home Resources and Services, Special Collections and Archives Our New Acquisition: Textus sequentarium with comments by Hermann Torrentinus, 1496.

Our New Acquisition: Textus sequentarium with comments by Hermann Torrentinus, 1496.


Textus seque[n]tiaru[m] cu[m] optimo comme[n]to, was one of a few incunabula we acquired last year. Published in Cologne by Heinrich Quentell in 1496, the book is a collection of Sequences with extensive comments and explanations for students by a well known Nederlandish scholar and grammarian Hermann Torrentinus (ca.1450-1520)  

Liturgical Sequences were an integral part of the Roman Mass. The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) defines the Sequence (Sequentia, or Prose [Prosa]),-as "the liturgical hymn of the Mass which occurs before the Gospel, while the hymn (poetry), belongs to the Breviary." In other words, while hymns were part of the Mass from the earliest times, sequences originated in the ninth century as "texts written to accompany what had hitherto been a wordless musical extension of the final -a of the Alleluia at the end of the antiphon sung between the Epistle and Gospel." * Some scholars think that sequences came from the Byzantine rite; others insist that it was an independent invention of the Roman Church. **


Sequence from Graduale e Missale, St. Mark convent, Florence, XV cent.


The word "Sequentia" was first introduced in the 9th century by Notker Balbulus (ca. 840-912), monk of St. Gall (Switzerland nowadays), who put some liturgical texts into rhythmical melodic phrases. The structure of these sequences was completely new — it was none of the traditional structure of Latin sacred verse, but was "unfolding in a vigorous series of free rhetorical periods, cast in the sonorous cadences of classical Latin diction, and, in the Notker case, –in a more exuberant diction rich with assonance." ***

One of the best known sequences today is the Christmas carol Adeste Fideles, known in English as "O Come, All Ye Faithful", also the Marian sequence Stabat Mater by Jacopone da Todi.

Writing commentaries on sequences was, it would appear, a quite common literary pursuit in the twelfth or thirteenth century. It was part of the extensive commentary literature, especially widespread in the German-speaking countries. Besides Hermann Torrentinus we know the names of Jacob Wimpheling (1450-1528), Caesarius von Heisterbach (ca. 1180 – ca. 1240), and Johannes Adelphus (1445-1522). Such commentaries likely played an important didactic role in schools or universities, depending on the depths of the analysis, which ranged from a basic explanation of the meaning of a phrase to a philosophical treatise.

Our book contains detailed comments by Torrentinus, including analysis of Latin phrases and their component parts in the 51 sequences written by Notker Balbulus. These are on the feasts of the Nativity of Christ (De Nativitate D[omi]ni), St. Stephen, St. John, The Innocents (slain by Herod), the Holy Trinity, St. Nicholas, St. Elizabeth, St. Katherine, the Virgin Mary, the Ascension, the Conception of the Virgin Mary, and many others.

A short introduction states the purpose and subject of the book: "laus divina" –Divine glory, than follows an explanation of the book's structure. Torrentinus then dwells on the meaning of the first sentence of the sequence for the Nativity of Christ (Christmas), and the grammatical structure of it. His explanations of some of the words are quite curious, for example, the word "diabolus":

Grates nunc omnes reddamus domino deo

Qui sua nativitate nos liberavit de dyabolica potestate.

(Item dyabolica est nome[n] adiectivium derivatum a nomine dyabolus. A dya q[uod] est duo…)

The word "dyabolica" is the adjective, derived from the noun "dyabolus".

"Dya" means "duo"– double, and "bolos" – sting, as if {it were} a double sting which strikes our bodies and souls– says the author.

This explanation shows that the man, known as a great grammarian of his time, apparently didn't have much Greek, giving a peculiar interpretation of the original Greek word: "Diabolus (from Greek: Δια + βάλλειν), where Δια — penetration through the line from one end to the other, often the effect of weapons, division, like in "diaphragm","diameter" ,diacritic", and βάλλειν -"throw", like in ballistics, so the whole word means a "divider", "slanderer"," backbiter".

