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Chapter 1

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

in Foreign Comments
and Descriptions

by Volodymyr Sichynsky

published by
Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, Inc.
New York,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 3

 p39  Chapter Two

Western European Travellers
from the XIIIth to the XVIth Centuries

The golden age of Kiev came to an abrupt end with the invasions of the Mongols and Tartars in the thirteenth century. The devastation of the country and the constant danger from the Asiatic tribesmen compelled the majority of the travellers to avoid Ukraine and it was not until the fall of the Principality of Halych and the entrance of Ukraine into the Lithuanian and then into the Polish state that travellers began again to pass through the country. Even then they clearly distinguished Rus‑Ukraine and Moscow and avoided the second even more completely.

Giovanni de Plano Carpini, a papal legate to Mongolia and Tartary, in his work, Liber Tartarorum, writes that while travelling in 1246 through Bohemia, he was advised by King Vaclav I to go into Tartary through Poland and Russia, meaning Rus. In Chapter 19, Plano Carpini writes:

"The like fauour he shewed vs also, till wee came vnto Conradus duke of Lautiscia, vnto whome then (by Gods especiall fauour towards vs) lord Wasilico (Wasilco) duke of Ruthenia Galicia, i.e. Western Ukraine) was come, from whose mouth we heard more at large concerning the deedes of the Tartars: for he had sent ambassadours thither, who were returned backe vnto him. Wherefore, it being giuen vs to vnderstand, that we must bestow giftes vpon them, we caused certaine skinnes of beuers and other beastes to be bought with part of that money, which was giuen vpon almes to succour vs by the way. Which thing duke Conradus and the duches of Cracow, and a bishop, and certaine souldiers being aduertised of, gaue vs likewise more of the same skins. And to be short, duke Wasilico being earnestly requested by the duke of Cracow, and by the bishop and barons, on our  p40 behalfe, conducted vs with him, vnto his owne land, and there for certaine daies, enterteined vs at his owne charges, to the ende that we might refresh our selues a while. And when, being requested by vs, he had caused his bishops to resort vnto him, we reade before them the Popes letters, admonishing them to returne vnto the vnitie of the Church. To the same purpose also, we our selues admonished them, and to our abilitie, induced as well the duke as the bishops and others thereunto. Howbeit because Duke Daniel (Danylo) the brother of Wasilico aforesaid (hauing as then taken his iourney vnto Baty) was absent, they could not at that time, make a finall answere. After these things duke Wasilico sent vs forward with one of his seruants as farre as Kiow the chiefe citie of Ruthenia. (The original Latin Ruthenia was changed by Hakluyt to Russia.) Howbeit we went alwayes in danger of our liues by reason of the Lituanians, who did often inuade the borders of Ruthenia, euen in those verie places by which we were to passe. But in regard of the foresayd seruant, wee were out of the Ruthenians daunger, the greatest part of whome were either slaine, or caried into captiuitie by the Tartars. Moreouer, at Danilon wee were feeble euen vnto the death. (Notwithstanding wee caused our selues to bee carried in a waggon through the snowe and extreme colde) And being come vnto Kiow, wee consulted with the Millenary and other noble men there concerning our iourney. They told vs, that if wee carried those horses, which wee then had, vnto the Tartars, great store of snowe lying vpon the ground, they would all dye: because they knew not hove to digge vp the grass vnder the snow, as the Tartarian horses doe, neither could there bee ought found for them to eate, the Tartars hauing neither hay nor strawe, nor any other fodder. We determined therefore to leaue them behind at Kiow with two seruants appointed to keepe them. And wee were constrayned to bestow giftes vpon the Millenary, that we might obtaine his fauour to allowe vs poste horses and a guide. Wherefore beginning our iourney the second daye after the feast of the Purification, wee arrived at the towne of Canow, which was immediatly vnder the dominion of the Tartars. The gouernour whereof allowed vs horses and a  p41 guide vnto another towne, wherein wee found one Michaeas to be gouernour, a man full of all malice and despight. Who notwithstanding, hauing receiued giftes at our handes, according to his maner conducted vs to the first guarde of the Tartars."

