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A Brief History of Moscovia

Collection Description

John Milton’s Brief History of Moscovia, and Other Less-Known Countries Lying Eastward of Russia as far as Cathay. Gathered from the Writings of Several Eye-Witnesses (1682) is one of several shorter prose works published late in Milton’s life or shortly after his death. By comparison with his better-known prose works from the 1640s and 1650s, published during the turmoil of the English civil wars and its political aftermath, the Brief History is more informational than controversial, surveying the geography, customs, and recent history of a country that was both mysterious and fascinating to Milton’s contemporaries. Milton tells the heroic story of the first English expeditions to make contact with the Russian imperial court, and his narrative makes clear both the perilous journey and alien culture that contemporary Englishmen faced in traveling to Muscovy.

It is not known exactly when Milton wrote the Brief History, though it was certainly written long before it was published. The original publisher, Brabazon Aylmer, stated that the “book was writ by the authour’s own hand, before he lost his sight,” that is, before 1652. Scholars have argued for a variety of dates—1625-26, the late 1630's, 1642-44, and 1649-50. In Milton's preface, probably written in the 1670's, he recalled that it had been written in “vacant time,” before “other occasions diverted me.” Here he also cites Paulus Jovius's work on Muscovy and Britain. Argument for dating composition to the early 1640's is based on the period of Milton's early tutoring (which engaged him in historical study), his reading of Purchas and Jovius in those years (as evidenced by his notes in his Commonplace Book), and the work’s orthography. Lack of reference in the text to changes in Russo-British trade relations in 1646 would seem to confirm this dating. Argument for dating composition later, in 1649-50, connects the work with a diplomatic initiative toward Russia by the Commonwealth government.

As Milton's subtitle, marginal notes, and concluding source-list all make clear, he did not pretend to be original; his purpose was to synthesize earlier published accounts, producing a balanced picture undistorted by the particular biases or experiences of the adventurers from whom he drew. From time to time, his own perspective and preoccupations affect the picture he presents, as for instance in passages on the arbitrariness of imperial power, the subjugation of Russian women, and the relative freedom from religious persecution. Modern commentators have also noted the possible impact on Milton’s imagination of the sources he was synthesizing, in their depiction of arbitrary tyrants, perilous sea-voyages, and vast hostile landscapes, and link such depictions to passages in his great epic Paradise Lost (1667).

In the forty years before the book reached print, much had changed, not only in English politics, but also in Russo-British relations. Milton’s account looked back to the heroic years of the first English contacts with Muscovy, by Richard Chancellor and Sir Hugh Willoughby. Their voyages led to the chartering in London in 1555 of the Muscovy Company, with a trade monopoly between the two countries that lasted till 1698. Milton’s account takes Russian history only up to 1612. However, English merchants were expelled from Muscovy in 1646, the Tsar condemned the execution of King Charles I in 1649, and trade relations were not resumed till after the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660. In the previous decades, the Dutch had been predominant in trade with Muscovy. From the 1660s onwards, Britain became predominant, in part because it could draw on the natural resources of its North American settlements, reducing the earlier reliance on bullion in the Russian trade. The hiatus in trade during the Commonwealth years, and Milton’s subsequent identification with the Commonwealth after its collapse, may both have been factors in the long delay before a publisher took on his book, just as the later growth of trade may have influenced him in resurrecting the manuscript, and adding a preface, in his later years.

The facsimile has been scanned from the original 1682 edition in the Department of Rare Books & Special Collections at the University of South Carolina. One of the department’s major collections is the Robert J. Wickenheiser Collection of John Milton, acquired in 2006 with the leading support of William L. Richter and the William L. Richter Family Foundation. Information on individual items in the Wickenheiser Collection is available in the library’s on-line catalogue, and comprehensive item-descriptions and a fuller over-view of the Collection can be found in Dr. Wickenheiser’s illustrated catalogue (University of South Carolina Press, 2008).

The facsimile is an exact page-for-page reproduction of the first edition. The 1682 edition did not include a map or other frontispiece;linked here (and added as frontispiece to the print-on-demand version) is an early seventeenth-century map of Moscovy by Hondius, taken from one of Milton’s acknowledged sources, Purchas his Pilgrimes (1625).

While Milton’s Brief History has been republished in scholarly and limited editions, this facsimile makes Milton’s book available in its original format, both in freely-accessible digital form, through the library’s Digital Collections site, and also as a print-on-demand book, in partnership with the University of South Carolina Press.

P. G. S.