Most probably this book was intended for beginners studying Liturgy who knew Latin enough to understand instructions and explanations of the book. It has multiple marginal notes, comments by several contemporary owners, corrections, and in some cases an empty space, left for the illuminated or rubricated initial letter, is filled in pen or pencil.

Curiously enough, it doesn't have a colophon. The only date mentioned in the text could be found on the verso of page signed [3iij], Folium iiij, where the author, while speaking of the Nativity of Christ, explains the principles of dating: "Annos dat ab Adam donec Xr[istu]s homo fact[us]. Sed a nativitate[m] Xri[st]i usque ad nu[n]c scribitur anno domini. Mcccclxxxxvi", ("Dates used to be given from Adam to Christ's incarnation. But from the nativity of Christ onwards they are written as Anno Domini .1496"} which gives us 1496 as a possible date of publication.

Who was the man to whom these comments are attributed?

Torrentinus belongs to that huge crowd of late mediaeval scholars whose names are known nowadays only to a small number of enthusiastic book lovers or medievalists.

Einhardt painting from the Mediaeval manuscript

Hermann von der Beeke, known mostly under his Latinized name Torrentinus, or Torrentius (meaning "brook" or "torrent, as translated from the original word beeke ) was born around 1450 in Zwolle, Netherlands, about 80 miles north- east of Amsterdam. He received initial education in his native town in the School of the Brethren of the Common Life (Fratres Vitae Commune), a Roman Catholic religious community founded in the 14th century by Gerard Groote, and devoted to education and teaching. The brethren didn't take up irrevocable vows, in difference from a regular monastic community, but led a simple and chaste life, practicing ascetic discipline and devoting all their time to attending Divine services, reading, and labors. They lived in the common houses and had meals together.

The year 1490 finds Torrentinus in Groningen, teaching rhetoric in the Brethren of the Common Life School. After the death of his father he had to return to Zwolle to help and support his mother, where he took a position of school teacher. Torrentinus is known as an editor of Virgil's Eclogues and Georgics (1502), and as the author of a Elucidarius Poeticus (dictionary of proper names of people, places, plants, etc., encountered in history and poetry) (1498).

He revised and edited the first part of Alexander de Villa Dei's standard Latin grammar, the Doctrinale (1504), and wrote several small books for use in his school. Around 1508 his eyesight was failing and Torrentinus had to leave his position as Head of Zwolle Brethren School. He died in Zwolle in 1520.

It looks like an uneventful life. Appearances often deceive, however. In Groningen Torrentinus came under the influence of such a forceful figure as Wessel Gansfort whose anti-papal sentiments and rather unorthodox interpretations of the Bible****** were known. Some sources mutedly suggest that Torrentinus also might have entertained some peculiar ideas; however we know so little about him that it's hard to prove.

Our copy is bound in half red leather with decorated endpapers and boards, its spine is decorated with floral motif between raised bands in gilt and embossed with "c.1494". Marginal annotations in Latin are in contemporary ink. Initial spaces are not rubricated; on rear lining paper there is a bookplate of Glenmore Whitney Davis, journalist for the New York Globe (New York daily newspaper published till 1923).


References and notes:

*Messenger, Ruth, The Medieval Latin Hymn, Washington DC, 1953

Kaske, R.E., Medieval Christian Literary Imagery: a guide to interpretation, Toronto.

**In the Byzantine Church/Orthodox Church it is called Alleluaria and was established on the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. See: Дмитревский И. И. Историческое, догматическое и таинственное изъяснение Божественной Литургии, p. 234 : "Между пением Аллилуя возглашаются чтецом стихи, называемые Аллилуариями"

***Richard Crocker, The Early Medieval Sequence, U of California Press, 1977.

**** Erika Kihlman, Expositiones sequentarum. Medieval Sequence Commentaries and Prologues. Editions with Introductions. Stockholm University,2012?

