- Russian Magic at the British Library: Books, Manuscripts, Scholars, Travelers
The three Panizzi Lectures were delivered by Professor of Russian Studies Will Ryan at the British Library in November 2005. The lectures' shared emphasis on aspects of Russian magic somehow or another related to books, scholars, and the manuscript collections at the British Library provides coherence to the volume.
After a short introduction, the first lecture (pp. 1–39) deals with William Ralston Shedden (1828–89), "the Russian Frazer and Grimm," and a major figure in the introduction of Russian magic to English speaking professionals. While working at the British Museum Library, Ralston wrote two important books on Russian folklore, and he also became one of the founders of the Folklore Society in 1878. In this lecture, Ryan offers a concise examination of Ralston's biography, works, and theoretical approaches to Russian magic, mythology, and folktales. Ralston's evolutionary understanding of witchcraft is here set forth "entirely as a survival of the ancient mythology and primeval religion of the Slavs, a survival in which songs are the prime medium" (p. 31). Toward the end of the lecture Ryan provides an account of Ralston's impact on later writings and his usefulness today in discussing Russian magic and witchcraft.
The second lecture (pp. 42–68) is a survey of Ivan the Terrible and the perceptions of magic in Stoglav Moscovite Russia during the second half of the sixteenth century. The Stoglav was a council that dealt with the relationship between church and state, and it is also the name of a text preserved in two manuscripts in the British Library. Ryan here addresses the paragraphs and chapters of the Stoglav text that deals with witches, magic, and superstitious practices. Though the Moscovite Russian state and the Orthodox Church had a clear and strong objection to different kinds of magic and divination, it was not until the military law of 1716, under Peter the Great, that all forms of magic and witchcraft were outlawed and associated with devil worship. This was also the first law code in Russia that provided death by burning as the punishment for witchcraft activities. In other words, the condemnations of witchcraft in the Stoglav were more powerfully reinforced in the early eighteenth century than in the sixteenth century (p. 66).
In the third and final lecture (pp. 70–97), Ryan presents foreign travel accounts with special emphasis on magic, and highlights some classical Muscovite stereotypes. Many of these accounts were published by the Hakluyt Society and the British Museum during the nineteenth century and have had [End Page 226] a great influence on European perceptions of Russian barbarism and inclination toward superstition and magic. A particularly interesting aspect of Ryan's lecture on travel tales is his demonstration of the thin line between travel accounts and pseudo-travel accounts.
While informative footnotes are provided, the book otherwise retains its oral or lecture form. Taken as a whole, this style lends the book a highly engaging tone, and it is certainly a pleasure to read. Throughout it is obvious to the reader that Will Ryan explores the key themes of the lectures with scholarly familiarity. Sometimes he cannot resist certain polemics—for example, in his discussion on travel literature he refers to the "modish jargon" of "discourse" and "intertextuality" that he himself will ignore and avoid employing (p. 75). In fact, his lectures fit perfectly as examples of intertextual approaches to modern text discourses.