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Sigismund von Herberstein

Baron Sigismund von Herberstein, (1486-1566), Austrian diplomat, writer and historian. He was most noted for his extensive writing on the geography, history and customs of Russia and contributed greatly to early Western European knowledge of that area.

Early Life

Herberstein was born in 1486 in Vipava (German Wippach) in the region of Carniola, South Austria (now Slovenia) to Leonhard von Herberstein and Barbara von Lueg, members of the prominent German family which had already resided in Herberstein Castle for nearly 200 years. Little is known of his early life apart from the fact that he became familiar with the Slovene language spoken in the region. This knowledge became significant later in his life.

In 1499 he entered the University of Vienna to study philosophy and law. In 1506 he entered the army as an officer and served in a number of campaigns. In 1508 he was knighted by the Emperor Maximillian I personally. In 1515 he entered the Imperial council, or Parliament, and began a long and illustrious diplomatic career.

Diplomatic Career

Between 1515 and 1553, Herberstein carried out approximately 69 missions abroad, travelling throughout much of Europe, including Turkey. He was feted by the ruling Habsburgs and rewarded with titles and estates. He was twice sent to Russia as the Austrian ambassador, in 1517 to attempt to arrange a truce between Russia and Lithuania, and in 1526 to renew a treaty between the two signed in 1522. These extended visits (nine months in his 1517 visit) provided him with the opportunity to study a hitherto largely unknown Russian society.

Writing on Russia

Herberstein's knowledge of Slovene, acquired in his youth, allowed him to communicate freely with Russians, as Slovene and Russian both belong to the Slavic languages. He used this ability to question a variety of people in Russia on a wide range of topics. This gave him an insight into Russia and Russians unavailable to the few previous visitors to Russia.

He probably wrote his first account of life in Russia between 1517 and 1527, but no copy of this survives. In 1526 he was asked to produce a formal report on his experinces in Russia, but this remained relatively unnoticed in the archives until he was able to find time to revise and expand it, which he possibly started in the 1530s.

The evidence suggests that Herberstein was an energetic and capable ethnographer. He investigated in depth both by questioning locals and by critically examining the scarce existing literature on Russia. The result was his major work, a book written in Latin titled Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii (literally Notes on Muscovite Affairs), published in 1549. This became the main early source of knowledge in Western Europe on Russia.

Although he contributed a great deal to European knowledge of Russia, he also contributed 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.

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