismund the Old, the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, and Vasili III, the Grand Duke of Moscow.

Diplomatic travelogue becomes an international “bestseller”

On these two missions, Herberstein visited Muscovy, Lithuania, Poland and Hungary, where he learned about the geography, religion, customs and everyday life in these countries. Not only did he meet with the rulers of Muscovy and Lithuania, their courtiers and other nobles, but he also met members of other groups, and even peasants. During his mission to Moscow parts of the local chronicles and other important Muscovite documents were copied at his initiative. Each of these missions took him about a year.

As a result of all his travel experiences and influence of Renaissance ideals, Herberstein the diplomat and traveller wrote Europe’s first book about the distant and mysterious Muscovy and its neighbours, based on a variety of written sources.

The first edition of his Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii (Notes on Muscovite Affairs) appeared in 1549. It is written in the standard Renaissance Latin of learned Europeans (two more Latin editions came out, in 1551 and 1556). In 1550, an edition of the book came out in Italian, published in Venice, a major publishing centre in those times. From 1557, the book was available in German, and French and English translations appeared not long afterwards. During Herberstein’s lifetime (he died in 1566), the book came out about ten times in the main languages of Western Europe. Through this work, he became one of the most widely read authors in Europe of his times. In his Notes, he described not only Muscovy, but also Lithuania, Poland and Hungary, including their history, customs and nature.

East European curiosities and exotica through Western eyes

The attention of readers was attracted by various curiosities in the book. In Muscovy, there were dense and vast forests, and the distances there were measured not in miles, as in Europe, but in days’ journeys. People slept not in beds, but on long and wide benches; and unprotected limbs were often frostbitten, as a result of the intense cold.

Lithuania seemed less foreign to the author, but that too was full of curiosities and mysteries. According to the author, the Samogitians gave birth in turn to very short and very tall children. A destitute peasant could even hang themselves at the bequest of their masters. Whereas the women in Kiev were so promiscuous that they lost their virginity at seven years old …

All this fuelled the imaginations of readers. Could it be that some of these images still live in the West European consciousness today?

The breath-taking battle resumes

Why would a European reader in those times be interested in the image of Lithuania that was created by the book? One possible answer is because they wanted to read about the Lithuanian army. In his book, Herberstein explained the circumstances of the military conflict between Lithuania and Moscow. Many pages are devoted to descriptions of battles; and the Battle of Orsha in 1514 takes pride of place. We can only guess at how the imaginations of readers were captivated when they read about the 35,000 Lithuanians facing 80,000 Muscovites on the battlefield. For Western Europe, that was an unimaginable number of soldiers in those times! The battle was not won by the clear numerical superiority of the Muscovites, but by the actions of Konstanty Ostrogski, the skilful and courageous Lithuanian military leader.

Herberstein became a kind of a bard to the military leaders of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

He penned striking eulogies, not only to Ostrogski, but also to the equally deserving military leaders Albertas Goštautas and Eustace Dashkevich, and even to the traitor Michael Glinsky. These fearless heroes often defeated the larger Muscovite forces through their wits as well as defended the country from sudden attacks by the Tartars. Herberstein did more than only sang the praises to the Lithuanian army. In the chapter about Lithuania, he wrote:

“If anyone threatens Lithuanians with war, then they gather to defend the country in the appointed place armed with their best weapons. Once the army is assembled and accounted, part of the troops depart, while the remaining soldiers send their best horses and equipment home, and follow the military commander as if they were forced.” The author also enumerates some common intrigues at the court of the Grand Duke of Lithuania.

Andrejus Ryčkovas