(C. Raymond Beazley, Texts and Versions of John de Plano Carpini and William de Rubruquis as printed for the first time by Hakluyt in 1598, London, 1903 p127 f.)º

Upon his return from Tartary, Plano Carpini was again in Kiev on June 14, 1246:

"Moreouer, the Citizens of Kiow hauing intelligence of our approch, came foorth all of them to meete vs, with great ioy. For they reioyced ouer vs, as ouer men that had bene risen from death to life. So likewise they did vnto vs throughout all Ruthenia, Polonia, and Bohemia. Daniel and his brother Wasilico made vs a royall feast, and interteined vs with them against our willes for the space of eight dayes. In the meane time, they with their Bishops, and other men of account, being in consultation together about those matters which we had propounded vnto them in our iourney towards the Tartars, answered vs with common consent, saying: that they would holde the Pope for their speciall Lord and Father, and the Church of Rome for their Lady and mistresse, confirming likewise all things which they had sent concerning this matter, before our comming, by their Abbate. And for the same purpose, they sent their Ambassadours and let∣ters by vs also, vnto our Lord the Pope."


William Rubruquis of Braband, an envoy of King Louis IX of France to the Tartar Horde, travelled in 1252 from Constantinople to the Crimea, Perekop and the northern shore of the Sea of Azov. He reported that in the Crimea, between Sudak and Khersones, there were then at least 40 fortified cities, and in each of them the people spoke a different language. Passing through Perekop, the traveller observed that north of that city, that is, in the Steppe Ukraine, lived the people known as Kumans. Under constant assault by the Tartars, a great part of these people (former Pechenegs) had died from hunger and pestilence.

At the end of July, 1252, Rubruquis reached the Thanais River (Don), and made the following observation:

 p42  "But Isidore calleth all that tract of land stretching from the riuer of Thanais to the lake of Maeotis (Sea of Azov), and so along as farre as Danubius, the countrey of Alania​a . . . They preferre the Saracens before the Ruthenians (Praeponunt enim Rutenis), because they are Christians."


He remarked that the Don River seemed to him as being as wide "as the riuer Sein is at Paris." "On the left bank of the river there was a forest, while on the right bank lived the Ruthenians."

"At the same place where wee arriued, Batu and Sartach did cause a certaine cottage to be built, vpon the Easterne banke of the river, for a companie of Ruthenians, to dwell in to the Ende they might transport Ambassadours and merchants in ferrie-boates ouer that part of the river . . . The Ruthenian women (Mulieres Rutenae) attire their heads like vnto our women . . . The Ruthenian men weare caps like vnto the Dutch men."

(p206 ff.).

Another Frenchman, Guillebert de Lannoy, as a Minister of France, Burgundy, and England, in his memoirs, Voyages et Ambassades (Voyages et Ambassades, Mons, 1840) described his experienced during travels which he made in 1421 through Western Ukraine (Galicia), Volhynia, Bessarabia, Little Tartary (the Steppe Ukraine) and the Crimea. From Poland de Lannoy went to the city of "Sadowen in Rus" (Sudova Vyshnia) and thence to the city of "Lombourp in Rus" (Lemberg, Lviv).

"There," he wrote, "the lords and dwellers of that city gave me a splendid dinner and a piece of silk." (p35.)

De Lannoy remarked that the same hospitality was accorded him in other Ukrainian towns, such as Belz, Lutsk, Kremyanets and Kamenets in Podolia. He mentioned that the Lithuanian Grand Prince Witholt (Vytautas) also received him hospitably, and gave him two letters of introduction, "written in the Tartar, Ruthenian and Latin languages," and 16 bodyguards of "Ruthenians and Wallachians."

"At the court of Witholt a duke and duchess of Russie (Rus) with their friends gave me a splendid dinner and a pair of  p43 hand-knit gloves, while his knights bestowed other gifts upon me, such as hats, gloves, marten furs and Tartar knives." (p37).

After travelling through Upper Podolia, de Lannoy came to the city of Kamenets, "a beauti­ful city, where I found the Captain of Podolia, Ghedigold, who received me with honors and presented me with beauti­ful gifts and provisions, and dined me sumptuously. (p38.)

