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  • "Royal Marks":Reading the Bodies of Russian Pretenders, 17th-19th Centuries
  • Maureen Perrie (bio)

Over a period of almost 300 years, from the Time of Troubles of the early 17th century to the end of the 19th century, many Russians believed that members of their royal family—tsars and tsareviches—bore on their bodies special marks which indicated their royal status. The main evidence for the existence of such beliefs is provided by the careers of pretenders (samozvantsy, or royal impostors), some of whom displayed their "royal marks" (tsarskie znaki) as "proof " of their royal identity.

In spite of its inherent interest as an indicator of unofficial beliefs concerning the monarchy, the phenomenon of "royal marks" has been the subject of relatively little scholarly discussion. The distinguished Russian folklorist and ethnographer Kirill Vasil'evich Chistov was one of the first to draw attention to "royal marks," in his classic study of "Russian popular socio-utopian legends of the 17th-19th centuries."1 According to Chistov, one of the two main categories of such legends, the "legends about the 'returning deliverer' [izbavitel']," concerned "good" tsars and tsareviches who wanted to improve life for the ordinary people but were overthrown or removed from the succession by evil courtiers. The hero escaped from the machinations of the plotters, lived incognito, and after various adventures revealed his true identity and was restored to the throne.2 In Chistov's structural analysis of these legends, motif "H" is "the recognition of the 'deliverer,' " and its variant H1 is "by [End Page 535] 'royal marks' [tsarskie otmetiny] on his body."3 In practice, the "legends" comprised the fictional autobiographies ("backstories") of pretenders, or rumors about them, and Chistov made use of a wide variety of sources to collect information about the marks displayed by Russian pretenders from the 17th to the 19th centuries.4 He did not, however, discuss the significance of the phenomenon in any detail, restricting himself to occasional comments about "typically feudal" beliefs in the physical exceptionality (iskliuchitel'nost') or distinctiveness of people of royal blood.5

In the years following the publication of Chistov's book, the phenomenon of "royal marks," to which he had drawn attention, was noted by Iurii Mikhailovich Lotman and Boris Andreevich Uspenskii, the founders and leading representatives of the "Moscow-Tartu" school of semiotics.6 In an influential article on pretenders, Uspenskii interpreted the "royal marks" which they displayed as evidence of widespread Russian ideas concerning the divine preordination or predestination of the "true tsar"—a figure who need not necessarily be the reigning monarch. Uspenskii suggested that in some cases, pretenders who demonstrated "royal marks" might not have been engaged in "a conscious attempt at mystification": they might have genuinely believed that the presence of certain marks on their bodies was evidence of their distinctiveness (otmechennost').7

More recently the Russian scholar Alexander Etkind has linked "royal marks" not only with the sacralization of royal power but also with Foucauldian concepts of the body. Etkind argues that unlike other "proofs" of their royal identity that pretenders might offer (such as objects they had supposedly retained from childhood), natural peculiarities of the body could not be counterfeited, and that in a largely illiterate milieu, marks on the [End Page 536] body were immediately accessible to a peasant audience in a way that written proofs were not.8

The Russian secondary literature on royal marks makes very little reference to the comparative dimension of the theme. This is regrettable, since Marc Bloch's discussion of the topic, in his classic work on sacred monarchy in England and France, provides a concise and erudite account of the origins of the motif in medieval Western Europe.9 According to Bloch, belief in the royal birthmark—a mysterious mark on sovereigns' bodies indicating their royal status—was "one of the most lively superstitions in the Middle Ages," which gives "a deep insight into the popular mind."10 It provides evidence of the concept of the sacred and miraculous nature of royalty, supplementing the belief in the ruler's power to cure diseases such as scrofula, which is the main focus of Bloch's book. Bloch notes that the theme of...


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