Sex and witchcraft in early modern Livonia: the eyewitness accounts by Balthasar Russow and Dionysius Fabricius

F. Brīvzemnieks, Latvian poet and ethnographer

A Latvian witch, by F. Brīvzemnieks, Latvian poet and ethnographer

It’s been a long time since my promised post on the outrageous morals of early modern Livonians, which fired Protestant pastors (Balthasar Russow, quoted from in my previous post) and Jesuit brothers alike. In fact, I have found another chronicle of Livonia, the History of Livonia written in the seventeenth century by the Jesuit Dyonisius Fabricius. Fabricius borrows on Russow, but he has a slightly differing view of the Livonian native peasants as different from the debauched nobility of Livonia. The former appear to be uneducated, semi-pagan, yet interested in listening to sermons delivered at churches. Fabricius notes that, because of the dearth of priests, the simple folk have insufficient knowledge of Christianity, especially in forested, scarcely populated areas around the borders

‘aliquibus in partibus reperiri qveant qvi ininstitutione christiana, ob sacerdotum inopiam, qvorum semper defectus fuit, praesertim iis in finibus, vbi rarior est freqventia hominum, et incolae in sylvis degunt non bene informati’

At the same time, the simple folk preserve many of their original, heathen customs, which are surely inspired by the devil, as Fabricius notes the cult of serpents, not attested by Russow or other early authors. Moreover, the scandalous wedding feasts, three days of eating and drinking, followed by sleeping together, men and women, in one bed, is something peculiar to the peasants, as it’s hard to imagine the Livonian nobility, no matter how debauched, engage in group intercourse, even though, according to Russow, concubinage seems a standard option, even among the clergy.

In a word, Russow blames the Livonian nobility for not educating the simple folk, who know no better and simply follow their masters’ example. Fabricius notes the lack of instruction for the simple folk, but also depicts the ancient customs which ages of Christianity failed to eradicate, especially in the less populated areas.

Let us begin our excursion into Livonian mores with Russow, who is very explicit on the sexual sins of the Livonian upper class, which is consequently imitated by the peasants.

From year 1549, the beginning of the term of Johann von der Recke, the 43rd master of the Livonian Order, Russow writes as eyewitness, and he begins the section on Johann von der Recke with a lengthy and angry diatribe on the sins of the nobles:

‘As we know, Livonia was conquered and fortified by earlier masters, bishops and German lords, and initially it was settled by numerous Germans. Towns, villages and castles were built, and enemies were not to be feared at all. Wolter von Pletenberg likewise, due to his great victory against the Russians, brought long peace to the land, so that Livonia remained protected from the horrors of war for many years. But among the rulers and the subjects alike flourished overconfidence, sloth, pride, haughtiness, boastfulness, luxury, excess of extravagance and immorality, so there would be a lot to say and write on the subject.

Some members of the orders, living their good and lazy days, were so immersed in immoral doings not only with public girls but also with married women, and committed such sins that it is shameful to think of these. They did not think it shameful, after some time of living together, to give rich gifts to their beloved women, marry them off, and take new ones.

The same life, no better at all, was lived also by bishops and clergymen. If a bishop’s concubine grew old or he did not fancy her any longer, he would marry her to a freeman, donating him a mill or a piece of land, and took again a fresh girl instead of the ejected one. The same was practiced by priests and abbots. When Johann Blankenburg, the priest of Revel, brought from Germany his own married wife, he did not dare acknowledge her as such, but told bishops and other members of the clergy that she was his concubine. The same Johann Blankenburg, upon finding out a man knows of it, gave hm a fattened pig, so that the man would not disclose this was his married wife. For these holy men, this was too much shame and sin. When all clergymen, bishops and members of the Livonian order, as shepherds, saviors of souls and governors, conducted such seducing life, the subjects, both noble and simple folk, could only do the same thing. And the companions of their immoral life were not some public girls, but governed their households.

At last, this immorality became so entrenched in the society, that it was no longer considered shame and sin. Also respected people, immediately after the death of the wife, took new governesses, namely, concubines, whom they kept until they married again. Some even held their concubines to be more important than their wives, which many found to be highly obscene.

As this immorality spread all over the land, some Lutheran preachers in the land, like the others, were not ashamed to live with concubines. And then there was no superintendent in all the land who would be concerned with preventing such heavy sins. Many preachers were not concerned with preaching but travelled from one landlord to another within the parish, from one freeman to another, even visiting peasants, and were well received everywhere. A jolly man, with lots of jolly jokes in his head, who could bring merriment to the company and could speak so well that everyone would listen to him would be the real preacher for these people. This is why many of Livonian preachers dared not punish these sins. Neither was it ever heard that concubinage and breaking of the matrimony would be punished by the masters of the order, bishops and landlords.

