European Renaissance Conceptions about the Language of the Eastern Slavs

Julia Verkholantsev, University of California, Los Angeles

Although linguistic historiography does not ordinarily provide data about the history of languages, its value for modern scholarship lies in that it reveals the views of contemporaries on the linguistic situation of an epoch that is several centuries removed from the present (even though these views may seem unscientific, such as, for instance, the treatment of Baltic languages as Slavic, or the relating of the myth about St. Jerome inventing Glagolitic script). The proposed paper is an attempt to reconstruct the linguistic assumptions of Renaissance men of letters (philologists, historians and geographers) concerning the language of the Eastern Slavs and its place among the other languages of the region that they inhabited.

It is noteworthy that in sixteenth-century linguistic thought Slavic was already perceived as one family consisting of distinct languages. However, the focus of the paper will be primarily on the description of the language of the Eastern Slavs who at that time inhabited Muscovy, part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and Poland. Muscovy, in particular, was regarded as the edge of Europe and thus less visited, and generally there was much less known about these lands in Western Europe than about the countries of the Western Slavs. This makes the few available accounts particularly interesting and deserving of detailed examination.

My analysis will be twofold. I will first discuss the sources of information about East Slavic lands that circulated in Europe in the sixteenth century. Among the most popular and influential accounts of Muscovy and Lithuania in Western Europe were De Europa (1458) by Aenea Silvius Piccolomini, Tractatus de duabus Sarmatiis (1517) by Matthias à Michou (Maciej z Miechowa) and Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii (1549) by Baron Sigismund von Herberstein. Other historical treatises written at that time include the works of Paulus Jovius (De legatione Moscovitarum, 1525), Michalo Lituanus (De moribus Tartarorum, Litvanorum et Moschorum, written in 1550, published in 1615), Marcin Cromer (De origine, & rebus gestis Polonorum, 1555) and of Jan Krasiński (Polonia, 1574). I will then examine the manner in which information about East Slavic peoples and languages was presented in linguistic works of the Philoglots. The activity of the Philoglots nourished by the Protestant culture of plurilingualism in the German-speaking countries produced a number of encyclopedic dictionaries and treatises describing and comparing various languages. Foremost attention was paid to as yet undescribed “Barbarian” languages. Among the linguistic treatises that will be examined are Theodor Bibliander’s De ratione commune omnium linguarum commentarius (1548), Konrad Gessner’s Mithridates (1555), and Angelo Rocca’s Appendix de dialectis (1591). The studies of these scholars are generally regarded as the first step in the advancement of comparative linguistics.

I will conclude my analysis with observations on how the above mentioned sources contribute to our better understanding of the linguistic situation within the East Slavic territory in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.