***** Though Gansfort firmly stands on a Catholic ground and he never had brushes with the Inquisition, his writings were on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Catholic Encyclopedia)


John Edwin Sandys (1844-1922) A History of Classical Scholarship: From the Revival of Learning to the End of the Eighteenth Century in Italy, France, England and the Netherlands.

Contemporaries of Erasmus: a biographical register of the Renaissance and Reformation. Ed. Peter G. Bietenholz. Toronto, U of Toronto press, 1987


home Cycle of Success, Special Collections and Archives Teaching spotlight: Sean Franzel

Teaching spotlight: Sean Franzel

Sean FranzelProfessor Sean Franzel from the German and Russian Studies department is our guest for the Teaching Spotlight this month. His research interests span the culture, philosophy, and history of eighteenth- to twentieth-century Germany and include the history of education and the university; media theory; German Idealism and Romanticism; and the history of the novel. Professor Franzel is a frequent visitor to the Special Collections and Rare Books department, and we were delighted to have a chance to ask him a few questions.

SC: How did you incorporate Special Collections into your teaching?

I have used SC repeatedly for two courses I teach. In a graduate seminar on the literature of the medieval and baroque periods in Germany, I usually take the students in for two separate visits. First we look at an introductory selection of Special Collections’ excellent medieval manuscripts and representative early printed books (incunabula). We then go in a second time to examine SC’s sixteenth century emblem books. This was a very popular pedagogical genre throughout Europe at the time that placed poetry and allegorical images side-by-side. For me it is important that my students get an initial sense that what literature is and does has changed so much since antiquity. It is also very important for students to think about how books operate on visual and textual levels; emblem books are great for discussing this, because they are all about the interaction between text and image.

Students from Sean Franzel's class doing research in Special CollectionsIn my undergraduate Introduction to German Literature course, we do a section on children’s literature, and we go in to SC to look at their excellent collection of children’s books. This is fun for students because they learn to appreciate how books for children have played such a wide range of functions throughout history, from basic ABC primers for reading the Bible to very imaginative fantasy books. I ask students to look at the books and think about differences in form, function, design, audience, etc. Basically, I think that taking students to special collections is a way to awaken their curiosity as well as their critical ability to differentiate between the various functions that books and other media have had over time.


SC: What outcomes resulted from your class visits? What were the effects on your students?


Student from Sean Franzel's class doing research in Special CollectionsI think students respond really well to the visits; inspired papers and active discussions usually ensue in the class sessions following a visit. In an age when every assignment or paper can appear in uniform PDF-format on a laptop or e-reader, it is really important to hold actual books in our hands. Sometimes even just the realization that books used to be made on papyrus or animal skin is enough to change the way we think about how we process information today in the digital age. Personally I also love going into SC because I learn something new each visit. I get a lot out of trying to imagine the socio-historical contexts in which books were made and used— it is amazing how many new insights come from actually holding the books in your hands! In fact, my trips to SC have inspired me to get a more systematic introduction to book history, and I am going to take a course this summer at the UVA Rare Books School on the history of the book. I am very excited about this, and about incorporating more book history into my teaching.


SC: What advice would you give to faculty or instructors interested in using Special Collections in their courses?


There is so much interesting material in our library, chances are that it has something relevant for most courses, even if simply to shed light on the history of certain issues across the sciences and the humanities. And it is hard not to sign on to spending a class session looking at cool stuff! So even if instructors do not have a clear idea about what they want to do, they should contact the SC librarians for advice and guidance. Alla Barabtarlo and her team are all extremely helpful, knowledgeable, and eager to show students what the library has to offer!

Yule smile

Just as we have left behind the Thanksgiving festivities and a Christmas dinner is not far away, we might think of table manners. Most know which fork is used for salad, which for dessert, what glass to use for champagne and what for hot mulled wine, and our children have been instructed what is done at the table and what is not… But it is interesting to see how much in common we have with the mediaeval children who were taught how to behave at the table, or rather how not to misbehave, because learning good manners was considered “better than playing the fiddle, thought that’s no harm”.

