Desperate Magic

Desperate Magic: The Moral Economy of Witchcraft in Seventeenth-Century Russia

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 328
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    Desperate Magic
    Book Description:

    In the courtrooms of seventeenth-century Russia, the great majority of those accused of witchcraft were male, in sharp contrast to the profile of accused witches across Catholic and Protestant Europe in the same period. While European courts targeted and executed overwhelmingly female suspects, often on charges of compacting with the devil, the tsars' courts vigorously pursued men and some women accused of practicing more down-to-earth magic, using poetic spells and home-grown potions. Instead of Satanism or heresy, the primary concern in witchcraft testimony in Russia involved efforts to use magic to subvert, mitigate, or avenge the harsh conditions of patriarchy, serfdom, and social hierarchy.

    Broadly comparative and richly illustrated with color plates, Desperate Magic places the trials of witches in the context of early modern Russian law, religion, and society. Piecing together evidence from trial records to illuminate some of the central puzzles of Muscovite history, Kivelson explores the interplay among the testimony of accusers, the leading questions of the interrogators, and the confessions of the accused. Assembled, they create a picture of a shared moral vision of the world that crossed social divides. Because of the routine use of torture in extracting and shaping confessions, Kivelson addresses methodological and ideological questions about the Muscovite courts' equation of pain and truth, questions with continuing resonance in the world today. Within a moral economy that paired unquestioned hierarchical inequities with expectations of reciprocity, magic and suspicions of magic emerged where those expectations were most egregiously violated.

    Witchcraft in Russia surfaces as one of the ways that oppression was contested by ordinary people scrambling to survive in a fiercely inequitable world. Masters and slaves, husbands and wives, and officers and soldiers alike believed there should be limits to exploitation and saw magic deployed at the junctures where hierarchical order veered into violent excess.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6938-1
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. List of Maps and Figures
    (pp. IX-X)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. XI-XIII)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. XIV-XVI)
  6. Note on Names and Transliteration
    (pp. XVII-XVII)
  7. Maps
    (pp. XVIII-XXII)
  8. Introduction: The Moral Economy of Desperation in Seventeenth-Century Russia
    (pp. 1-12)

    IN 1626 THE GOVERNOR OF DEDILOV, a provincial center not far from Kursk in the south of Russia, found himself responsible for trying a local low-ranking military servitor, Iakushko Shchurov, on charges of practicing magic. The charge was based on the telltale evidence of a root, found tucked under his belt. Possession of a root was more than enough to land Iakushko in court, facing serious consequences. Confronted with such incriminating evidence, Iakushko admitted to possessing the root, but insisted that he had not used it to work any harm. In fact, the root was so innocuous that he ate...

  9. 1 Witchcraft Historiography: Russia’s Divergence
    (pp. 13-37)

    THE LITERATURE ON WITCHCRAFT in other parts of the world offers a rich smorgasbord of sophisticated models for understanding the essence of the phenomenon. The Russian case, intriguingly, fits none but the most general of these. The disjuncture between the Russian material and those of its Western neighbors allows me an opportunity in the following historiographic review to celebrate the accomplishments of what is truly an exciting literature on witchcraft throughout Europe and the world, while at the same time foregrounding the ways in which the models on offer elsewhere have little relevance for Russia. The disparities provide useful insights...

  10. 2 “Report on This Matter to Us in Moscow, Fully and in Truth”: Documentation and Procedure
    (pp. 38-51)

    WITCHCRAFT TRIALS FELL, for the most part, under the jurisdiction of the tsar’s secular courts. Like other Muscovite trials, they began with a denunciation, filed in the form of a supplicatory petition addressed to the tsar himself. As a general rule, such petitions were initially presented to the local governor (voevoda) of the town or province in which the petitioner resided, and were processed by the administrative staff (pod’iachie) of his office (s’ezzhaia izba; prikaznaia izba). The procedure was substantially the same for all kinds of offenses, from name-calling and insults to honor, to arson, theft, assault, and murder. After...

  11. 3 Muscovite Prosaic Magic and the Devil’s Pale Shadow
    (pp. 52-82)

    IN MARCH 1676 TIMOFEI KARAULOV, the governor of the southern frontier town of Dobroe, reported to the tsar the details of a complaint filed by a local clergyman, Priest Davyd of the town church of the Mother of God, against his hired man, Mishka Kireev, and Kireev’s wife, Arinka. In his denunciation, Priest Davyd wrote:

    In past years and in this current year on various dates, roots and dirt appeared in the upper chamber (gornitsa) of his house under the ceiling and stuck in the corner. Davyd and his wife also saw those roots in their drinks, in home brew...

