Three “Hands” and Literacy in Muscovy during the Reign of Ivan IV

“I Affix My Hand,” “By My Own Hand,” and “My Man’s Hand”

in Canadian-American Slavic Studies
Restricted Access
Get Access to Full Text
Rent on DeepDyve

Have an Access Token?

Enter your access token to activate and access content online.

Please login and go to your personal user account to enter your access token.


Have Institutional Access?

Access content through your institution. Any other coaching guidance?


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.

Three “Hands” and Literacy in Muscovy during the Reign of Ivan IV

“I Affix My Hand,” “By My Own Hand,” and “My Man’s Hand”

in Canadian-American Slavic Studies




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.


David B. MillerSaint Sergius of Radonezh His Trinity Monastery and the Formation of the Russian Identity (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press2010) 239–243.


R.A. HoustonLiteracy in Early Modern Europe. Culture and Education 1500–1800 (London: Longman1988) 3 120–129.


Gary Marker“Literacy and Literacy Texts in Muscovy: A Reconsideration,” Slavic Review 49 no. 1 (Spring 1990): 78.


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.


Ibid.253–254 (no. 250); 416–418 (no. 373).


S.N. Kisterov“Akty moskovskogo Chudova monastyria 1507–1606,” Russkii diplomatarii 9 (2003): 166–167 (no. 60).


MillerSaint Sergius of Radonezh241.


HoustonLiteracy in Early Modern Europe4.


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.

Index Card

Content Metrics

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 20 20 17
Full Text Views 7 7 7
PDF Downloads 0 0 0
EPUB Downloads 0 0 0