Of Roots and Scrolls

1600-1850 Dec 11, 2017

How the Bible, Witchcraft, and Botany Were Brought Together By Bureaucracy In A Completely Everyday Fashion That Was Totally Normal At The Time, No, Really, Stay With Me On This One You Guys.

Because I can explain. This is the story of an institution both entirely unique and completely typical, and of its documents, which were also weird and wonderful whilst being simultaneously humdrum and mundane. This is the story of the Apothecary Chancery. Across the seventeenth century, an official institution housed in an unassuming building next to the Moscow Kremlin was home to a small group of foreign medical practitioners (immigrants – they get the job done), and a smaller group of Russian bureaucrats, who did various things with their day, among which was to read things, talk about things, and write things down. That last part happened in a normal way for their surroundings, that is to say they were written in Russian, and on scrolls. This was how all official documents were created, circulated, and joined together into long threads around the entire empire, whether about the rise and fall of nations, or the delivery of firewood.

But what the Apothecary Chancery put in their scrolls was a bit different. When a Russian bureaucrat, in the way of bureaucrats, came across a question to which he did not have an answer, he could use the scrolls to ask someone else what to do. Any number of those questions ended up being a bit medical. I say a bit, because what looked a bit medical in the seventeenth century often does not look a bit medical in the twenty-first. But if the question was a bit medical to the eyes of a Muscovite, it would go to the Apothecary Chancery. Sometimes those questions were about astrology, and if reading the future (say, of someone’s health) from the movement of the stars could be Christian. So the Apothecary Chancery would read and talk and write about the Bible and stars and bodies. Or if a peasant was found with a weird root about their person – a habit peasants were keen on, apparently – the bureaucrat would want to know if that was a magic root, and if the peasant was planning some witchcraft on the side, or if they just felt some other, more innocuous, kind of affinity for that particular piece of plant matter.

And so the root would go, with a scroll, to the immigrant doctors, who would look in their library for botanical volumes on the properties of plants, and consider if this really could be a magic root. And then they wrote it down. And then the answer was sent out, to be joined to the question in another file in another department. And so it went on, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, with questions coming in, and answers going out. Sometimes they would come from nearby, from another building in central Moscow. Other times they would come from further away, from a governor in a far-flung imperial town. Those documents meant that everything that one building of experts knew about things that were a bit medical did not stay in that building, but rather became part of the realm, became a textual fragment of that expertise, and to be passed through many hands in that form. These scrolls were the ties that bound the Russian Empire, and the Bible, witchcraft, botany, and many other subjects, together. So now you know. There, aren’t you glad you kept reading?

by Clare Griffin
To read more of Professor Griffin’s work on the Apothecary Chancery see her chapter in our book Information and Empire: Mechanisms of Communication in Russia, 1600-1850.