The Autocrat of the Dinner-Table
The Latest In Our Series of Latin Writings About Russia and Ukraine: Dining With the Czars
The Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii (Notes on Muscovite Affairs, Notes on the Muscovites, or Notes on Russia), written by the Austro-Slovene diplomat Sigismund von Herberstein in 1549, was the first authoritative historical and ethnographic account of East Slavic civilization to be published in Western Europe. Herberstein had twice served (1517–1518 & 1526–1527) as an ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire to the Grand Duchy of Moscow, or Muscovy. His high-level position there in the Moscow court, coupled with his command of Slavic languages, gave him a level of access to Russia beyond the reach of the region’s previous western visitors. Herberstein wrote in the spirit of Herodotus and Pliny the Elder, compiling the history, politics, culture, religion, geography, military affairs, and natural history of the Russian world together with an account of his own time there as imperial ambassador. The best-selling work marked a watershed in Russian historiography and remained a western European authority on the Russian world for decades.
The following selections from the Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii are taken from Herberstein’s account of a 1526 state dinner at the Kremlin with fellow imperial ambassador Count Leonardo de Noguerol and Czar Vasili III, about whom you can learn more from Herberstein (in Latin!) here. Take a stop here if you would like your banquet bloody, courtesy of a Ukrainian saint and warrior princess.
This English translation was completed in 1851 by Richard Henry Major for the Hakluyt Society. His edition, published in two volumes, has been digitized by Google Books and is also available in physical form from Cambridge University Press. The Latin text was transcribed by me from a 16th-century codex of the Commentarii digitized by Google Books.
I. A CZAR’S INVITATION: “Prandebis mecum.”
Salutatione exposita cum paulisper sedissemus, invitaverat ordine utrumque nostrum princeps hisce verbis: “prandebis mecum.” In priore mea legatione, ut hoc quoque adjiciam, iuxta illorum consuetudinem me hoc modo invitaverat: “Sigismunde, comedes sal et panem nostrum nobiscum.” Mox dein vocatis ad se procuratoribus nostris, nescio quid illis demissa voce dixerat, a quibus vicissim admoniti interpres, “Surgite,” inquiunt, “eamus in aliam habitationem.”
After the salutation had been gone through and we had been some time seated, the prince invited each of us in rotation with these words: “You will dine with me.” I may here add that, in my first embassy, he had, according to their custom, invited me in this manner: “Sigismund, thou wilt eat our salt and bread with us.” Presently after, he called our caterers to him and spoke to them in a low voice, but I know not what he said. But each of them in his turn gave instruction to the interpreters, who said to us: “Arise, let us retire to another house.”
II. SETTING THE TABLE
Constituto porro prandii apparatu principe fratribusque ac consiliariis iam discumbentibus in cenaculum ipsi cum essemus deducti, continuo consiliarii ceterique omnes ordine nobis assurrexerant, quibus vicisim morem eorum edocti, priusquam consederant gratias caput ad omnes partes inclinando egimus locumque in accubitu quem nobis ipse princeps manu designabat cepimus. Ceterum tabulae in cenaculo circum circa adornatae erant. In medio stabat abacus gravis diversis aureis et argenteis poculis. … Ex opposito principis in alia tabula nos sedebamus atque parvo intervallo interposito familiares ac servitores nostri. … In tabulis posita erant vascula quorum alia aceto, alia pipere, alia sale repleta erant.
When the preparations for dinner were made and the prince, his brothers, and the councillors were already seated, upon our being shown into the banqueting room, the councillors and all the others immediately arose in deference to us. We, in our turn, having been informed of their habits, before they sat down, offered our thanks to them by bowing on all sides and took a place at the table which the prince himself indicated to us with his hand. The tables were arranged around the banqueting-room. In the middle stood a table laden with a variety of gold and silver goblets. … We sat at another table opposite the prince, with our friends and attendants at a small distance from us. … On the tables were placed vessels, some filled with vinegar, some with pepper, and others with salt.
III. BREAD AND SALT
Interim omnibus discumbentibus, princeps quendam ex suis ministris vocaverat ac duo sibi oblonga panis frusta dederat, inquiens: “Da Leonhardo Comiti et Sigismundo.” Hunc panem minister assumpto secum interprete ordine utrisque nostrum ita obtulit: Leonharde comes, Magnus Dominus Basilius Dei gratia Rex et Dominus totius Russiae et Magnus Dux facit tibi gratiam suam et mittit tibi panem de sua tabula.” … Porro pane ipso princeps suam erga aliquem gratiam, sale vero amorem ostendit. Neque vero maiorem honorem potest alicui exhibere in suo convivio quam si alicui sal de sua tabula mittit.
Meantime, when all were seated, the prince called one of his servants to him and, giving him two long pieces of bread, said: “Give this to Count Leonhard, and this to Sigismund.” The servant, taking the interpreter with him, accordingly presented the bread to each of us in rotation accompanied by the following speech: “O Count Leonardo, the Grand Duke Vasiley, by the grace of God, King and Lord of all Russia, and Grand Duke, extends his favour to thee, and sends thee bread from his own table.” … Bread is used by the prince to express his favour towards anybody, but when he sends salt, it is intended to express his affection — indeed it is not possible for him to show greater honour to any one at an entertainment given by himself than by sending him salt from his own table.
