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Male Witches and Gendered Categories in Seventeenth-Century Russia

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 August 2003

Valerie A. Kivelson
Department of History, University of Michigan


A generation ago, alert historians jolted the field of witchcraft studies by calling attention to the fact that it was women in particular who burned on the pyres of the European witch trials. Amazingly enough, earlier historians had overlooked, or at least underplayed that particular skew in the record. Now the idea of witch-hunts as a “women's holocaust” is old hat, and in fact, has made one of those rare successful crossovers into popular culture. Historical approaches never stay still, however, and recent publications have reoriented the discussion yet again. A spate of new interpretations, particularly by Stuart Clark and Robin Briggs, push gender off the center of the screen, arguing that other factors were equally or more important in shaping accusations. Other works muddy the waters by noting the many places, particularly in the Baltic and Scandinavia, but also pockets within Western Europe, where men, not women, comprised a large fraction or even the majority of the accused.Evidence of male witches in Estonia, Finland, and Iceland is found in Maia Madar, “Estonia I: Werewolves and Poisoners,” in Early Modern European Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries, Bengt Ankarloo and Gustav Henningsen, eds. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 257–72; Juhan Kahak, “Estonia II: The Crusade against Idolatry,” in ibid., 273–84; Antero Heikkinen and Timo Kervinen, “Finland: The Male Domination,” in ibid., 319–38; Kirsten Hastrup, “Iceland: Sorcerers and Paganism,” in ibid., 383–401; Marko Nenonen, ‘”Envious are all the People, Witches Watch at Every Gate”: Finnish Witches and Witch Trials in the 17th Century,' Scandinavian Journal of History 18 (1993):77–91. In Western Europe, regions that produced larger trials generally included higher percentages of males among the accused. See E. William Monter, Witchcraft in France and Switzerland: The Borderlands during the Reformation (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976); H. C. Erik Midelfort, Witch-Hunting in Southwestern Germany, 1562–1684: The Social and Intellectual Foundations (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972). In the heart of Europe, France also offers some exceptionally high representation of males in particular jurisdictions, although not uniformly throughout the country. Alfred Soman finds that over half of the 1,300 defendants who appealed witchcraft convictions before the Parlement of Paris were male. Alfred Soman, “Les Procès de sorcellerie au Parlement de Paris (15651640),” Annales 32 (1977):790814; and “La Sorcellerie vue du Parlement de Paris au début du XVII<+>e siècle,” Actes du 104<+>e congrès national des sociétés savantes, Bordeaux, 1979, Section d'histoire moderne et contemporaine (Paris, 1981); and Sorcellerie et justice criminelle (16e–18e siècles) (London, 1992), 79899. William Monter finds an extraordinary pocket of male witches in Normandy. “Here, in the Pays de Caux, lay the epicenter of male witchcraft in Western Europe.” W. Monter, “Toads and Eucharists: The Male Witches of Normandy, 15641660,” French Historical Studies 20 (1997):56395, quote on 581. Other discussions of the involvement of men in witchcraft trials include Eva Labouvie, “Männer im Hexenprozess. Zur Sozialanthropologie eines ‘männlichen' Verstädnisses vom Magie und Hexerei,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 16 (1990):5678; Robert W. Thurston, Witch, Wicce, Mother Goose: The Rise and Fall of the Witch Hunts in Europe and North America (London: Longman, 2001), 12627.On Russia's male witches, see Russell Zguta, “Witchcraft Trials in Seventeenth-Century Russia,” American Historical Review 82 (1977):1187–207; Valerie Kivelson, “Through the Prism of Witchcraft: Gender and Social Change in Seventeenth-Century Muscovy,” in Russia's Women: Accommodation, Resistance, Transformation, Barbara Evans Clements, Barbara Alpern Engel, and Christine D. Worobec, eds. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991); A. S. Lavrov, Koldovstvo i religiia v Rossii, 1700–1740 gg. (Moscow: Drevlekhranilishche, 2000); E. B. Smilianskaia, Koldun i ved'ma v kontekste russkoi kul'tury XVIII veka (Moscow: ROO “Sodeistvie sotrudnichestvu Instituta imeni Dzh. Kennana,” 2000); “Sudebno-sledstvennye dokumenty kak istochnik po istorii obshchestvennogo soznaniia (iz opyta izucheniia “dukhovnykh del” pervoi poloviny XVIII v.),” in Issledovaniia po istorii knizhnoi i traditsionnoi narodnoi kul'tury Severa (Sytyvkar, 1997), 16875; and her forthcoming book, Volshebniki, bogokhul'niki, eretiki. Narodnaia religioznost' i dukhovnye prestupleniia v Rossii XVIII veka (Moscow: Indrik, 2002). W. F. Ryan also acknowledges some gender imbalance among those accused in Russia, in, “The Witchcraft Hysteria in Early Modern Europe: Was Russia an Exception?” Slavonic and East European Review 76 (1998):4984. Still, little systematic work has appeared that seriously attempts to sort out why in some areas people believed that, “particularly through the agency of woman are infernal enchantments brought to pass,” and elsewhere men became the more common targets of accusation.The quote is taken from an early Russian text, but the presence of this textual tradition did not prevent later Muscovites from accusing primarily male witches. The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text, Samuel Hazzard Cross and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor, trans and ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: The Medieval Academy of America, 1973), entry for the year 1071, p. 153.

Research Article
© 2003 Society for Comparative Study of Society and History

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