A Woman In A Man’s Medical World
In 1699, a group of traders from Moscow’s Kitai-gorod markets were interrogated about the sale of medical drugs following deaths linked to products sold there. Among those interrogated were six men and one woman, Agrofenka Leontyeva.
This is unusual. As in many places in the early modern world, men are much easier to find in Russian medical records than women. The Apothecary Chancery, the official medical department of the seventeenth-century Russian Empire, was exclusively staffed by men, and the overwhelming majority of patient records relate to men.
Elsewhere in Europe and European colonies, evidence of women’s medical practice can be found in witchcraft trials as healing gone awry could lead to such an accusation. Yet in Russia, like in Scandinavia, most of those accused of witchcraft – be it healing magic or some other kind of sorcery – were men.
Image: a black-and-white drawing of a seventeenth-century Russian townswoman like Leontyeva, in a long coat and a hat carrying two buckets.
Image origin: The Mayerberg Album.
This archival silence on women is compounded in the Russian case by the pre-1700 attitude towards literacy. Literacy was a practical skill properly reserved for workers with words, the clerks and the clergy; other groups obtaining such a skill was at best odd, at worst suspicious. As the writing classes were men, there are vanishingly few documents by women, and not overly many about them.
Leontyeva was then an unusual figure, not only within that specific group of traders, but in early modern Russian medicine as a whole. Not only was she a woman working as a medical practitioner, she was a woman worth writing about. What can we know about her, and about women in Moscow’s medical marketplace, from her inclusion in this document?
The document itself gives only brief information on her, just a couple of lines on her practice. She told her interrogators that she had been trading on the market for three years, selling balms and simple plasters but emphatically denied stocking either medicines for internal consumption or oils. She made her plasters and balms herself, buying ingredients like turpentine from other Moscow traders.
Image: Seventeenth-century black-and-white map of Moscow, with the Kitai-gorod trading region in which Leontyeva worked highlighted in yellow. It is to the North of the Moskva river, and just to the East of the Kremlin.
Image origin: Wiki Commons.
One point to emerge from this all-too-brief glimpse into Leontyeva’s life is how ordinary this all is. Her testimony differs very little from the male traders who were also interrogated as a part of the same investigation. They all traded in the same part of the market, making some goods themselves but buying supplies from other traders, all had been trading for 2-3 years, and all strongly denied selling medicines for internal consumption, the latter point shaped by the investigation’s focus on a recent death caused by a consumable medicine. No mention at all is made in the document of her being a woman, the only way we know that she was a woman is from the form of her name, and the gendered pronouns and verbs in the record of her testimony.
There is no emphasis on her gender, no lauding of her breaking boundaries, but also no outcry – in a document specifically about violations of law and order – that a woman should be working as a market trader or making medicines for sale. She is just there, standing calmly alongside her male colleagues.
This is not to say that her life as a woman in a man’s world would have been easy. One other notable early modern Russian medical document about a woman is an early seventeenth-century investigation into the health of Maria Khlopova, the Tsar’s former fiancée. In the record of that inquest, which took place years after the engagement was broken, we see a controlling, patriarchal environment in which one brief failed engagement shaped the entirety of the rest of Khlopova’s life. Leontyeva and Khlopova, a trader and a noblewoman, were from very different parts of Muscovite society, but both lived in the same patriarchal world.
Image: an early twentieth-century imagining of a street in Kitai-gorod, a street that Leontyeva and perhaps even Khlopova could have walked down, by the Russian painter A. M. Vasnetsov. A colorful painting featuring St Basil's Cathedral in the background and wooden buildings of various dimensions and designs in the foreground, as well as market traders and people on the street.
Image Origin: Wiki Commons
What, then, can we make of Leontyeva’s life in the male-dominated world of early modern Russia from this tiny snippet?
She was a medical expert, knowing the medicinal properties of natural objects like turpentine and knowing and using recipes to create medicines from them. She was a successful businesswoman, buying and selling goods on the Moscow markets for three years. She earnt enough not to resort to kabal’noe kholopstvo, a form of slavery into which the destitute of early modern Russia could sell themselves up until the 1720s. She was a member of a liminal part of Moscow society, the traders who sold wares to humble and elite alike. And she knew the law, carefully stating that she had not sold forbidden goods.
Leontyeva’s life was not dramatic or prominent or world-changing. And in that lies its importance. Not every woman’s life is exceptional, nor does it need to be in order for it to be of worth, to society and to history. Leontyeva, quietly making her everyday wares for the noble and ignoble of Moscow, shows us that female experts are always with us. Sometimes, we just need to look a little harder to make them out.
1699 interrogations of Kitai-gorod market traders, Russian State Archive for Ancient Documents (RGADA), Moscow, f. 143 (Apothecary Chancery), op. 3, ed. khr. 462.
Griffin, Clare. “Such A Pretty Tsaritsa,” Nursing Clio Blog.
Hellie, Richard. Slavery in Russia, 1450–1725 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1982).
Kivelson, Valerie A. "Male Witches and Gendered Categories in Seventeenth-century Russia." Comparative Studies in Society and History 45, no. 3 (2003): 606-631.
Levin, Eve, ‘Healers and Witches in Early Modern Russia’, in Saluting Aron Gurevich: Essays in History, Literature, and Other Related Subjects, ed. Yelena Mazour- Matusevich and Alexandra S. Korros (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 105–33.
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Historian of science, medicine, and global connections in the early modern world