  12. 4 Love, Sex, and Hierarchy: The Role of Gender in Witchcraft Accusations
    (pp. 83-126)

    THREE-QUARTERS OF THE PEOPLE named as witches in seventeenth-century trials were male. I have identified the sex of the accused in 223 cases, involving at least 495 individuals. (The remaining cases either contain short descriptions without any details about the accused, or collective notations about “some witches,” undifferentiated by sex. These include reports that “three witches were exiled,” or that witchcraft had been detected but the culprit not yet identified.) Of the 223 cases, 34 involve indictments of female witches only. Forty involve men and women purportedly working together. The remaining 149 cases, or 67 percent of trials in which...

  13. 5 Undivided Spheres: Gender and Idioms of Magic
    (pp. 127-167)

    MUSCOVITE SOCIETY ORGANIZED ITSELF on principles of status, rank, and generational hierarchy, with gender inserting an additional layer of nuance within each stratum. The salience of status and seniority in calculations of hierarchy and subordination wove through every aspect of Muscovite witchcraft, coloring expectations, shaping behavior, contributing to responses, and, perhaps most important, generating particular points of friction for men and women. These social and cultural strains played out not necessarily in the most obvious arenas of difference as understood in the West, but more remotely, at one step removed.

    Where studies of witches in European and Anglo-American contexts have...

  14. 6 “To Treat Me Kindly”: Negotiating Excess in Muscovite Hierarchical Relations
    (pp. 168-197)

    IN 1664 IN THE COURT OF THE PROVINCIAL GOVERNOR in Iaroslavl, a prominent local landholder, the stolnik prince Mikhailo Fedorov syn Shaidiakov, lodged a complaint against his household slave woman Fenka. He explained that “by the will of God,” both he and his wife had fallen ill earlier that year. When he questioned his domestic servants, they fingered Fenka, charging that she had bewitched Prince Mikhailo and his wife by adding enchanted roots and grasses to their food. In response to the prince’s petition, the governor ordered Fenka brought to court and questioned. The court report records her testimony, in...

  15. 7 Trials, Justice, and the Logic of Torture
    (pp. 198-232)

    IN 1663 OR 1664 IN THE TOWN OF LUKH, a deacon and a monastic peasant were brought in for questioning before Governor Aleksei Kablukov in connection with a spell for seducing women. To guarantee that he obtained complete, truthful confessions and following the letter of the law, Governor Kablukov ordered the men tortured. After their ordeal, the peasant was released but the deacon languished in jail. The deacon tried to go over the head of the governor by petitioning the tsar for mercy. In his appeal, he admitted that he had indeed copied out the incriminating spell at the peasant’s...

  16. 8 Witchcraft, Heresy, Treason, Rebellion: Defining Muscovy’s Most Heinous Crimes
    (pp. 233-255)

    TORTURE PLAYED ITS PART IN serious criminal cases, but only the most heinous of offenses warranted the superfluity of blows or the exorbitant application of fire, water, and hot pincers that constituted the norm in prosecuting witchcraft. Most crimes were adjudicated on the basis of testimony, material evidence, and character witnesses, without recourse to torture at all. Even for those serious crimes that did lead to torture, the torture itself was for the most part administered with a restricted range of techniques: most commonly blows with the knout and/or suspension on the rack. In her study of the entire legal...

  17. The Aftermath: Peter the Great and the Age of Enlightenment
    (pp. 256-260)

    SURPRISINGLY, IT WAS PETER THE GREAT, Russia’s renowned modernizer and Westernizer, who brought the satanic pact and an active interest in the idea of satanic magic into the mainstream of Russian jurisprudence.¹ By the early eighteenth century, this line of European thought was distinctly on the wane in its home territories. While Enlightenment thinking and secularization were gradually driving out belief in magic and witchcraft among the relevant legislators, jurists, and judges in Western Europe, Peter was busily framing laws that would introduce the idea of a satanic pact to Russia. In his legal revisions, Peter and his advisers drew...

    (pp. 261-272)
    (pp. 273-274)
  20. Notes
    (pp. 275-307)
  21. Bibliography
    (pp. 308-338)
  22. Index
    (pp. 339-350)