The Danish question
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).
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Historian of science, medicine, and global connections in the early modern world