Some recent historians dissent from the widespread opinion that Muscovite society during the reign of Ivan IV was overwhelmingly illiterate. This article adduces three types of evidence that more optimistic assessments of the extent of literacy are nearer the truth. Analysis of the use of the terms “to know letters” and “to affix one’s hand” and explanations of why principals or witnesses to a legal transaction did not “affix their hands” demonstrate conclusively that they meant to be literate and write their signature on a document. Therefore, signatures prove practical literacy. Documents written by a non-scribe principal demonstrate an even higher level of literacy. The absence of documents handwritten by boyars reflects not boyar illiteracy, but boyar snobbism, facilitated in part by use of personal slave/servant “writers” to handwrite their charters. Literacy in Ivan’s Muscovy was more widespread among the elite than pessimistic assessments allow.
Andrei Pavlov and Maureen PerrieIvan the Terrible (London: Pearson, Longman2003) 7; Daniel Rowland “Blessed Is the Host of the Heavenly Tsar: An Icon from the Dormition Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin” in Picturing Russia. Explorations in Visual Culture ed. Valerie A. Kivelson and Joan Neuberger (New Haven CT: Yale University Press 2008) 33; Nancy Shields Kollmann Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Russia (Cambridge Eng.: Cambridge University Press 2012) 27 49.
R.G. SkrynnikovTsarstvo terrora (St. Petersburg: Nauka, Sankt-Peterburgskoe otdelenie1992) 439. See also idem Reign of Terror ed. John W. Emerich tr. Paul Williams (Leiden: Brill and Bronze Horseman 2015). Ivan created the oprichnina his state-within-a-state and instrument of mass terror in 1564 and abolished it in 1572.
Anthony GoodmanThe New Monarchy. England 1471–1534 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd1988) 39 43; Kristen B. Neuschel Word of Honor. Interpreting Noble Culture in Sixteenth-Century France (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press 1989) 108–109.