At the same time de Lannoy writes about an early sojourn in Novgorod and Pskov, where he found the dinners "the most odd and unusual that I ever saw in my life." The French diplomat was not a little surprised that in Muscovy women were sold on markets in the fashion of cattle, although the people "could not mint money, but used a piece of silver and various furs as an exchange medium." (p20.)

We have more information and material from the XVth and XVIth centuries, due to the fact that many foreign travellers, particularly Italians, travelled throughout Ukraine. The Italians were especially attracted by the Ukrainian shores of the Black Sea, where they, particularly the Genoese and the Venetians, had founded many flourishing trading settlements. As a rule the Italian travellers passed through only the Crimea and the northern shore of the Black Sea and visited the Ukrainian interior but infrequently.

One of the first Italian authors to mention Ukraine in the first half of the XVth century is Josaphat Barbaro, a Venetian nobleman. In 1436 he reached Thana (the present Azov) and stayed there 16 years. The description of his travels appeared in book form in Venice in 1543, and was republished in 1606.

His book, Di Messer Josafa Barbaro gentil'huomo venetiano il viaggio della Tana, is a sort of geographical treatise. Barbaro devotes much attention to the flora and fauna of the Azov area. He says that the land of the area is extremely fertile. "The wheat has a very big beard and not infrequently brings forth a fifty-fold yield. The harvest is sometimes so bounti­ful that the people do not know what to do with the wheat and leave it on the field." He also says:

 p44  Because Thana is encircled by hills and ditches which extend up to ten miles, these hills and ditches have become a haven for all sorts of birds, which come in such quantity, especially the partridges, that they roam in big flocks, as if they were domesticated. Boys have no difficulty in picking them off the ground and selling them . . . At night, if the windows of houses are open, the birds flock toward the light. There are also many wild animals, especially deer; but they are too timid to come close to the city."

(Travels to India and Persia, Hakluyt, 1878, p12.)

In the XVIth century there were many travellers, particularly diplomatic agents, mostly Englishmen, who went to Muscovy. These frequently mentioned the Ukrainian land and the Ukrainians to whom they referred as "Circassians," after the Muscovite terminology. (The name comes from Cherkassy, a city in Ukraine.)

Descriptions of the territory of Muscovy and the customs and ways of its inhabitants are extremely interesting when compared with those of the Ukrainians or other Europeans. Therefore, we should like to dwell on these descriptions, especially when their authors tend to compare the life and national habits of Muscovy and of Ukraine.

One such author is Albert Campense, who, in his letter to Pope Clement VII about 1523‑24, wrote extensively about the affairs of Muscovy. Campense makes a sound observation when he says that Muscovy is populated by various peoples, among whom he enumerates the "Jurgi, Corelli, Periszani, Vahulszeni, Baschizdi and Czeremisi . . ."

"To the west of the Tartars, in the direction of the Prussian Sea and also in the neighborhood of the Muscovites, there live the Rus (Rossi), Lithuanians and Samogeths . . .

"The great prince of Muscovy, Ivan or Giovanni, and also his deputy, Prince Wasily, endeavored (as was also the case during the reigns of King Sigismund and his predecessors Kings Alexander and Casimir) to extend Muscovite domination over a large part of Lithuania, that is, those lands which extend between the Borysthenes River (Dnieper), the Maeotian Marshes and Thanais (Azov), all of which once formed part of the State of Rus (Stato  p45 de Rossi). Kiev, the capital of this state on the Borysthenes River, is one of the most beauti­ful and richest cities, despite the fact that it was pillaged to the limits of cruelty and madness by the Tartars who even now, neighboring with Lithuania, make frequent incursions on the territory of Rus, which contributes to the fact that these lands are under­populated. The Muscovite princes justify their pretensions on the ground that Rus, now under the domination of the Polish King, as well as the city of Lviv (Città Leopolina) and the whole eastern part of Poland which extends northward and northeast from the Sarmatian Mountains (Poprad), are of the Greek faith and recognize the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople."

