The Autocrat of the Dinner-Table

From Medium:

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

. . . .

A CZAR’S INVITATION

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.”

SETTING THE TABLE

A CZAR’S FEAST. From a 1579 German edition of the Commentarii

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.

BREAD AND SALT

RUSSIAN WELL-WISHERS WITH BREAD AND SALT (1874). Wilhelm Amandus Beer

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.

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.

PASS THE SWAN, PLEASE: “Olim lacus colueram …”

Detail from A BOYAR WEDDING FEAST (1883). Konstantin Makovsky (1839–1915)

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.

Link to the rest at Medium