What to Feed the Servants in Sixteenth-Century Russia

By Carolyn Pouncy

Russian Cabbage/Sour Cabbage Soup (Shchi)
Russian Cabbage/Sour Cabbage Soup (Shchi)
(Wiki Images)

There is a Russian proverb, well known among historians of the prerevolutionary years and especially of the peasantry—“Cabbage soup and kasha are our food.” It sounds better in Russian, where it rhymes: Shchi da kasha, pishcha nasha. But in either language, it conveys a basic truth about Russian life—probably even today, but certainly in the past, when the range of foods was so much narrower and abject poverty more widespread than they are now. The great dishes of Russian cuisine, the Chicken Kiev and Beef Stroganoff, are not only relatively recent inventions but creations developed for the 19th-century elite. Such foods never formed part of most people’s diet.

So it is both amusing and a bit sad to turn to Domostroi, the 16th-century book on domestic management (the name means, literally, House Structure or House Order), and read its prescribed meals for servants:

“As everyday food servants receive rye bread, cabbage soup, and thin kasha with ham. Sometimes they may have thick kasha with lard. This is what most people give their servants for dinner, although they vary the menu according to which meat is available. On Sundays and holy days servants sometimes get turnovers [pirozhki—small pies stuffed with a mixture of meat or vegetables, cooked grains, and eggs], jellies, pancakes, or other, similar food. At supper they eat cabbage soup and milk or kasha.”

Meat/Vegetable Turnover (Pirozhki)
Meat/Vegetable Turnover (Pirozhki)
(Wiki Images)

These prescriptions were for meat days. On the many fast days that dotted the Orthodox calendar, the cabbage soup and kasha continued to appear, with fish or vegetables rather than meat, “sometimes with broth, peas, or turnip soup.” Fish soup, pease porridge, pickles, and oatmeal were also considered suitable. On ordinary days, feast or fast, servants drank “second-grade beer,” upgraded on Sundays and holidays to ale. Those who served at table, together with children and poor relations of the family, did better, since they were permitted to share in the leftovers of the much more elaborate dishes served to the master and mistress of the house. Seamstresses and embroiderers, as well as visiting tradesmen, might be permitted to eat with the master and mistress. This expressed high appreciation indeed, treating these skilled craftspeople and merchants as subordinate members of the family. It also guaranteed them a good meal.

From a modern perspective, it all sounds rather grim and regimented. It’s easy to imagine staring at yet another bowl of cabbage soup, made from sauerkraut in winter, and silently grumbling—as my heroine Nasan does in The Golden Lynx—that if someone cut her open, they would find her green and curly inside. (Nasan is a Tatar, and a khan’s daughter at that, accustomed to somewhat different fare.)

But the real question historians must ask about the instructions in Domostroi is whether anyone followed them. Domestic servants in 16th-century Russia were, almost without exception, full, hereditary slaves; the mere acceptance of a position in household service equated, in the eyes of the law, with selling oneself. Slavery functioned as a kind of social welfare, and those who purchased domestic servants implicitly took responsibility for their maintenance.

Even so, most slaves did not live in the compounds where they worked but supported themselves in whatever miserable lodging they could afford on the basis of a meager allowance, out of which they were also supposed to supply their own food, drink, and clothing. Some resorted to robbery and murder to make ends meet. Most of them would have rejoiced at the thought of two full meals a day, with beer or ale and meat several times a week. Through the early 20th century, many peasants and members of the urban poor would have agreed that such a situation constituted pure, unadulterated bliss.

Sometimes cabbage soup and kasha, delivered regularly and on time, doesn’t look so bad after all.

Text quoted from Carolyn Johnston Pouncy, ed. and trans., The Domostroi: Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 161–62 (chapter 51, “Instruction from a Master to His Steward on How to Feed the Family in Feast and Fast”).

Magic or Medicine? Healing Charms in Fifteenth-Century English Recipe Collections

By Laura Mitchell

Charms can be found in all manner of medieval manuscripts, scrawled in the margins or added (seemingly at random) on blank pages and in the flyleaves. Usually they were simply stuck in some place convenient by someone who thought they would be useful or interesting to have on hand. However, charms also appear in medieval recipe collections, mixed in with recipes for nosebleeds or toothaches or different coloured inks. In these contexts, where does one separate the charm from the recipe?  Should they even be separated?

