The Witchcraft Hysteria in Early Modern Europe – A Review

I am continuing slowly through my attempts to write up reviews for all the Slavic articles I copied and got from JSTOR while I was still in college. Here’s the next one I’ve been working on.

It’s “The Witchcraft Hysteria in Early Modern Europe: Was Russia an Exception?” – by W. F. Ryan, from The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol 76, No 1 (Jan 1998). Here’s the link to the JSTOR page.

I’ve read one of his books before, so fair notice, I’m already a fan of his work. But that’s just the way these kinds of things go. There’s a few authors who you’re bound to come across more than once. And Ryan is considered an expert on magic in Russia–so it’s fair to trust him in his writing.

This article though is about witchcraft and the witch trials–and whether they were a thing in Russia or not. Because there are differences in Russian history as to western history; no one would deny that. The simple fact boils down to that there are some things specific to Russian magic, witchcraft and history that just do not tie with western Europe. But then there are similarities. Because a lot of old witchcraft stories from early modern Europe are so firmly rooted in Christianity–and even if Russia was influenced heavily by the Byzantine Church, well that Church was very similar at times to the Catholic Church (for all their claims of not being similar).

Ryan’s focus is on the two-fold points that are often claimed as to what made Russia different in the early modern period and the “witch hysteria”:

  1. Demonic magic (i.e. invoking evil spirits) + demonic pacts did not exist in Russia
  2. More men tried in Russia than women

Though his argument is that point 1 is not true; which he of course goes into details on. Point 2 requires an understanding of the phenomenon and history; also explained by him.

Side note being — I love the fact that a particular type of Russian magic is sending spells on the wind, as to term it. Though this is specifically, from all my understanding, used for ill-will (i.e. cursing to use an English term). This is to date my favorite discovery of magic and witchcraft history, to be quite honest. I’ll probably write something up about this sometime shortly.

He has quite a bit of information on the linguistic and historical points, and the linguistic difficulties in comparing English-language, western concepts of magic: white/black, cursing, sorcerer, etc. against what terms were used in early modern Europe in Russia. Russian terms were quite different, and there is no easy way to take the nuances in Russian and easily translate them against English-language terms. He’s got a rundown of specialists of magic that Russian language mentions; these are from Rybakov (who is a well-known archaeologist) and his research.

Without spoiling the whole article (because really it should be read), Ryan focuses on laying out the assumption and belief that Russia did not have a connection with “demonic” magic before the 18th Century, and thus after the witch trials had run their courses. Foremost is the consideration of V. B. Antonovich (who is the source of nearly all of these claims), and his claim that only learned people familiar with western European texts were able to make a connection to demonic magic in Russia, and only in the 18th Century.

My favorite quote from the article comes from Prince Andrei Kurbsky of the 16th Century:

Magic, as everyone knows, cannot be performed without renouncing God and making a pact with the Devil.

Definitely fairly standard thought of the day, I would think. But there’s just something neat about such a quote. It is not at all correct today; but it’s evocative of the times.

There is a section on the history of witchcraft and legalities in Russia. This is perhaps a bit more historical and dense than people would like; but there’s a lot of good information to get interested in. Definitely piques interest into doing more research (or it did me). And of course, there are the interests of how these magical practices were more dealt with as problems under other headings. In this section he’s also talking about the very real changes that swept Russia with Peter the Great’s ascension as Tsar of Russia; and the changes he brought about in all types of culture and legal reform. It’s also interesting to know what influence the foreigners that were brought into Peter’s court had on his changes to legal standards of the day. Also — how Peter’s new, legal codes managed to change the tenor of what proof would come up in accusations; and the fact that Peter made witchcraft laws up underneath the military laws.

I’m very happy with all the historical information. It’s great to be able to sink yourself into historical rabbit-trails, and this article gives dozens of little points for me to continue looking up later (both witchcraft and also plain history).

One particularly interesting fact I learned: in Muscovy the Finns were often considered magicians. I knew that much of Russia was suspicious of Romani (Gypsy) people and thought they did magic, since this is pretty common in Europe, and the Tartars were considered at times to be such also, due to Russia’s particular history. But I had no clue that Finns were put into this same category in early modern Russia.

Then he talks about the number of men vs. women mentioned in Russian records.

More interesting facts I had not known: including that it was not across the board a fact that women would be tried more for witchcraft. Norther countries tried more men. So Russia was not so much an “island” in the records as people usually think. But Russia has an interesting point as to why men were more often tried: military law. Which of course is a pretty good explanation to numbers. — of course he goes into more depth on this, which is a good little read. The legal intricacies make this all quite interesting to read, on exactly what some of the causes are.

It really is interesting in considering his whole discussion and just what culturally, legally and politically made up the background in these years. It gives a pretty good overview with basic knowledge of Russia outside these points for this time period. And there is of course further discussion on those who never went to trial for witchcraft. After all, Muscovy and the later Russian Empire were always large, always perhaps understaffed in terms of official legal oversight–so neighborhoods and villages themselves probably often dealt with those who never went to official trial before the Tsar’s people.

There’s a quick rundown of the koldun in traditional roles in Russian villages; a male magician of sorts, but also quite important in daily life. Also some discussion on how female witches have perhaps been fictionalized out, and western influence does clearly show here, especially among western Slavs (i.e. Poland).

To summarize: I really do like this article.

It’s got good introductory information; it goes into details and has quite a lot of good sources to delve in deeper. There’s information as basic to explain the types of magic, the people involved, and anecdotes of specific events. It’s a good introduction into Russia, early modern history, and just what made Russia different from western Europe and its history with the witch trials. It’s also got the information on legal and belief history that create the open background to truly understand witch trials and in what type of atmosphere that they happen.

I recommend reading this, with any interest in eastern Europe or Russian history.



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I'm a bibliophile who loves collecting books. Definite cat person. Amateur historian and major geek, who loves all things Tolkien and Star Trek. I'm also fluent in German.

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