At the same time, punishments for immoral life still existed among stable lads and servants of the members of the Livonian order. If any of them was caught in an immoral act, he was lead with pipes and drums playing through the city and over the market place and to the city gate, and he was immersed, dressed as he was, with socks and shoes, in a well or another water source, shamed in front of all the community.

Then he was again taken through the city with pipes and drums over the same streets to the castle, where he was released by the servants’ fogt; the position was taken by the eldest of them.

At the same time, the rulers, bishops, clergymen and other German folk, who ought to have known better, were immersed in the above immoralities, and likewise non-German uneducated peasants conducted the same immoral, sodomic and epicurean life, the like of which has not been experienced anywhere in the Christendom. The majority of peasants did not want to know anything of married life. If a peasant’s wife grew old or ill, or did not please him, he thrust her out and took another one. If asked why he lived outside marriage, a peasant would reply that this was an old Livonian custom and his ancestors used to live this way. Some peasant replied to this that unmarried could eat bread together as well as married spouses. Another reply was that, if the same is done by lords and landlords, why should peasants be prohibited to do so? Again, some said that the landlords themselves support unmarried life, because they did not object to it, and reason was that, after the parents’ death, children born outside wedlock could be deprived of the father’s inheritance, both moveable and immovable, easier.’

After this long interlude on the sexual sins and immoral lifestyle of the noble and simple Livonians, Russow describes the pastimes, feasts and activities in which the Livonian nobility wasted their time. He dwells, in particular, on the outrageously expensive weddings, where a bride was so decked out in gold and jewels, she could hardly stand, and where one ornament on the equipment of a horse ridden by the wedding guests would cost 9 measures of rye. These passages are quoted in my previous post, and I also the passage concerning the horse at the end of Practical Horsemanship in Medieval Arthurian Romance.

Although Fabricius also notes a few instances of old customs among the peasants of Livonia, he, in turn, seems less interested in the mores of the nobles, preferring to concentrate on the peasants. Neither does he dwell on the peasants’ sexual sins, possibly because these are self-evident, or less important than their engagement in witchcraft, of which he gives ample information.

Maija under the old oakHe notes that the Livonians are ‘beyond culture, still worshipping the sun, the moon and even trees.’ Indeed, some vestiges of tree worship are extant in Latvian culture even today, in the form of stand-alone giant trees. The practical explanation for the existence of these trees in the middle of a pasture is that they would offer shadow to the cattle on hot days. Many of these ancient trees are protected, and an ancient oak was also depicted on the banknotes of the Latvian national currency, the lat, before the introduction of the euro. So, still pagans.

The other remarks of Fabricius are harder to prove in the Latvian context today, as he seems to be deliberately provocative: ‘Some [peasants] know the arts of sorcery so well that, even in the middle of the summer, in the most evil heat, they can call forth snow and frost. What is more, with their sorcery, they so stop the sown wheat which has already grown to the heels that the shoots grow back into the soil and are so mixed up in the clearings the peasant would not get any harvest.’ The Latvian climate is very changeable, as this spring we have witnessed a change from +26 to +3 (day temperature) within a week, so Fabricius may have simply chanced into a spell of very unpredictable weather, rather than making it all up. And adverse weather conditions would affect the harvest.

However, he does include some material which begs the question: did he witness it and under what circumstances? The passage in question refers to dragons or serpents (‘dracones’) with which the locals are on such good terms, the dragons ‘steal wheat for them and take it to their homes’. So, Latvia is the country of the dragons, it seems.

About thegrailquest

Anastasija Ropa holds a doctoral degree from Bangor University (North Wales), for a study in medieval and modern Arthurian literature. She has published a number of articles on medieval and modern Arthurian literature, focusing on its historical and artistic aspects. She is currently employed as guest lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Sport Education. Anastasija’s most recent research explores medieval equestrianism in English and French literary art and literature, and she is also engaged as part-time volunteer horse-trainer. In a nutshell: Lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Sport Education Graduate of the School of English, University of Wales, Bangor. Graduate of the University of Latvia Passionate about history, particularly the Middle Ages A horse-lover and horse-owner
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3 Responses to Sex and witchcraft in early modern Livonia: the eyewitness accounts by Balthasar Russow and Dionysius Fabricius

  1. Pingback: The Count of May Festival in Riga | thegrailquest

  2. Pingback: Of the Livonians’ Cults, religion(S) and (Im)morality – Again | thegrailquest

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