For the first post on my new blog, I want to share a little document that raises some big questions, and then utterly refuses to help answer any of them. In 2009-2010, I was in Moscow, sitting in the Russian State Archive of Ancient Documents in Moscow doing my PhD research. I was working my way through the catalogue of documents from the Apothecary Chancery, early modern Russia’s official medical department. As I did so, I came across a record of a patient noted as suffering from ручной блуд, the premodern Russian phrase for masturbation. So clearly I ordered that document up. The entire case file was one sheet of paper.
The case file is so short, that I can give you the whole of it here:
"166-ого Апреля въ 12-й день, в Оптекарскомъ Приказе жилецъ Иван Чортовъ въ роспросе сказалъ, что у него ручной блудъ, а учинился у него тотъ блудъ въ те поры какъ он былъ десяти летъ, и съ техъ местъ и по се время у него тотъ блудъ.
И дохтуръ, смотря Ивана Чортова, сказалъ, что тотъ блудъ учинился у него отъ порчи и от кручины и какъ онъ Иванъ учалъ быть в возрасте, и тотъ блудъ сталъ ему не въ мочъ и отъ того ему учинилась кручина; а которые люди бываютъ в шесть летъ и у техъ людей тотъ блудъ отъ порчу-жъ бываетъ; и тотъ блудъ у него лечить мочно только ему будетъ тяжело и лекарствъ много надобно, потому, что тотъ блудъ многими леть застарелъ и вскоре излечить ево не мочно."
"12th April 1658 [7166 by the Old Russian calendar], zhilets Ivan Chortov said when questioned, that he has manual fornication, and that fornication began with him when he was ten years old, and since that time he has had that fornication.
And the doctor, examining Ivan Chortov, said that that [manual] fornication began with him from a curse [lit. spoiling] and from melancholy and when Ivan came of age that fornication was not under his control and because of it he had melancholy. And there are people who are six years old and amongst such people that fornication occurs because of a curse. And it is possible to treat that fornication, only it will be hard for him [Chortov] and many medicines will be necessary [to treat this] as this fornication has grown old over many years and it will not be possible to cure him quickly."
I am here deliberately trying to leave the seventeenth-century Russian as close to its original phrasing as possible. Readers who know modern Russian will see the oddness of the syntax and phrasing of this document, written before Peter the I, Alexander Pushkin, the Bolsheviks, and others, had transformed the language into the one we use today.
For the historians of sexuality and medicine, it is important to note just how Chortov’s masturbatory habits are described. Блудъ, the word I translate as fornication, is an Old Russian and Old Church Slavonic term for inappropriate sexual contact. Literally translated, Chortov’s problem is here called “manual fornication.”
Also importantly, Chortov does not have an active verb here. He is not described as masturbating, engaging in masturbation, or any similar verbal phrase. Rather, he “has” masturbation, that masturbation began, using a reflexive verb. The very grammar of the piece removes any possible agency from Chortov in his masturbation, a lack of agency also underlined by the comments of the doctor.
There are hints of other stories in here.
The text repeatedly mentions кручина, melancholy or great sadness. This might, perhaps, even be interpreted as a reference to sin. Certainly masturbation was considered a sin by the Russian Orthodox Church; Eve Levin has written about the specified penances for it in this period. Yet we do not get a direct mention of a religious involvement in Chortov’s file.
The word порча, literally spoiling, gestures towards witchcraft, as that term was commonly used in Russian witchcraft trials of the seventeenth century to mean a curse. Yet, unlike the witchcraft trials discussed by Valerie Kivelson, here we have no particular individual accused of witchcraft, no specifics as to the magic supposedly performed, and no trial.
The very fact that this case ended up in the medical department is intriguing. Michael Stolberg has written about evolving attitudes to masturbation in early modern Western Europe. According to Stolberg, there was a shift in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, from a primarily religious view of masturbation as a sin, to a more medicalised view of it as an affliction. We might perhaps want to include this document in that trajectory, but that is complicated by the fact that this is the only Apothecary Chancery document to mention masturbation.
This casefile, then, is full of intriguing possibilities. It hints at attitudes to sex, ideas of sin, the practice of magic, the role of medicine. Yet, ultimately, it refuses to take us very far on any of them.
1658 examination of a man suffering from masturbation thought to be brought on by witchcraft, Russian State Archive of Ancient Documents (RGADA) f. 143, d. 2, ed. khr. 344. Published in N. E. Mamonov, Materialy dlia istorii medistiny v Rossii, 4 vols (St Petersburg: M. M. Stasiulevich, 1881), iii, p. 705. The version I use here is that published by Mamonov. The English translation is my own.
Kivelson, Valerie. Desperate Magic: The Moral Economy of Witchcraft in Seventeenth-Century Russia. Cornell University Press, 2013.
Levin, Eve. Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs, 900-1700. Cornell University Press, 1989.
Michael Stolberg, ‘The Crime of Onan and the Laws of Nature. Religious and Medical Discourses on Masturbation in the Late Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries’, Paedagogica historica, 39 (2003), 701- 17.
Historian of science, medicine, and global connections in the early modern world