In the treatise Modus epistolandi, that is, The art of writing letters (1488), which was fairly popular throughout Renaissance Europe, Francesco Nigro gave precise and detailed rhetoric guidelines for writing not fewer than twenty types of letters. The first one was the commendatitium or letter of recommendation, which, for its part, was separated into two subtypes, and each divided into four mandatory parts. Later, many other humanists put their two cents into these rhetorical standards by collecting and adapting the ideas and exercises of ancient progymnasmata. Not only Erasmus, Vives and Lipsius, the list is much longer: Gasparino Barzizza, Juan Lorenzo Palmireno, Giulio Cesare Capaccio, Bartolomé Bravo, Juan Vicente Peliger, Badius Ascensius, Sulpizio di Verola, Gaspar de Tejeda, Henri Estienne, Basin de Sendacourt, Heinrich Bebel, Valentinus Erythraeus, Pietro Bembo, Tomás Gracián Dantisco, Espinosa de Santayana, Moravus de Olomouc, and so on. And though none of these authors offered guidance to writing letters of recommendation to the Hereafter, nevertheless such letters existed, and they were regularly written according to controlled formulas, sprinkled with writing-sand and sealed, and addressed to no less a person than Saint Peter himself, into his own hands.
News of these letters came to Spain from Ruthenia, as the humanist, numismatist, archbishop of Tarragona and extraordinarily curious man, don Antonio Agustín (1517-1586) jotted down in his handwritten notebook. In folio 23 of this book, called Alveolus, written about 1555, we find this account on the tradition of “the Ruthenian Church”: *
“Rutheni populi Moschouitarum sunt Polonis contigui, quorum regem adgnoscunt; et in religione Patriarcham Constantinopolitanum, cuius ritum, ceremonias et instituta sequuntur. Eorum prouincia nunc Russia nuncupatur. Lingua Dalmatica loquuntur, cuius per uniuersum orientem magnus usus est; characteres mixti Grecis atque Barbaris Sclauonicis quos appellant. Hi populi ridiculam consuetudinem exequiarum obseruant. Mortuorum enim parentes affines propinquí et amici, litteras ab Archiepiscopo prouintiae suae accipiunt, et sigillo et subscriptione firmatas: quibus Archiepiscopus sancto Petro scribit, mortuum propinquum et amicum commendans; rogans mortuo liceat in consortium coelitum adscribi. Quae littere mortui manui inseruntur; unaque cum iis, tamquam eas diuo Petro Vitae Innocentiaeque suae testes redditurus, sepelitur. Emuntur autem magno tales littere; neque cuiquam nisi soluenti pecuniam conceduntur. Quo fit, ut pauperes eas non accipiant, scribuntur lingua Dalmatica. Earum formulam, ex ea lingua translatam in Latinam a Georgio Ticinensi Lithphano, infra suscribi iussimus:
«MACARIVS Dei gratia Ecclesiarum Domini Dei nostri in hoc corruptibili mundo uicarius, tibi Petro qui olim summus Christi in terris uicarius extitisti, notificamus: quod nuper non sine ingenii moerore, Dilecti filii Ecclesiae Dei, nobis rettulerunt; quendam Nicolaum Gregorii Filium, hanc miseriis plenam uitam reliquisse; in aliumque felicem ac deliciis plenum mundum commigrasse. In quo fidelium omnium animulae, omnibus desiderato Domini nostri Jesuchristi, eiusque matris incorruptae intuitu frui ac gaudere numquam cessant. Quas opera tua in regnum coelorum, cuius ianitor et clauiger existis, esse admissas receptasque nemo ambigit. Nam eam clauium potestatem, ipse humani generis restauratos, tibi iam in coelis uero in terris indubie concessit, quos suarum Ecclesiarum in hoc mundo presides esse uoluit.
Cum igitur officii nostri sit ad te, de conuersatione eorum qui relicto hoc mundo istuc commigrant, rescribere, ideo, indubiam tibi litteris his nostris fidem facimus Nicolaum Gregorii Filium, toto tempore uitae suae pie ac christiane uixisse, neminem offendisse, ac omnia Ecclesiarum Dei praecepta, diligenter obseruasse. Quem, prius quam deo conditori suo spiritum commodaticium reddidisset, ab omnibus suis peccatis, quibus diuinam Maiestatem aliquando offendit, absoluimus. Et, propterea iustum esse censemus, quod in conspectum Domini Dei conditoris nostri admittatur; electorumque Dei numero tuis meritis precibusque adiutus, adscribatur. Quod ut pro more officioque tuo facias, supplices petimus. Datum, etc. Sub manu, et sigillo nostro.»” (Alveolus. Manuscrito escurialense S-II-18, Madrid, FUE, 1982, 33-35.)
“The Ruthenians are Muscovite people in the neighborhood of the Poles, whose king they recognize as their lord. In religious matters they recognize the Patriarch of Constantinople, and follow his rites, ceremonies and institutions. Their region is now called Land of the Russians. They speak the Dalmatian [Church Slavonic] language, which is quite widespread in all the East. Their writing is a mixture of the Greek alphabet and the letters of the barbarian Slavic language, as they call it. These peoples have a ridiculous funeral rite. The relatives and close friends of the deceased get a sealed and signed letter from the archbishop of the diocese, which the archbishop addresses to Saint Peter, recommending the deceased into his friendship and company. They put this letter into the hands of the deceased, and bury him with it, as a testimony of his life and innocence. These letters have a high price, and are not granted to anyone unless he pays for them. Thus, the poor have no access to them. They are written in Dalmatian language. Their text, translated by George of Pavia from this language to Latin, is as follows:
«Makarios, by the grace of God vicar of the Church of God our Lord in this corruptible world, let it be known unto thee, Peter, who once was in this land the supreme vicar of Christ, that recently we have been visited by certain beloved children of the Church of God, relating with great pain, that a certain Nicholas, son of Gregory departed this life full of misery, and migrated to the happy hereafter, full of delight, where the little souls of all believers do not cease to rejoice and enjoy the vision, desired by all of us, of our Lord Jesus Christ and his uncorrupted Mother. To which it is, beyond doubt, thou who receivest and letst them enter, being the gatekeeper of the kingdom of heaven, for into thine hands is deposited the power of the keys on earth and in the heavens He, the Restorer of the human race, who wanted thee to be the superior of His Church in this world.
Being therefore our duty to report to thee about the conduct of those who migrated from this world to that one, we undoubtedly let it be known unto thee and certify with faith, that Nicholas, son of Gregory, lived in a pious and Christian way throughout the period of his life, having not hurt anyone, and diligently observing all the commandments of the Church of God. And before delivering his soul unto God, his Creator, we absolved him of all of the sins, with which he had ever offended His Divine Majesty. We therefore consider it fair to let him be admitted into the presence of God, our Lord, and to be enrolled among the numbers of the elect, with the help of thy merits and prayers. We pray unto thee to grant it and do so with thy usual mercy and condescension. Date etc. From our hand and seal.»”
Our imagination is excited by the high price that one had to pay for these letters to the archbishop, and which made them inaccessible to the poor. We wonder what the black market for these letters was like, the grave robberies, the elimination of the name of the deceased in the letters and their replacement in the hands of another, less wealthy deceased, the refined techniques of the skilled counterfeiters of signatures and seals, by which they were able to trick the gatekeeper of the Paradise himself… Or perhaps this idea is totally inconceivable for a Ruthenian, and can arise only in the picaresque Iberian imagination?
But if so, how could one of these letters get into the hands of Don Antonio?