As historians, sometimes we come across documents that in form are run-of-the-mill, but whose contents is exceptional. One such document is an autopsy from 1644, performed on a body whose cause of death was visible, and fairly straightforward. The question then becomes, why conduct this autopsy? The answer to that reveals a tale of dynastic machinations, religious controversy, and a thwarted attempt to flee Moscow.
But to get there, we need to begin with our unusual autopsy:
“153 г. Сентября въ 5 день. По Государеву Цареву и Великово князя Михаила Федоровича указу и по присылке королевичева доктура, Аптекарского приказу доктуры Венделунусъ Сибилистъ Еганъ Беловъ Артманъ Граманъ, ездили на посольской дворъ и досматривали у умершово королевичева кравчево раны и тотъ кравчей раненъ изъ пищали рана подъ самымъ правымъ глазомъ и оне доктуры въ ту рану щупомъ щупали а пульки не дощупались потому что рана глубока а то подлинно что пулька въ голове.
На обороте: Такова скаска дана боярину Федору Ивановичю Шереметеву.»
“1644 [7153 by the Old Russian calendar], 5th September. By the order of the Lord Tsar Grand Prince Mikhail Fedorovich and by the request of Count [Valdemar]’s doctor, Apothecary Chancery doctors Wendelin Sybelist, Johann Belau and Hartmann Graman went to the embassy’s compound and examined the wounds of a dead servitor [kravchii, something like a cupbearer] of Count [Valdemar] and that servitor was wounded by a pischal [a firearm similar to a rifle] directly under the right eye and they, the doctors, probed that wound with a probe but the bullet was not detected [in this way] because the wound is deep but the bullet is genuinely in the head [of the dead servitor].
Reverse: Such a report was given to nobleman Fedor Ivanovich Sheremetev [head of the Apothecary Chancery].”
Readers of modern Russian will immediately detect one oddity here: the use (and spelling) of the word “skazka.”
The meaning of the word “skazka” has changed substantially over time. Whereas in modern Russian “skazka” means a fairytale, in early modern bureaucratic Russian the word meant something even closer to its literal meaning “something that is said.” A skazka was report that initially delivered by being spoken, even if it was then written down.
The Apothecary Chancery, early modern Russia’s official medical department, commonly used such oral reports. As we can see in this document, many of their doctors were foreigners. They could speak their reports aloud (usually in Latin) to an interpreter, who would render it into spoken Russian, so that a secretary could then write down the report in Russian. This was a standard, if somewhat convoluted, procedure.
Autopsies were also a fairly standard part of the activities of the Apothecary Chancery. The department carried out such examinations when there was a suspicion that the individual had died from an infectious disease, and so assess if Moscow might be hit by an epidemic.
The luckless servitor examined in 1644 had not died from an infectious disease, but rather a gunshot wound. So, why did the department, and the Tsar, care?
The servitor in question worked for Valdemar Christian, Count of Schleswig-Holstein. Valdemar was the son of King Christian IV of Denmark, yet he was not eligible to inherit the Danish throne. His parents’ marriage was morganatic, an arrangement where someone of higher status could wed someone of lower status, but the spouse and their children would not have access to titles.
Valdemar, then, was a royal in search of a throne.
Enter Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich of Russia. Mikhail Fedorovich had only one son, Alexei Mikhailovich, not an ideal situation for the first ruler in the newly-established dynasty of the Romanovs. Mikhail Fedorovich also had several daughters, so he proposed a deal to the Danish: if Count Valdemar came to Russia and married the Tsar’s eldest daughter, Irina Mikhailovna, Valdemar would be second in line to the Russian throne and Russia would have a new ally in Denmark. Valdemar found the deal attractive, and in 1643 he travelled to Moscow to arrange the marriage.
Yet this was not so simple.
Valdemar was Protestant, Irina was Russian Orthodox. Could the two marry without one converting? Should – or could – Valdemar convert? This question was hotly debated by the Danish delegation, Russian courtiers, and Russian Orthodox churchmen. Even the King of Poland – keen to throw up roadblocks in Russia’s path to a new ally – weighed in to claim the conversion was impossible.
Negotiations broke down, but Mikhail Fedorovich was not inclined to allow Valdemar to leave. So, one night in early September 1644, Valdemar and his retinue snuck out of their compound, and attempted to flee Moscow.
This did not go well. Somehow Valdemar’s plans were discovered, shots were exchanged, and Valdemar and his men ended up back in their Moscow compound.
Well, most of his men.
These were the circumstances under which Valdemar’s luckless servitor was killed. He was shot, in the face, in front of multiple people.
Why perform an autopsy on a person whose cause of death was so well known? It would have been phenomenal if the Apothecary Chancery’s doctors had discovered that the man with a gunshot wound in his face had died from some other cause. But they did not.
This document does not directly answer the question of why autopsy this servitor for us directly. But the circumstances point towards a probable answer. The most likely solution is that the autopsy was a part of an official reaction to the incident, perhaps even a part of some official response to the Danish.
This was not the end of the story, at least not for Valdemar.