Let’s back up a minute and think about exactly what I mean by a charm in fifteenth-century England. In medieval Europe, the forms of charms and recipes are generally the same. Both are formulas, whether spoken, written, or chanted. Both have an oral and a written component. And both used words and phrases from the Bible, liturgy, and other religious texts familiar to the average medieval person.[1] For example, the Flum Jordan charm to staunch blood is based on the Biblical story of Jesus’s baptism in the river Jordan. Just as the river stopped flowing when Jesus entered the water, so the blood will stop flowing once the charm is recited. Additionally, prayers could take on apotropaic properties – the recitation of Paternosters and Ave Marias for protection or healing was encouraged in orthodox worship and these two prayers frequently appear in charm texts.

For the ordinary lay person there could be much confusion concerning what was a charm (and therefore bad) and what was a prayer (and therefore good). The cause of this confusion can be explained by looking at the proliferation of sacramentals, which were an important part of popular belief in late medieval Christianity. Sacramentals were objects: things like candles, salt, and water, that had been blessed by the parish priest and distributed to all the households. The candles were lit during thunderstorms to drive away the demons thought to be active during storms, while the water was sprinkled on the hearth to drive away evil or sprinkled in the fields to promote fertility. Water and salt could be given to sick animals.

It’s easy to see how this Church-sanctioned practice could lead to similar practices with objects that had not been blessed, but which were thought to have special God-given properties. It was difficult for the average person to distinguish between the two types of objects, since both could be used and manipulated. Users of charms and folk magic were not concerned with the finer points of theology but with the fact that both sacramental and charms had a power that presumably came from God. There was a very fine line indeed between magic and orthodox religion. Magic in the fifteenth century was firmly established within a Christian framework and fit into people’s belief systems in a natural, rational manner.[2]

Countries and regions might favour one type or one motif over another, though. Wind, for example, was more common in Russia, with charms of ill-purpose said to be “sent on the wind”.[3] Romanian charms, at least in modern times, involve the use of both gestures and formulas. The evil eye, while fairly common in countries like Hungary, is unknown in the medieval English corpus of surviving charms. The one commonality across medieval cultures and countries is the dominance of healing charms, which survive far more than any other charm type.

Unsurprisingly, medical charms are often found in collections of medical recipes. Health and wellbeing was a serious concern in the Middle Ages and, if a cure was questionably orthodox, well, that was alright as long as it worked. In these collections, we find charms for bleeding, toothaches, fevers, blurred vision, insomnia, wounds, childbirth, worms in the ear, and falling sickness (epilepsy)–but not for such things as back pain or swollen feet. Scholars don’t really know why medical charms are restricted to a small number of ailments, but some scholars like Lea Olsan believe it’s because there are no Biblical stories nor religious imagery that can be associated with other ailments.

Charms appear in all diverse medical recipe collections, from the household collection of the Haldenby family in Cambridge (Trinity College MS O.1.57) to the collection of the physician Thomas Fayreford (British Library, Harley MS 2558). This suggests that they were regarded with little or no distinction from the non-magical recipes with which they are grouped. Charms and recipes are presented as equally valid and proper texts to read and/or use, but what distinguished them was merely the source of their curative powers. Medical recipes broadly relied on natural means and associations, whereas charms derived their power from the divine, the supernatural. But even that distinction can be too simplistic! For now, I hope it is clear that the distinction between magic and medicine was more blurred than we often think. Most medieval people considered charms to be no more harmful or unorthodox than any other recipe they might encounter in their daily lives.


[1] Lea Olsan, “Charms in Medieval Memory,” in Charms and Charming in Europe, ed. Jonathan Roper (Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 60.

[2] On the rationality of medieval magic see Richard Kieckhefer, “The Specific Rationality of Medieval Magic” American Historical Review 99:3 (1994): 813-836.

[3] W.F. Ryan, “Eclecticism in the Russian Charm Tradition,” in Charms and Charming in Europe, 117.