Iurii Moiseevich Eskin, Ocberki Istorii Mestnicbestva V Rossii XVI-XVII Vv. (Essays in the History of Precedence in 16th- and 17th-Century Russia)

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Iurii Moiseevich Eskin, Ocberki istorii mestnicbestva v Rossii XVI-XVII vv. (Essays in the History of Precedence in 16th- and 17th-Century Russia). 509 pp. Moscow: RosArkhiv, Kvadriga, 2009. ISBN-13 978-5904162061.

Irina Borisovna Mikhailova, I zdes" soshlis" vse tsarstva...: Ocherki po istorii Gosudareva dvora v Rossii XVI v. Povsednevnaia i prazdnichnaia kul'tura, semantika, etiketa i obriadnosti (And Here All Kingdoms Met: Essays in the History of the Sovereigns Court in 16th-Century Russia. Everyday and Celebratory Culture, Semantics, Etiquette, and Ritual). 648 pp. St. Petersburg: Dmitrii Bulanin, 2010. ISBN-13 978-5860076341.

Thirty-five years ago, Paula Fichtner openly lamented the fact that "historians have given little sustained attention to the customs of royalty," and that any historian who studied "court pageantry" was deemed then--in 1976, and in previous generations--to be displaying their "intellectual mediocrity" and "lack of scholarly integrity, or both." (1) Fichmer recorded this lament in a pioneering article on Habsburg dynastic marriage in the 16th century, an article that in many ways jumpstarted the study of symbol and ritual (in her case, the symbols and rituals pertaining to royal marriage) and infused it with insights drawn from other disciplines--including, mostly, cultural anthropology. A similar plea was independently made a few years later by Robert Crummey in his groundbreaking study of court rituals in Muscovy, a study one colleague called a "preliminary stab at describing and understanding court spectacles in the seventeenth century." (2) Both Fichmer and Crummey offered innovative models in their respective fields for analyzing symbols and rituals in the early modern period, laying an early claim to this subject for legitimate and serious study, even if both were, in their day, offering only "preliminary stabs."

Happily, times have changed. The study of the "customs of royalty" has matured into a valid and valuable dimension of cultural, political, family, and women's history. The symbols and rituals of kings, queens, and tsars now serve as rich and decipherable primary sources that can be "read" for insights into cultures that left behind few reflective descriptions of their political values. Royal rituals are now understood to be useful lenses onto political culture, serving, in the words of Michele Fogel, as "ceremonies of information" (les ceremonies de l'information)--broadcasting a carefully crafted message about power, identity, or religious belief (depending on the ritual) that a king's or tsar's subjects could apprehend in their own time and context, and that historians today can use to comprehend the "rules" of a now-defunct political culture. (3)

The two books reviewed here are both recent contributions to the thriving literature on the "customs of royalty" in early modern Russia, building on the model provided by Crummey more than 25 years ago. Irina Mikhailova's debt to Crummey is clear and enormous, even though she does not cite Crummey's article (nor, of course, Fichtner's). However, Mikhailova's book follows in the solid tradition established more than a century ago by Ivan Egorovich Zabelin and elaborated today by a range of Russian and non-Russian scholars of Muscovite royal ritual, including Sergei Bogatyrev, Nancy Shields Kollmann, Daniel Rowland, Michael Flier, Priscilla Hunt, Viacheslav Shaposhnik, Isolde Thyret, and others. (4) Mikhailova's book is perhaps the first attempt at a synthetic survey of the Problematik of symbol and ritual: in many ways, it is a modern, updated, and richly expanded version of Zabelin's classic treatment. As for Eskin, his is a vast and magisterial (a word that is often overused, but here is entirely appropriate) investigation of precedence (mestnichestvo), revealing more that is genuinely new about the system than any study before it. Even so, he almost entirely ignores the symbolic and performative aspects of the system, despite the fact that this important aspect has been successfully studied by Western scholars--if again, only as a "preliminary stab. …