Before meals:

Wash your face and hands

Be dressed properly

Make a low curtsy or bow to your parents and wish the food may do them good

Let your betters sit before you

Say Grace before the meal, then wait a while before eating

See others served first

Take salt with your knife

Cut your bread, keep your knife sharp


At the table:

Keep your fingers and nails clean

Wipe your mouth before drinking

Behave properly

Sit upright

Remember: silence hurts no one, and is fitted for a child at table



Pick your teeth, or spit

Don’t fill your spoon too full

Don’t smack your lips, or gnaw the bones

Don’t scratch yourself at the table

Don’t clean your mouth or nose with the tablecloth

Don’t put your elbows on the table

Don’t belch as if you had a bean in your throat

Don’t jabber or stuff yourself

Don’t speak with your mouth full

Don’t laugh too much

After the meal don’t leave your seat before others


Adapted from:

The Lytylle Childrenes Lytil Boke, or Edyllys Be; from The Schoole of Vertue, and Booke of Good Nourture for Children by F. Seager; from The Young Children’s Book, printed  from the Ashmolean MS 61 (Bodleian Library) about 1500 AD, and from The Boke of Curtasye, from Sloane MS (The British Museum), about 1460 AD.

Image from Richard Pynson’s 1526 edition of The Canterbury Tales.

home Resources and Services, Special Collections and Archives “Simple in vocabulary while majestic in effect”: 400th anniversary of the King James Translation of the Bible

“Simple in vocabulary while majestic in effect”: 400th anniversary of the King James Translation of the Bible

The most published book in the world celebrates its 400th anniversary.

King James Bible 1611. Title page

Soon after March 24th 1603, when James VI, King of Scots, inherited the English crown, a crowd of Puritans approached him with their petition. They requested that all traces of Catholicism were removed from the Church of England service. Upon thorough consideration of their request the King rejected the whole document and even threatened to “harry the Puritans out of the land, or else do worse”.

But he surprisingly agreed to commission a new translation of the English Bible — a last-minute added wish by one of the Puritans, known as Dr. John Rainolds, President of Corpus Christi College in Oxford. The 47 translators were selected based exclusively on their scholarly reputation without regard of religious convictions, thus about a quarter of them were Puritans.

Though it is officially called the Authorized Version, King James never technically authorized this new translation of the Bible into English. It is possible to assume that this version which is now firmly connected with the King’s name was called “authorized” in opposition to the two preceding attempts made by the early dissidents – Wycliffe and ill-fated Tyndale. This translation meant to play an important role in uniting all Protestant Englishmen despite their religious differences, the endeavor started by Elizabeth I with The Act of Uniformity in 1559.

Dedication to the King
Dedication to the King


As Leland Ryken puts it: “The King James style is a paradox: it is usually simple in vocabulary while majestic and elevating in effect. However imitated or parodied, the language is dignified, beautiful, sonorous and elegant.” *

These words capture well the impression King James Bible makes on all who love the English language.

Perhaps nothing influenced the English and eventually American literature and literary language more than KJB. Edmund Wilson thought that “other cultures have felt its impact, and none — in the West, at least – seems quite to accommodate to it. Yet we find we have been living with it all our lives”**

Small wonder: first [pilgrim] settlers in America were people of the Bible, and many early American towns carry Biblical names, such as Salem, Mass, 1626; Bethel, Conn, 1700; Shiloh, NJ, 1705; Ephrata, Penn, 1732; Nazareth, Penn., 1740;  Emmaus, Penn.,1740; Bethlehem, NH, 1774, etc. Seven towns named Galilee, fifteen named Trinity, fourteen – St. Joseph, including one in Missouri; as well as St. Mary, MO — one of the nineteen American towns with this name.

