The Hunt for Witches


Fires, crop failures, wars, economic recessions, epidemic diseases afflicting people, animals, and plantsthese recurring troubles plagued Muscovites. In the seventeenth century, they also fed a series of witchcraft scares. Witches were a common obsession across Europe in the early modern period, particularly in German‑speaking areas, where tens of thousands of people, more than three‑quarters of them women, were executed for consorting with the devil. We do not know whether seventeenth‑century Muscovy experienced more witch hunts than did the Rus period, but we do know that the Romanov government was more willing and able to document them than its predecessors. So records exist that make it possible to sketch the contours of Muscovite witch‑hunting and to compare it to witch‑hunts elsewhere. There were significant differences: in Muscovy the scares came far less often, fewer people were accused, and of those, at least two‑thirds were men.26 Witchcraft scares deserve attention, therefore, for they are a well‑documented instance of Muscovys take on European gender beliefs leading to outcomes for women different from those that occurred elsewhere.

The witchcraft persecutions in Central and Western Europe arose out of two developments that never reached Muscovythe propagation of the doctrine that black magic was the special province of women and the political and religious conflicts of the sixteenth‑and seventeenth‑century Reformation. The major treatise on witchcraft was Malleus maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), published by the German monks Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger in 1486. The Hammer declared that witches held midnight gatherings in hidden places to worship Satan and have sexual congress with him. Satiated, they then went out to do their beloveds evil bidding. Because they had renounced the true faith, witches were heretics. So when rooting out heretics became an obsession during the Reformation, that obsession begat the search for witches.

Muscovite clerics burned heretics too, but they did not indulge in elaborate, sexualized fantasies about witches, perhaps because they and their Rus predecessors had never laid as much stress as Catholic monks did on womens sexual transgressions. Consequently the Orthodox Church did not spread tales of weird sisters coupling with Satanic goats, Muscovite law did not consider witchcraft heretical, and Muscovites continued to believe, as their ancestors and most Europeans had long done, that men were just as capable of black magic as women.27

Muscovites did accept the widespread European idea that the world was full of good and evil spirits and of special people who could manipulate those spirits for good and evil purposes. Diseases, they thought, had supernatural as well as physical causes, and so healers treated the sick with potions, many of which were medically efficacious, and with spells, which could have a powerful placebo effect. Ordinary people also used magic to foretell the future, persuade a reluctant lover, or punish an enemy. The line between good white magic and bad black magic depended on who was drawing it. A wifes love potion, sprinkled onto her husbands food to perk up his libido, could be seen by the husband, if he spent the following three days throwing up, as an attempt to kill him. Moreover, Muscovites believed that diseases in people, plants, and animals were as likely to be caused by magic as cured by it.

Witchcraft scares were set off in Muscovy, as elsewhere, by stresses in a family or community. Food shortages, epidemics, hostilities between neighbors, rumors of mysterious strangers seen on the roads couldbut rarely didlead to accusations. Usually communities dealt with the accused on their own. People beat suspects, ran them out of town, even killed them. Sometimes they took their accusations to the courts. The government and the church defined witchcraft as a crime of violence or social disruption, not heresy, so the convicted were subjected to the same penalties as those convicted of comparable non‑magical crimes. People found guilty of murder were put to death; Valerie Kivelson has estimated that 10 percent of the accused met this fate. Those convicted of less lethal enchantments were exiled to the borderlands, where male convicts were required to serve in the armies guarding the frontier.28

Folk healers and community outsiders were among those most frequently accused in the witchcraft scares of the seventeenth century. Muscovites and their Rus ancestors had long distrusted the self‑proclaimed magicians who traveled from village to village, entertaining people with conjuring tricks. When a witchcraft scare began, therefore, villagers turned on itinerant minstrels and peddlers. If the latter happened to be non‑Muscovites, they were still more likely to rouse suspicion. Folk healers were also vulnerable because they used magic in their work. Since many of the minstrels, peddlers, and healers in Russia were men, men made up a large proportion of those accused of witchcraft. Furthermore, these categories often overlappedthat is, many folk healers were itinerant non‑Muscovites.

Most women who came under suspicion had gotten involved in disputes with family members or acquaintances that had escalated into accusations and counter‑accusations of black magic. One of the commonest charges was that a relative, friend, or neighbor had cast a spell that caused evil spirits to enter a womans body and possess her. Women convinced that they had been possessed lost their appetites, had seizures, or went into trances in which they barked like dogs or hissed like geese. Christine Worobec and Valerie Kivelson have found that these womens families and friends often cared for them tenderly and labored to cure them by exorcisms. Those accused of causing the possession encountered no such merciful treatment. Some of themhow many is unknownhad in fact taken the very risky course of attempting a little white, or black, magic. The case of a peasant widow named Katerinka is a case in point.29


KATERINKA (c. 1600?)


In 1628, Katerinka was a servant of the wife of Prince Fedor Eletskoi. She lived in the Eletskois house on their country estate, and she was not happy with her employers. The prince and princess were required by law to arrange a marriage for their widowed maid, but they refused to do so or to permit her to marry a man of her own choosing. So Katerinka began sleeping with Mikitka, a cook in the household. When the prince learned of her disobedience, he punished Katerinka with beatings. That was, The Domostroi tells us, a masters prerogative, indeed, his obligation. It did not have the desired effect of showing Katerinka the error of her ways.

Soon afterward, the princess fell ill and miscarried. Muscovites believed that miscarriages sometimes resulted from spells cast on the mother, so when the princess lost her baby, she and the prince suspected Katerinka, whom they already distrusted. The angry prince began beating her anew, this time to extract a confession of witchcraft. At first, Katerinka accused her lover Mikitka of casting a spell on the princess. When a search of her room turned up packages of suspicious powders and grasses, she identified them as cosmetics. The beatings continued until Katerinka confessed. The prince took her to the authorities and accused her of witchcraft, whereupon she renounced her confession.

The maid maintained her innocence until court interrogators turned to torture. Tsarist officials employed beating, burning with red‑hot irons, simulated drowning (better known now as waterboarding), and stretching on the rack. They soon induced Katerinka to confess again, this time to putting something in the princesss food, but not of causing the miscarriage. She said that a folk healer had told her that if she gave the princess a magical salt, the princess would drop her opposition to Katerinkas marrying. And I took about a pinch of that salt from Baba Oklulinka, she testified, and I gave her for that salt a headdress. And that salt all went into the princesss food. And I gave the princess that salt because she had a grudge against me. But I never intended to bewitch the princess. And unfortunately, the illness started, and she miscarried the baby, but not from bewitchment.30

We do not know the courts ruling. The records end with Katerinka and Mikitka still under arrest. The old healer, Baba Oklulinka, who had also been arrested, died in jail. Valerie Kivelson has speculated that the two lovers might have been released eventually, for judges sometimes freed those accused of witchcraft if they found that confessions had been coerced by masters. Confessions extracted by the courts torturers were not subject to the same consideration.31

Katerinka had much in common with accused witches in Central and Western Europe. Many of the latter were also poor widows without large families to defend them. Some of them had sought to increase their influence over others by dabbling in magic, and thereby incurred the enmity of neighbors or employers or family members. We do not know how many Katerinkas there were in Russia or even whether Katerinka was guilty. What is clear is that widowhood, which sometimes conferred great authority on a wealthy woman, could doom a poor one to still greater poverty and vulnerability. Katerinka reminds us of another universal reality: strong‑willed women, particularly poor ones, had to choose their battles carefully.


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