Despite the total breakdown of negotiations over the marriage, Mikhail Fedorovich insisted on keeping Valdemar in Moscow. It was only after Mikhail Fedorovich’s death 10 months later in July 1645, and after substantial pressure was applied to the Russian court by the Danish, that Christian IV was finally able to extract his son.
Why conduct this autopsy? Because, in the case of deaths linked to diplomacy and royal circles, some dead bodies were more political problems than they were medical mysteries.
1644 autopsy, Russian State Archive of Ancient Documents RGADA f. 143, op. 1, ed. kh. 141. Published in N. E. Mamonov, Materialy dlia istorii medistiny v Rossii, 4 vols (St Petersburg: M. M. Stasiulevich, 1881), i, pp. 62-63. The version I use here is that published by Mamonov. The English translation is my own.
Alexander, John T. Bubonic Plague in Early Modern Russia: Public Health and Urban Disaster (Oxford University Press, 2002).
Dumschat, Sabine, Ausländischer Mediziner im Moskauer Russland (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2006).
Griffin, Clare. "Bureaucracy and Knowledge Creation: the Apothecary Chancery." In Information and Empire: mechanisms of communication in Russia, 1600-1850 ed. Simon Franklin and Katherine Bowers (Open Book Publishers, 2017), pp. 255-285.
Oparina, T. A. Inozemtsy v Rossii XVI-XVII vv. (Moscow: Progress-Traditsiia, 2007), pp. 55-81.
Rock, Stella, Popular Religion in Russia: Double Belief and the Making of an Academic Myth (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), p. 78.
Unkovskaya, Maria, Brief Lives: A Handbook of Medical Practitioners in Muscovy, 1620-1701 (London: The Wellcome Trust, 1999).
As the novel coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak has progressed into a pandemic, people have had a lot of feelings about OCD. There have been any number of newspaper articles on this, as well as statements by government officials and comments by individuals on social media. Why? What possible link could there be between a respiratory illness and an anxiety disorder? The answer, as is annoyingly often the case with popular discussions of OCD, is hand washing.
Some people have written articles about how hard it is to have OCD right now, what a major impact a pandemic is having on OCD sufferers. And it is. For people who suffer from certain specific variations of OCD.
Hand washing, along with excessive concern over cleanliness and germs, are OCD symptoms associated with one kind of OCD, contamination OCD. And in fact, not everyone with contamination OCD necessarily compulsively washes their hands. That subset of the condition is bigger than one symptom, just as OCD itself is more than one manifestation of the disorder.
Other people, inexplicably, have decided that OCD is the solution to life’s problems. The minister of health of New Zealand. An OCD specialist based at Stanford. Both *recommend* OCD as a response to COVID-19, claiming that OCD compulsions around hand washing and distancing yourselves from others are what is needed to combat the current outbreak.
I have read all the guidance provided by major public health organisations like the WHO and the CDC. And you know, none of them tell people to develop a disabling anxiety condition that might compulsively force you to stay away from others and wash your hands repeatedly. The public health advice is to wash your hands in specific situations, once, for 20 seconds each time. That is not OCD.
The second group of people, those *recommending* OCD are worse, but, honestly, I am tired of both kinds of people. I am tired of people claiming my chronic anxiety disorder is a magical cure for COVID-19. And I am also tired of people rubber-necking the pain of people with OCD.
When the outbreak started, highlighting that it would be hard on people with contamination OCD in particular was a legitimate point. But that point has been made. And made again. And again. And again. What, now, is the point of writing such an article? What will people do after they have read it? Will they do something to support people with anxiety conditions? Or is it just voyeurism, an opportunity for people who do not have OCD can cry about how sad they imagine our lives must be, then go right back to what they were doing before?
Journalists, I do not need yet another pity party about OCD. I send back your invitation, unopened.
There are articles that should be written right now about COVID-19 and OCD. Because alongside the well-publicised cases of mental health professionals and government ministers making bizarre claims about the “benefits” of OCD during the present crisis, there are also the usual jerks, who on any day of the week would proclaim themselves “sooo OCD” for tidying their closet once a year. Except now they have been told to wash their hands, and they have heard that OCD means washing your hands. So there is a wave of comments, on every social media platform out there, of all the ignorant people misusing OCD to mean they kept their distance from people and washed their hands once in a while. And that’s also been great to read.
Why not write that article, journalists? Why not discuss how ignorance of a major mental health condition has been further fuelled by the present crisis? Why not take people to task for claiming that an anxiety condition would help people survive a pandemic? Why not ask OCD sufferers how other people’s oblivious comments are affecting them? Why not discuss how conflating public health advice to follow specific guidelines regarding hygiene and physical distancing with the symptoms of an anxiety condition is irresponsible, especially during a global pandemic? Why is no one writing about how ignorance of OCD hurts both sufferers of OCD and everyone trying to cope with the COVID-19 crisis?
Any number of people want to write about how our brains are a problem, and isn’t that sad. No one seems to want to write about how ableist comments on our condition are a problem, not just for us, but for everyone.
My brain is not the issue here.
Now go wash your hands like the WHO told you to.