Another interesting writer on Muscovy and Ukraine was S. F. Herberstein (1486‑1566). He was born in Slavic Styria and attended the University of Vienna. Recognized as an outstanding and talented diplomat, Herberstein was called "the loyal servant and adviser to four emperors," and was as a rule extremely cautious and circumspect in his expressions. He made two journeys to Muscovy, Lithuania, (1517 and 1526) and perhaps Ukraine. Herberstein's memoirs were published several times in Basel, Switzerland, and in Vienna (Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii, 1549). The English edition of this work is titled: Sigismund von Herberstein: Notes on Russia (Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii) and appeared in London in 1851.

In addition to the detailed description of "Moscovia" and "Moscovitians," his book also describes the territories of Lithuania, Poland, and old Rus‑Ukraine:

"Russia extends near to the Sarmatian (Poprad) Mountains, up to a short distance from Cracow; thence along the river Tyra, which the natives call Dniester, to the Black Sea, and across to the Dnieper. Some years ago (1525?), since however, the Turks took possession of Alba, otherwise called Moncastro (Bilhorod), also situated at the mouth of the river Dniester, and under the dominion of the Voyvoda of Moldavia. The king of Taurica likewise crossed the Dnieper, and laying waste the country far and wide, built two fortresses, one of which, called Ochakov, situated  p46 not far from the mouth of the Dnieper, is still in the possession of the Turks; but the area between these two rivers is now a desert. Moreover, in ascending the Dnieper, we come to the town of Circas (Cherkassy), lying towards the west, and then to the very ancient city of Kiev, formerly the metropolis of Russia (Rus); and on the opposite side of the Dnieper, is the still inhabited province of Severa (Siveria); and thence, directly eastward, we come to the source of the Thanais (Don).

(Herberstein, Notes on Russia, Vol. 1 p5 f.)

"This place is so remarkable for its abundance of excellent fish and for its pleasantness — each side of the river being laid out and cultivated with considerable industry in the fashion of a garden, with a variety of plants and most delight­ful roots and a great number of fruit-bearing trees — that it is impossible to praise it too highly. There is also an abundance of game, which they kill with their arrows without much trouble, so that persons travelling through the country want nothing else to support life, except fire and salt for cooking."

In another place, and also on the map published in Basel in 1556, Herberstein calls the Thanais "Fl. Don Ruthenice", meaning "the River Don in Ruthenia."

The author, touching on some habits and customs of the Muscovites, is shocked by the treatment of their women:

The condition of the women is most miserable; for they consider no woman virtuous unless she lives shut up at home and is so closely guarded that she can go nowhere."

If a husband beats his wife regularly, he writes, in much it is held that "he loves her," and consequently "the more bruises she has the more is she loved." In describing the Muscovite people, both the nobility and the common people, Herberstein says:

"All confess themselves to be Cholopos, that is, serfs of the prince. This people enjoy slavery more than freedom."


Describing the military tactics of the Muscovites, the author writes:

"They make the first charge on the enemy with great impetuosity, but their valour does not hold out very long, for they  p47 seem as if they would give a hint to the enemy, as much as to say, 'If you do not flee, we must' . . . For instance, once the Muscovite takes flight, he believes there is no safety beyond what flight may obtain for him; if he be pursued or taken by the enemy, he neither defends himself nor asks for quarter."

Herberstein mentions such Ukrainian cities as Starodub, Putivl, Novhorod-Severa, Chernihiv, Kiev, Kaniv, Cherkassy, Berestie, Kamenets, and others. He extensively describes the Azov seacoast, Crimea and the Kuban.

He refers to the Ukrainians as "Circassians," a name that is derived from the city of Cherkassy, or, as he refers to it, "Circass." Herberstein's description of the Ukrainians follows:

