Monday, July 31, 2023

Russia in 1298

Steve is reading Marco Polo's Travels at the moment, and sent me a photo of an extraordinary, funny, filthy passage about Russian drinking parties from it yesterday.

We will also tell you about a particular custom they observe. They make a most excellent wine called mead from honey and panic and hold tremendous drinking bouts with it in the following following fashion. They gather together numerous clubs of men and women, particularly noblemen and magnates, ranging from thirty to forty to fifty people and including husbands, wives and children. Each club elects a king or captain and establishes a set of rules: for instance, if anyone utters an unseemly remark or breaks the rules in some way, he is to be punished by the elected leader. Now they have men akin to tavern-keepers who keep this mead for sale. The clubs go off to these taverns and spend the whole day drinking. And they call these drinking sessions stravitza. In the evening the tavern-keepers reckon up the quantity of mead they have drunk, and each man pays his share and that of his wife and children if they are present. And while they are engaged in these stravitza or drinking sessions, they borrow money on the security of their children from merchants who come from Khazaria, Sudak and other neighbouring countries. And they spend this money on drink, and so sell their children. Women taking part in one of these all-day bouts do not leave the room if they need to relieve themselves; instead their maids bring big sponges and place them underneath them so stealthily that no one else notices. For one of them will pretend to be talking to her mistress while another places the sponge beneath her, and so the mistress will urinate into the sponge while she sits; and when she is done the maid will remove the sodden sponge. And they relieve themselves in this way whenever the urge takes them. We will also tell you about something that happened here on one occasion. A man and his wife were going home in the evening after one of these drinking bouts when the wife squatted down to urinate. The cold was so intense that the hairs on her thighs froze and stuck to the grass, so that she could not move for the pain and cried aloud. Then the husband, stone drunk and taking pity on his wife, stooped down and began to blow, hoping to melt the ice with his warm breath. But as he blew the moisture in his breath froze, and so the hairs of his beard got stuck to the hairs on his wife’s thigh. So he, too, was unable to move on account of the excruciating pain; and there he stayed, bent over in this position. And before they could budge from that spot they had to wait for some people to come along and break the ice.

Polo, Marco. The Travels (Penguin Classics Hardcover) (p. 328). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition. 

The results of a Google search told me it was taken from Nigel Cliff's translation so I have bought the Kindle Edition for £1.99. I had no idea Polo got to China via Ukraine and Russia. It will be bitter-sweet to read that section as they are fighting more than seven centuries later.

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