I’m over halfway through Karamzin’s «Письма русского путешественника» [Letters of a Russian Traveler], his partly fictionalized report on his journey to Europe in 1789-90; published in parts during the 1790s and in full not until 1801, it made his reputation, and it’s easy to see why: its easy style (modeled, like so much “modern” writing of the day, on Sterne’s) and lively account of his travels, during which he dropped in on all his literary and philosophical heroes (Kant in Königsberg, Herder in Weimar, and so on) make for irresistible reading, and whenever I need a break from whatever else I’m plowing through I rejoin Karamzin on his journey. He’s in Switzerland now, spending the winter of 1789-90 in Geneva and wandering in fair weather all over the vicinity, into France and Savoy (the borders apparently being only nominally guarded), and I just got to a bit where he’s reflecting on the sudden change when you go from Switzerland, where people are industrious and everything is neat and clean, to Savoy, where… well, as he puts it: “Народ ленив, земля необработана, деревни пусты. Многие из поселян оставляют свои жилища, ездят по свету с учеными сурками и забавляют ребят.” [The people are lazy, the earth unworked, the villages empty. Many of the peasants leave their dwellings, wander the world with trained marmots, and amuse children.]
I immediately smiled and began humming Beethoven’s song “La Marmotte” (“Ich komme schon durch manche Land,” performed here; Russian version, “По разным странам я бродил,” here), about wandering the world with a marmot; I could have sworn I’d posted about it at some point, but no, I seem to be remembering this post (in Russian) by Anatoly from 2006, long enough ago that my memory lapse is more than understandable. At any rate, the Savoyard and his marmot were a real phenomenon; you can read about it (and see Watteau’s famous painting) here (“The marmot in its box was such a familiar object carried by itinerant Savoyards, that even today the word ‘marmotte’ still persists in modern French, to describe a commercial traveller’s sample box”). I did post about the Russian word сурок and its various translations (marmot, woodchuck, groundhog) way back in 2004.
Also, Karamzin tells at length the sad and noble story of Tancrède, the disavowed son of the Duke of Rohan, hidden away in Holland until he emerged to claim his rightful title only to die in the Fronde, and it occurred to me that although I’d seen the name Tancred in various contexts I had no clear idea of who any particular bearer of the name might be, and (more importantly) where the name was from. So I turned to Wikipedia, where the disambiguation page tells all:
Tancred or Tankred is a masculine given name of Germanic origin. Tankrad comes from thank– (thought) and –rad (counsel), meaning “well-thought advice”. It was used in the High Middle Ages mainly by the Normans (see French Tancrède) and especially associated with the Hauteville family in Italy. It is rare today as a first name, but still common as a Norman surname: Tanqueray. Its Italian form is Tancredi and in Latin it is Tancredus.