"I may here remark that the Circassians who dwell upon the Dnieper are to be distinguished from those whom I have described above as dwelling in the mountains near the Pontus (Black Sea). At the time that I was at Moscow, these people were gouverned by one Eustace Dascovitz (Hetman Dashkevich), of whom I have before spoken as going with King Machtmetgirei to Moscow.​b He was a man of great skill in military matters, and remarkable for his shrewdness, and from the frequent intercourse he had had with the Tartars, was able the more repeatedly to conquer them. He often even drew the Prince of Moscow himself, whose captive he had been for some time, into great dangers. In the same year that I was at Moscow (1526), he showed remarkable skill in routing the Muscovites, a circumstance which I deem worthy of description here. He led certain Tartars attired in Lithuanian costume unto Moscovia, knowing that the Moscovitians, taking them for Lithuanians, would rush out upon them fearlessly and without hesitation. After having set an ambush in a suitable position, he awaited the arrival of the vengeful Moscovites. The Tartars, meanwhile, after depopulating the province of Severa (Siveria), directed their march towards Lithuania; whereupon the Muscovites, supposing them to be Lithuanians, changed their route, and, inspired with the thirst of vengeance, marched impetuously in a great force upon Lithuania. After laying waste the country and as they were returning laden with  p48 spoil, they were surrounded by Eustace (Dashkevich), who came forth from his ambuscade, and all of them were slaughtered to a man . . . The Prince of Muscovy, having been thus deceived on both sides, was ignominiously compelled to put up with his loss."

Herberstein makes a well-defined distinction between the Ukrainians, whom he calls Circassians, Russians or Rutheni, and the Muscovites. For example, speaking about the city of Lublin, he writes:

"Where (Lublin), at a fixed time of the year, are held some celebrated fairs, at which assemble people from all parts — Muscovites, Lithuanians, Tartars, Livonians, Prussians, Ruthenians (Rutheni), Germans, Hungarians, Armenians, Wallachians, and Jews."

Of Kiev, he writes:

"Seven miles beyond Circass (Cherkassy) going up the Borysthenes (Dnieper), lies the town of Cainovu (Kaniv); eighteen miles from which is Chiovuia (Kiev), the ancient metropolis of Russia (Rus), whose one‑time magnificence and evidently royal estate are revealed by the ruins of the city and the monuments, which are still seen lying in heaps. There may still be traced to this day on the hills in the neighborhood the remains of churches and deserted monasteries, as well as numerous caverns, in which may be seen very ancient tombs, with the bodies in them not yet decayed."

Describing the customs in Ukraine, especially in Kiev, Herberstein writes:

"There is a certain hill at Kiev, over which the merchants have to pass by a road which is not of the easiest; if any part of the carriage should happen to be broken in the ascent, all the articles in it are confiscated by the treasury."

He mentions that among the Ruthenians who comprise a part of the Lithuanian army, there is one famous name, Constantine Ostroski:

"Constantine Ostroski had routed the Tartars very frequently. It was his custom not to attack the horde while out on their predatory excursions."

 p49  Especially interesting is the Diary of Michael the Lithuanian, a Lithuanian by origin, who was in Ukraine in 1550 and who described the wealth of the Ukrainian land:

"The land around Kiev is so fertile and ideal for plowing that once plowed by a pair of oxen it yields a tremendous harvest; even unplowed land yields vegetation which can nourish people with its roots and stalks. There are trees which bear various fruits; the grapevine is cultivated extensively and yields huge bunches of grapes; there are also wild grapes. In the old oak and beech trees are crevices in which bees build honeycombs; their honey has a beauti­ful color and taste. There are so many wild animals and bison, wild horses and deer in the woods and the fields that they are hunted only for their skins, while their carcasses, with the exception of the hind parts, are thrown away; goats and wild hogs are not even hunted. Chamois flee from the steppes into the woods in the wintertime and again into the steppes in the spring in such numbers that every peasant kills them by the thousands every year. On the banks of rivers there is a large quantity of beaver nests. Birds are in such abundance everywhere that in the spring boys collect whole boats of eggs of wild ducks, geese, cranes and swans, and later on fill chicken coops with young fowl. Young eagles are kept in cages for their feathers, which are affixed to arrows. Dogs are fed with the meat of wild beasts and with fish, because the rivers are filled with immense quantities of sturgeon and other big fish . . . Therefore, many rivers are called 'golden,' especially the Pripet, which at one place near Mozyr at the mouth of the Tura River (Ubort), during the influx of fresh water from the sources at the beginning of March, is filled with such a big quantity of fish that a spear thrown into the water stands upright, as if pushed into the ground. I would not have believed this, had I not seen for myself how the people fished and in one day loaded about 1,000 wagons belonging to merchants, who came every year at the same time.

