- Orbis russiarum: Genèse et développement de la représentation du monde "russe" en Occident à la Renaissance
With the multitude of studies treating the otherness for early modern Europe of exotic places such as the Americas and the East, it is easy to forget the mysterious alterity of closer regions. Michèle Longino's recent analysis of the Ottoman Empire in the French imagination, Orientalism in French Classical Drama (2002) is an example of a study that attempts to fill this gap. Stéphane Mund takes us on just such a journey to the near-unknown in his study of Russia in the western Renaissance imagination, Orbis Russiarum: Genèse et développement de la [End Page 646] représentation du monde "russe" en Occident à la Renaissance. In his thorough and important inquiry, the author asks whether this empire on the confines of Europe was seen by fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Westerners as familiar, or conversely, whether the idea of Russia was "contaminated" for Western Europeans by its proximity to the wholly-other central-Asian populations. Mund places the study in the general modern examination of the "Great Discoveries" and their effects on the European imagination.
The work is a primarily a study of narrative accounts of travels to the world Mund delimits in the introduction, that is to say "l'ensemble des Slaves de rite grec" (17). His focus is on travel literature, treatises, chronicles, pamphlets, and poetry. The study's novelty, according to Mund, is in its comprehensive look at sources and studies heretofore dedicated to limited domains. From here, he adds that previous studies have focused on the historical truth of the Slavic world through these texts. What interests Mund is not the observed reality, but the point of view and impact of the Slavic world on the observer.
The book is divided into two major sections. The first, "Les sources primaires du savoir," includes a thorough introductory section which, especially in the segment entitled "Aperçu des relations entre la Mosvocie et l'Occident," will render the book accessible to non-specialists. The four chapters of this section discuss the primary writings of western Renaissance contact with the Russian world. Chapter 1 treats "Les récits de voyage." Chapter 2 discusses "Les traités de chorographie," or "descriptions systématiques de pays ou de régions particulières du monde" (171). Chapter 3 treats "Les chroniques, les pamphlets et les poèmes panégyriques." The second major division of the book considers "La diffusion des connaissances" stemming from the texts studied in the first section. The two chapters here discuss "Publications et traductions des textes premiers sur la Moscovie et la Ruthénie," and "Les emprunts." Added to the body of the text are four copious and quite helpful annexes.
Mund is an excellent collector and presenter of sources. Thus, each section discusses the context, history, and general knowledge necessary to an understanding of the works presented. The chapter concerning travel narratives is an example. Before discussing the texts, Mund introduces the reader to the preparations, itineraries, propitious seasons, difficulties, and favorite destinations found in these types of writings. Thus, when one reads of the voyagers being received by the czar, our knowledge of the difficulties involved in arriving there amplifies our understanding of the wonder travelers felt at the pomp, power, and ceremony of the Russian court. One has as well from this description a clear sense of both the familiar and strange nature for the European of the Slavic world at the time. Mund is quite skillful at presenting this paradoxical vision of the region; it is both known and unknown.
The aforementioned virtue of the detail and precision of Mund's introduction and presentation of sources is, curiously, also this reader's least favorite aspect of the work. Although much of this information is helpful and renders the book a clear and absorbing...