Everyday idiomatic usage is replete with hidden or obvious direct quotations from the KJB. Here are a few common examples:

At his wit’s end – Psalms, 107:27

God save the king – The First Book of Samuel, 10:24

My brother’s keeper – Genesis, 4:9

The land of the living – Job, 28:13

The root of the matter– Job 19:28

Fell flat on his face — Numbers 22:31

The salt of the earth– Matthew 5:13

Labor of love — Thessalonians 1:2, 1:3:

A two-edged sword—Proverbs 5:4

White as snow — Daniel 7:9:

A drop in the bucket — Isaiah 40:15

A wolf in sheep’s clothing — Matthew 7:15

Woe is me – Job 10:15

Beat swords into ploughshares — Isaiah II

In the twinkling of an eye1 Corinthians 15:52

Sign of the times — Matthew 16:3

The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak Matthew 26:41

You reap what you sow — Galatians VI

Physician heal thyself — Luke 4:23

Man does not live by bread alone — Deuteronomy 8:3

A broken heart — Psalms 34:18

It’s better to give than to receive — Acts 20:35

Good Samaritan — Luke 10:30/33

Feet of clay — Daniel 2: 31-33

Don’t cast your pearls before swine — Matthew 7:6,

A voice crying in the wilderness– John 1:23

Awake and sing– – Isaiah 16:19

We also encounter these quotations in our everyday lives, as I did while at the ALA conference in Philadelphia last year where I took this picture.

Philadelphia Liberty Bell

“Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10) – The Liberty Bell in the Liberty Bell Center, Philadelphia.


*Leland Ryken. How We Got the Best-Selling Book of All Time. WSJ, August 27, 2011

**Robert Alter. Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible. Princeton U Press, 2010.

John Bartlett. Familiar Quotations: A Collection of passages, Phrases and Proverbs Traced to Their Sources in Ancient and Modern Literature. Boston, 1855.

Highway 70 from Columbia, MO to St. Louis.


home Resources and Services, Special Collections and Archives Jenson in Venice, or Contra Gentiles beati Thome de Aquino

Jenson in Venice, or Contra Gentiles beati Thome de Aquino

This post highlights Summa Contra Gentiles by St. Thomas Aquinas published in Venice in 1480 by Nicolas Jenson, one of the most renowned printers.  The book is of special importance to all with an interest in theology, history of book printing, and rare books.  This is one of the four incunabula recently acquired by the Special Collections and Rare Book department.

Shows fifteenth century leather tooled binding with copper clasps

On the warm and humid Venetian day of June 13th, 1480 the book was finally finished. Nicolas Jenson had only two months to live: he wasn’t well and felt old, tired and lonely. His children were in France: daughters Joanna, Catherine, and Barbara were young and unmarried, still living in Sommevoir with his beloved brother Alberto and his mother donna Zaneta; his son Nicolas, whose behavior worried him a lot, was in Lyon. A “most honorable tradesman, alien and printer of books”, Messer (as stated in his official will and testament), Nicolas Jenson, a very rich man, felt with some sadness that this strange place was going to be his final destination. A Frenchman, he had come here twelve years prior, when Venice was already in a long and exhausting war with the Turks, and when two years earlier the Doge Giovanni Mocenigo had made peace with Mehmed II, the famine and plague were still ravaging La Serenissima (the name of the Republic of Venice). Messer Jenson was a very successful printer; even his rivals admitted that the elegance of his Venetian Gothic type was unmatched — after all, he published a good quarter of all the books printed in Venice from his arrival in 1468 to 1480* , and Pope Sixtus IV made him Count Palatine.

Contra Gentiles was his second book published this year. By the end of July the last part of De humilitate interiori et patientia vera by Johannes Carthusiensis was to become his last printing venture. After his death his printing partner John of Cologne published a few more titles from the stock left after Jenson’s repose, under the joint name of Johannis de Colonia, Nicolai Jenson, and Sociorumque.

Nicolas Jenson was a master, not a scholar like Aldus, Merula, or Caracciolo, and thus he was in need of assistance by monks in proofreading the works of philosophy and especially theology. Petrus Albus Cantianus, a Dominican friar, was the editor of Contra Gentiles: at the very end of the text, after the colophon, we find his letter to Petrus Frigerius, Archbishop of Corfu (“Veneto theologico Excellentissimo Archiepiscopo Corkire[n]si ordinis”) confirming that he checked and corrected the text.