"The Borysthenes (Dnieper) is the largest and richest river of this country, on which an immense quantity of fish and other  p50 merchandise is shipped to Kiev . . . This river is referred to as 'flowing with honey and milk' because at its sources it flows through woods filled with the wealth of bees, and near its delta, through pastures; therefore, it provides honey and milk for its population . . . All the affluence of the Dnieper brings quantities of fish, meat, furs, honey, and also salt from the Taurian mouths (deltas) to Kiev."

His description of Kiev is as follows:

The castle occupies a signal place among the other castles and is situated on the bank of the river at the edge of the steppe and Polissia. In Kiev there have remained ancient churches, beauti­fully built from a refined marble and other imported materials and covered with zinc and copper, some with golden cupolas; there are many famous monasteries. Especially famous is the convent of the Virgin Mary, with its under­ground galleries and caves . . . Kiev is filled with imported merchandise, because there is no better way than this ancient and well-known route that leads from the Black Sea port of Kaffa (Theodosia), through the gates of Taurica and through the Tavan ford on the Dnieper into Kiev; on this route all oriental merchandise, such as precious stones, silks and silk textiles, incense, perfume, saffron, pepper, and other spices from Asia, Persia, India, Arabia and Syria go to the north to Moscovia, Pskov, Sweden, and Denmark. This route is full of foreign merchants who travel in long caravans . . . Previously at the Tavan ford on the Dnieper a toll was collected, but now they collect one in Kiev. In Kiev there is such a great quantity of costly silk clothing, precious stones, beaver and other costly furs that I myself was able to see silk being sold cheaper than flax was in Vilno, and pepper cheaper than salt . . . On the Dnieper there live many people, there are many cities and villages. The inhabitants are known for their valor and skill . . ."

The richness of the Ukrainian land is pictured in like manner by a French traveller, Blaise de Vigenere, an archeologist and scientist, in his book La description du Royaume de Pologne (Paris, 1573). He describes what is known as Western Ukraine, to which he refers as "states of the Polish Kingdom." The book  p51 is illustrated with a picture of an aurochs and a hunt for bison. Although the author deals in the main with the history of the neighboring countries, he provides ample material on the geography, ethnography and production of Ukraine. He is especially impressed with the wealth of Ukraine:

"They say that the land of this country (Podolia) is so good and fertile that if one leaves his plow in the field, the grass grows so fast around it that after two or three days the plow can hardly be found. The country, overflowing with honey and wax, could raise a great quantity of cattle, if the opportunity were given to do so."

What the author had in mind here were the frequent incursions of the Tartars which prevented the country's normal economic development.

About Galicia, Volhynia and Podolia, Blaise de Vigenère writes that these provinces are inhabited by one people, whose "language, life and customs are almost identical." He adds that the fauna of the right-bank Dnieper Ukraine, Volhynia and Galicia include aurochs, bison and moose. The aurochs were on the borders of Mazovia and Lithuania, where even at that time special enclosures were put up for the protection of these animals.

"The bison is a species of wild bull, but far bigger than a domesticated bull, and of all animals smaller only than the elephant. His hair is black, with the exception of a white streak along the spine . . . Aurochs sometimes mate with domesticated cows, but in such event they are thenceforth shunned by the herd; they are chased away and sometimes even killed . . . The meat of the bisons is no worse than ordinary beef, but its skin is at a premium, especially for manufacturing belts."

Thayer's Notes:

a Etym. XIV.4.3, in which "Alania" is characterized as the beginning of Europe: but see my note to the map on p31, ad fin. Isidore also mentions the Maeotian lake in the preceding section on Asia (3.1, 3.31 and 3.34); and in Etym. IX.2.66 and XIII.16.4.

[decorative delimiter]

b Ostafii Dashkevych, starost of Cherkasy and Kaniv, by some traditionally considered the first hetman, although — thanks to Oleksii Cherednichenko for the heads‑up — he seems not to have been an actual hetman of the Cossacks, the honor of being the first possibly going to Predslav Liantskoronsky.

Machtmetgirei is Mehmet-Giray (the First), khan of Tatar Crimea: he attacked the area around Moscow in 1521.

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