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

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

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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.

Affiliations: 1: chalperi@iu.edu

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/content/journals/10.1163/22102396-05101002
2017-01-01
2017-11-23

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