Why did Jenson decide to publish Contra Gentiles in 1480, when the market was still saturated with the books by Aquinas? Only four years earlier Contra Gentiles was brought out in Venice by Francis Renner of Heilbronn and Nicolas of Frankfurt, and before that, in September of 1475, in Rome, by Arnold Pannartz, and before him in 1473-74 Georg Reyser printed it in Strasburg. And this is not counting numerous editions of his most widely known and enormously influential Summa Theologiae.

St. Thomas Aquinas‘s authority in the Roman Church was indisputable: his works were the basis of Thomist theology and philosophy. It is widely believed that Aquinas wrote Contra Gentiles in Italy between 1261 and 1264 at the request of St. Raymond of Penafort, Magister General of the Dominican order, who wanted to have a good and convincing resource for the missionaries in Tunisia and Murcia, a Moorish kingdom in southern Spain.  While written most probably in Rome, it is supposed to be based on his lectures he read at the University of Paris between 1257 and 1259.  Aquinas’ intention was to give his students clear and focused answers to the most important questions about God, creation, providence and salvation. Each of the four books that constitute this work consists of about a hundred chapters (102, 101, 164, 97, to be precise). Each chapter is a question/postulate (Quod veritati fidei Christianae non contrariatur veritas rationis <That the truth of reason is not in opposition of the Christian faith>) which is then proved in a series of arguments and counter arguments, supported by citations from the Scriptures, and led to a logical conclusion.

medieval handwritten title on a blank page Thomas contra gentilesOur book looks characteristically mediaeval: in contemporary brown tooled leather binding over wooden boards with the front half of embossed metal clasps still present. The title is written in a contemporary hand on the fore-edge and at the top of the blank recto of the first printed page: Tho[mae] [contra] gentiles. The watermarks {a crown without arch between two chain-lines} suggest that Jenson bought the paper from Genf (Genève), and the binder of the book had a paper stock {watermark: Virgin Mary in a shield} produced in Dorpat (modern Tallinn) or Riga in Livonia in the 15th century.

The beginning of "inserted" chapter 21

Jenson’s division of chapters differs from some of the known printed editions. He thought, for instance, that chapter 20 (Quod Deus non est corpus) was too long and he divided it after the 11th argument thus making an additional chapter 21, “Obiectiones co[n]tra hu[n]c processum”. (Objections against this reasoning). On the other hand, his Book Three consists only of 163 chapters instead of 164 in several other editions. The very first line of Chapter 20 also differs from the majority of modern texts and coincides with the Roman edition of 1894 that reads: “Ex praedictis a[u]t[em] oste[n]ditur,[ quod] Deus non e[st] corp[us]”; in later editions it reads: “Ex praemissis etiam” etc. St. Thomas’ hand was notoriously difficult to read, and it is not my task here to determine what manuscript was used by Jenson for his publication, but it is interesting to observe that even after seven hundred years of studying the text even at the beginning of the twentieth century, some passages were still being disputed, and monks who spent their entire lives reading, editing and publishing it, complained about difficulties in decoding it.

Picture of the beginning of the book with large initialThe text is rubricated with red and blue capitals.  A large and very elaborate first capital “v” in “Veritatem” opens the book, and each objection and counter argument is marked with red paragraph mark up to Book Four, chapter 11; after that, hand written capital letters at the beginning of chapters continue, but paragraph marks are much rarer and frequently coincide with short contemporary notes in the text, as if a reader was rubricating while reading.

More than just another remarkable example of an incunabulum printed by one of the greatest printers of Venice, our book carries a fitting St. Thomas’ message not only to Jenson and his contemporaries, but to the posterity — and thus to us — as well, namely that “of all human pursuits, the pursuit of wisdom is the more perfect, the more sublime, the more useful, and the more joyful.” (Book 1, Ch. 2)

*There were 596 books brought out in Venice in that period, of which number 150 were published by Jenson.