IV. PASS THE SWAN, PLEASE: “Olim lacus colueram …”
Tandem pro cibo dapiferi … aquam vitae qua ab initio prandii semper bibunt dein cignos assos, quos fere pro primo ferculo quoties carne vescuntur hospitibus apponere solent, attulerunt. Princeps [cignos] cultello pungens, qui nam melior aliisque esset preferendi, explorabat eosque continuo aufferre iusserat. … Porro cum assos cignos ceperam, apponebant accetum addito sale et pipere. Iis enim loco embammatis seu iusculi utuntur. Lac praeterea acidum in eundem usum appositum, item cucumeres salsi ad haec pruna eadem ratione condita. Prandii tempore e mensa non removentur. Eadem ratio in aliis inferendis ferculis servatur, nisi quod rursus assatura non efferantur. … Omnia et singula vasa in quibus cibus, potus, acetum, piper, sal et alia apposita vidimus, dicunt esse ex puro auro. Id quod ex pondere verum apparebat. … [princeps] prandet aliquando tres aut quattour horas. In prima mea legatione etiam ad unam usque noctis horam prandebamus. Quemadmodum enim de rebus dubiis consultantes saepe totum diem consumunt neque digrediuntur nisi re prius mature deliberata constitutaque. Ita conviviis pariter seu commissationibus integrum absumunt nonnumquam diem intendentibusque tandem tenebris secedunt.
At length the servers going out for food … first brought in brandy, which they always drink at the commencement of the dinner. Then they brought in roasted swans, which it is almost always their custom to lay before their guests for the first dish whenever they eat meat … [the prince] pierced [the swans] with his knife to try which was the best and which he would choose in preference to the rest and immediately ordered them to be taken away … When we began to eat the roast swans, they placed vinegar on the table with salt and pepper mixed in it, which they used instead of sauce or gravy. Sour milk was also placed on the table for the same purpose with pickled cucumbers and prunes cooked with the same object, which are not removed during dinner time. The same fashion is observed in bringing in the other dishes unless they be again taken away to be cooked … They say that each and every vessel which we looked upon, in which were placed meat, the drinks, the vinegar, the pepper, the salt, and all the other things which were set upon the table, were of pure gold; and from their weight this would seem to be true … The grand-prince sometimes spends three or four hours over dinner. During my first embassy, our dinner was prolonged till one o’clock in the morning. For just in the same manner as they often spend the whole day in deliberating over matters involving doubt and difficulty and do not leave it till it has been maturely discussed and decided upon, so also they will sometimes consume a whole day over their banquets and convivial meetings and only retire when darkness overtakes them.
V. BOTTOMS UP: “Nunc est bibendum …”
Convivas saepe et ferculis et potu honorat. A prandio in negotiis gravioribus nihil agit. Quin finito prandio dicere solet oratoribus: ‘Ite nunc.’ Dimissos illi ipsi, qui eos in aulam deduxerant, rursus in diversoria reducunt, seque mandatum habere dicunt ibi ut maneant illosque exhilarent. Afferuntur argentea pocula et certa vascula multa, cum certo potu, omnesque in hoc student, quo temulentos eos faciant. … ita autem bibitur: qui incipit, sumit poculum ac in medium habitationis procedit, stans aperto capite, festivo sermone exponit, pro cuius salute bibendum sit, addit. Singuli itaque ad medium habitationis ire ac evacuatis poculis in suum redire locum coguntur. Qui vero longiorerm compotationem effugere velit, fingat se necesse est temulentum aut somno oppressum esse, aut saltem post multa exiccata pocula se amplius nequamque bibere posse affirmet. Etenim non credunt convivas bene acceptos ac laute tractatos, nisi temulenti reddantur. Hunc morem communiter nobiles et quibus permissum est medonem ac cervisiam bibere observant.
The prince often honours his guests by sending them dishes and drink. He never meddles with matters of serious moment during dinner, but when the dinner is over, it is his custom to say to the ambassadors: “Now you may depart.” When thus dismissed, they are escorted back to their hotels by the same persons who had conducted them to the palace, who state that they have orders to remain with them in the hotel to make merry with them. Silver goblets and various other vessels containing liquor are then produced and all strive to make each other drunk. … The drinking is done in this fashion. He who proposes the toast takes his cup and goes into the middle of the room and, standing with his head uncovered, pronounces in a festive speech the name of him whose health he wishes to drink and what he has to say on his behalf. Then after emptying the cup, he turns it upside down over his head so that all may see that he has emptied it and that he sincerely gave the health of the person in honour of whom the toast was drunk. He then goes to the top of the table and orders many cups to be filled and then hands each man his cup, pronouncing the name of the party whose health is to be drunk, on which each is obliged to go into the middle of the room and, after emptying his cup, to return to his place. He who wishes to escape too long a drinking-bout must pretend that he is drunk or sleepy or at least declare that, having already emptied many cups, he cannot drink any more. For they do not think that their guests are well received or hospitably treated, unless they are sent home drunk. It is the common practice for the nobles and those who are permitted to drink mead and beer, to observe this fashion.
Gabe Kuhl holds a B.A. in Classics from Randolph College. He worked as a Rome Fellow with the Paideia Institute (2017–2018) and later taught in Macedonia with the Peace Corps. He currently lives and works in Arlington, Virginia.