A passport to the lands of the tsar : the December 2014 Slavonic item of the month

The gilt lettering which starts the text of the passport.

The gilt lettering which starts the text of the passport.

The December Slavonic item of the month is a 1652 travel permit issued in the tsar’s name to English merchants.  A star piece in the Library’s small Russian manuscript collection, it was the subject of a recent informal session with Slavonic Studies postgraduates during which we grappled with handwriting, abbreviations, and an anno mundi date.

This week, three postgraduate students in the Department of Slavonic Studies came to the University Library to look at our early Russian manuscript holdings.  There are only a few of these, but it was a fascinating session.  Most of our time was spent studying a Russian travel permit (referred to in the catalogue and also in this piece as a passport) granted in 1652.

Written in gold and black ink, the document was issued to John Lent, John Hebdon, and their clerk Andrew Bush.  A very large part of the passport’s wording concentrates on the tsar, Aleksei Mikhailovich (1629-1676), detailing the lands he rules and the power he wields.  Aleksei Mikhailovich ruled from 1645 until his death, and the document he is most famous for was in fact contained in another manuscript we looked at, albeit much more briefly.  The Ulozhenie of 1649 was a huge legal code, created in reaction to the proliferation of often contradictory edicts and to quell serious unrest in the country.  The University Library’s manuscript copy of the Ulozhenie dates from approximately 1700 and is particularly notable for the extraordinary number of hands in which it is written, varying hugely in style.  It was given to us by Sir Ellis Minns, the famed archaeologist whose bequest to the University Library was hugely generous and significant.  Through the collection he left to us, archaeology became the foremost East European subject in the Library and our pre-1900 Russian holdings of literature and history grew enormously.  Sir Ellis’ bequest will be the subject of a future blog post.

The passport’s provenance is unfortunately not known.  An early entry in the Additional Manuscripts class, it is an example of the richly miscellaneous nature of items in the class.  (A 2013 Special Collections blog post about Additional Manuscripts provides an interesting history and overview of the class, and in fact refers to the passport.)

The postgraduates led the way in reading the text of the document.  For reference, I had brought the Library of Congress transliteration table for Church Slavic, to help with deciphering some of the early Cyrillic letters the passport contained.  It took quite some effort, at times, to read the hand.  A word I had initially read as Pshodshii (which has no meaning), for example, turned out to be the far more sensible Pskovskii (of the city Pskov) – the letters looked so misleadingly similar to other, modern ones.  The practice of abbreviating words was also confusing.  Gradually we made it through to the end, past specifications about the need for the named men to be allowed to pass without being detained (reminiscent of the “to pass freely without let or hindrance” wording of the modern UK passport).

The transliteration table was particularly useful for decoding the date at the end of the passport.  The date is prefaced by so sozdaniia miru (from the creation of the world), a clue that the scribe has employed the standard Russian practice at that time of giving an anno mundi rather than anno Domini date, adding an extra 5508 years. We knew from the entry for the passport in the Additional Manuscript catalogue that it had been dated to 3 February 1652, and we therefore worked backwards, looking at the table to calculate how the 3 and the 7160 (the AM year) should appear and seeing if this could be made out in the letters on the page – a successful exercise.

The central line contains the names of the two merchants.

The central line contains the names of the two merchants.

In the middle of the passport, we encounter the names of the men it has been issued to.  In the shot above, the central line reads kupchiny Ivan Lent da Ivan Gebdon (the merchants John Lent and John Hebdon).  The final letter, which resembles the Roman H floats above the rest of Hebdon’s name.  The beginning of the next line, which doesn’t show in the picture, refers to their clerk, Ondr Bush (Andrew Bush).  The three are referred to once again in the document, although Bush is not mentioned by name a second time, simply referred to as the clerk of the first two.

Hebdon’s entry in the Oxford DNB states that he was first known to have been in Russian in 1640 and that he made his last trip there in 1667, only three years before his death in 1670.  The article refers to him becoming a “roving agent” for the tsar – from whom, his will showed, a debt was in fact still due when Hebdon died.  In J.T. Kotilane’s Russia’s foreign trade and economic expansion in the seventeenth century (586:45.c.200.17), Hebdon is an influential figure in trade diplomacy.  The breakdown in trade relations between Russia and England in 1649 after the execution of Charles I only eased fully in 1661, on the coronation of Charles II (pages 110-111).  Hebdon’s passport, issued barely two years after Charles I was beheaded, becomes an even more interesting artefact in this context, and is presumably symbolic of the trust put in him personally by the tsar.  John Lent doesn’t appear in the DNB, nor is there any trace of Andrew Bush.

The passport, with seal at the bottom.

The passport, with seal at the bottom.

The passport is housed in a glass-fronted permanent frame, making it a very tricky subject to photograph with standard equipment.  Happily, our Imaging Services department had a professionally shot image on file, shown to the left.  The photograph captures the entire physical item – the passport itself, complete with seal at the bottom, and the frame it’s held in.  Readers who would like to see the passport in person can order it in the Manuscripts Reading Room; its classmark is Add. MS 152.  Those interested in the history of Russian passports can read about their early manifestations and their eventual transfer to printed forms in the 18th century in the article ‘Printing and Social Control in Russia 1: Passports’ (Russian history, 37 (2010)) by Professor Simon Franklin of the Department of Slavonic Studies.

I am very grateful to the postgraduate students (Rosie Finlinson, Katie Sykes, and Nick Mayhew) for suggesting the session.  It was great fun and extremely interesting.

The Slavonic item of the month feature aims to celebrate, through examination of particular pieces, the diversity and riches of Cambridge University Library’s Slavonic collections.  It has been running since April 2013.  Items featured in previous months can be found here on the Slavonic webpages.

Mel Bach

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