  • Thomas Aquinas, Saint, 1225?-1274. Incipit tabula cap[itu]lo[rum] libri [contra] ge[n]tiles b[ea]ti Thome de Aquino. [Venice : Nicolas Jenson, 1480]   BX1749 .T38 1480
  • Thomas Aquinas, Saint, 1225?-1274. Summa contra gentiles : libri quatuor Thomae Aquinatis, ad lectionem codicis autographi in Bibliotheca Vaticana adservati, probatissimorum codicum meliorisque notae editionum, fideliter impressi ; volumen unicum. Romae : Ex typographia Forzanii et Socii, 1894. BX1749.T38 1894
  • Corpus Thomisticum Sancti Thomae de Aquino. http:/www.corpusthomisticum.org
  • Jenson, Nicolas, ca. 1420-1480. The last will and testament of the late Nicolas Jenson, printer, who departed this life at the city of Venice in the month of September, A.D. 1480. [Chicago, Ludlow Typograph Co., 1928] Z232.J54 L3 1928
home Resources and Services, Special Collections and Archives Catherine the Great’s Promotion Charter

Catherine the Great’s Promotion Charter

I. The Charter

Preserved in the Rare Book Collections is a very curious document — a beautiful two-hundred-and twenty year-old charter endorsed by the Russian Empress Catherine the Great that promotes Aleksandr Mukhanov, a young Russian nobleman, from regimental baggage-train driver to Lieutenant-Captain (Secund-Rotmistr) in the Horse-Mounted Guards.

image of Catherine's charter

Provenance of this document is unknown.  On the verso there is an inscription: “При запечатанiи въ коллегiи иностранныхъ д ѣлъ но. 424” (When as applying a seal at the Office of Foreign Affairs. No.424

This unique document–likely acquired “somewhere in the 1920s” within a large and important collection of books and documents purchased for the University Library–is printed on parchment with a hand-painted border of cobalt-blue. There is a monogram of Catherine the Great at the center of the top border, surrounded by double-headed crowned birds, banners, fire arms and cold steel, armor, and bows and quivers.

view of a military camp and a vagon driven by horses

In each corner there is a helmet with a plume decorated with oriental ornaments and an allegorical figure of Minerva on the left hand side and one of Mars on the right. At the bottom of the border, in a medallion, one can see a military camp and transport with two pairs of horses, surrounded by banners, cannons, cartridge pouches and drums.

The text itself starts with a six-line ornamental initial. The document carries traces of the Russian Imperial wax seal.

Literal Translation of the Charter:

By the Grace of God, We, Catherine the Second, Empress and Autocratrix of All the Russians, &c, &c, &c.

Let it be known and recognized by all that as of the first day of the month of January, in the year of Our Lord one thousand-seven hundred-and-ninetieth, We have Most Graciously bestowed and conferred upon Aleksandr Mukhanov who had served Us as regiment baggage-train driver in the Horse-Mounted regiment of Our Guards, and in acknowledgement of the zeal and diligence with which he disposed of his duty in Our service, — the rank of Lieutenant-Captain in the self-same regiment; and whereas We bestow and confer this upon him, commanding all Our men to pay the said Mukhanov the honors and respect befitting the rank of Our Lieutenant-Captain in the Guards, are accordingly trustful that in this rank, most Graciously granted him by Us, he will deport himself in a manner that behooves a loyal Officer of the Guards. In testimony thereof We have signed this with Our own Hand and commanded that it be confirmed by Our State Seal.

Given in Saint Petersburg, in the year 1790, {on the 24th Day of December}

Signed    Catherine and Saltykov's signatures


On the lower line there is a signature, by a different hand: Lieutenant-Colonel {Saltykov} of the Guards Horse Mounted Regiment.

Almost everything in this document raises questions: Who was Mukhanov, and why was he so abruptly promoted from the lowest ranks to a position of high prestige? If the promotion was effective as of January 1st 1790, why was the order signed almost a year later, on Christmas Eve of 1790? What happened to Mukhanov later? How did the original document find its way to mid-Missouri? These are among the many baffling questions to which we may never have a definite answer, but a bit of detective work can cast some light upon the mysteries of the past.

II. Our hero – Mukhanov

Aleksandr Il’ich Mukhanov was born on January 8, 1766 into a noble family. He had six brothers and one sister. His father, Il’ia Mukhanov, was a Colonel in the Horse-Mounted Regiment, from which he retired in 1764, and he was personally known to the Empress. On the day of her ascension to the throne in a coup — July 28th 1762 — Il’ia Mukhanov was among the officers in her convoy on the way to St. Petersburg.

When the future Empress felt cold, Il’ia Mukhanov gave her his officer’s overcoat.  She always remembered this gesture with gratitude.

According to the memoirs of Aleksandr Mukhanov’s niece, five older brothers were educated at home, and the youngest one, Michael, at the Military School. All of them served at the same Life-Guards regiment. And as a contemporary anecdote has it, some pupils of the convent school for young noble ladies thought that all Life-Guards were named Mukhanov. Honesty, piety and brotherly love for each other and to the family, according to Mukhanov’s niece, were their most characteristic virtues.

Aleksandr Mukhanov joined the regiment in 1775, at the age of 9. It was customary in 18th century Russia to enlist a boy of noble birth in a regiment as a soldier, so that when he came of age he would be ready to receive his first officer’s commission and to begin his real service in a regiment as an officer.

If we look at the list of his promotions, we can see that he was first promoted in 1784, when he was 18 to a cornet.  He was promoted again in 1792 to a captain (rotmistr), and on November 15, 1796, only nine days after Catherine’s death, he became colonel and was decorated with the Order of St. Anne.

After Catherine’s son Paul ascended to the throne, Mukhanov’s career took a sharp upswing.  In March of 1798, two month after his first son Paul was born, Mukhanov retired from the Guards and was given a civil rank of State Councilor (slightly higher than colonel), became a Knight Commander of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, and on September 5th, was appointed Vice Governor of the city of Novgorod. He was advanced to an Actual State Councilor (corresponds to a Major General) and then appointed Governor of Kazan, the capital of an important province, on April 4, 1799. After Emperor Paul’s assassination in 1801, Aleksandr Mukhanov was relieved of his governorship and brought before the Senate for trial on charges of cruelties committed while governor of Kazan. He was 35 years old then.

But it was not the end of his career. On May 6, 1805, he was sent to the south of Russia to be a civil governor of Poltava, and in the following year he became a civil governor of Riazan. Later he returned to St. Petersburg, and received a rank of Stalmeister at the Imperial Court (Master of the Horse), which, according to the Russian Table of Ranks, corresponded to the rank of Lieutenant General. He spent the last years of his life in Moscow, where he died, and was buried in the cemetery of Novodevichii Convent on 22, October 1815.

III. Christmas Gift

It can only be conjectured that at the end of 1789 Mukhanov was ready for the promotion to the rank of second-lieutenant, when something happened that impeded his rising through the ranks of the regiment.

V. Ericksen. Equestrian portrait of Catherine the Great, 1762.

These and other considerations lead to the supposition that the whole matter of the demotion and promotion of Aleksandr Mukhanov could be to a certain extent a domestic affair for Catherine, who could be moralistic but was more-or-less good-natured.

In case of Aleksandr Mukhanov it looks as if he was punished by a firm but benevolent, almost motherly hand, and when he showed (perhaps?) genuine regret, or maybe demonstrated extraordinary courage on the battlefield, he was generously rewarded: promoted not to the next higher rank, but over two ranks, and evidently receiving the yearly salary of a Lieutenant-Captain in back pay to boot!  Above all it was a nice Christmas gift.

Selected bibliography:

  • Iz zapisok M.S. Mukhanovoi. Russkii Arkhiv, 1878, kn. 1
  • Rodoslovnaia  Mukhanovykh, Russkii Arkhiv, 1878, kn.1
  • Zapiski N.A. Sablukova o vremenakh Imperatora Pavla, i konchine etogo gosudaria. 1911.