Specters II: Sorceress

Specters II: Sorceress

(music for reading)



“That same year foreigners called Tartars came in countless numbers, like locusts, into the land of Ryazan, and on first coming they halted at the river Nukhla, and took it, and halted in camp there. And thence they sent their emissaries to the Knyazes (princes) of Ryazan, a sorceress and two men with her, demanding from them one-tenth of everything: of men and Knyazes and horses- of everything one-tenth.”

The Chronicle of Novgorod, 1238 A.D.


They were a strange trio.

The princes had dealt with the eastern nomads before, but these three were different. The others came with supplication or with an unearned arrogance that hid deep-seated envy. But these three, particularly the dark-haired woman who acted as the head emissary, were neither supplicant nor defiant. Her demands were given calmly, with an air of serenity and confidence only the truly powerful, or the truly foolish, could afford to possess. The princes were confused and perhaps a little scared. At what, exactly, was uncertain. They were strong, wealthy and protected by God’s grace. Surely, these outsiders, who would deign to send a woman to undertake their diplomacy, were not as powerful as they attempted to appear. Surely, no nomad could defeat the forces of Ryazan.

They had seemingly forgotten the last time these Tartars had entered Russian lands, a mere fourteen years prior.

But let us leave these perplexed men, whose hubris would shortly lead to their own deaths, as well as the deaths of many of their own people, and the utter destruction of this city on the Oka river (destruction from which the city would never really recover). Let us instead turn our eye to this “sorceress”, this woman who stood before these proud Russian fools with her demands for one-tenth of all they owned. Demands which she knew were far preferable to the alternative.

We know nothing of this woman. And yet…

These men were fools. That much was clear. Having conveyed her demands as Batu had dictated, she stole a quick glance around the “court” of this city called Ryazan. Pale, bearded men argued loudly among themselves in a heavy language of which she had only picked up a few words. In the corner, by a large, elaborate gold altar bedazzled with crosses, priests with long beards and gold chains eyed her contemptuously (they were quite different from the Muslims and Christians she had encountered on the journey west). The women of the court, heavily covered in richly decorated furs and ostentatious jewels, looked on her with scorn. Who was this black-haired woman, bedecked only in a dirty red robe, a heavy fur coat, a broad sash and were those trousers, on a lady? And dear god, why did she smell so bad? Who was this strange creature?

If they had asked such questions (would the men here have allowed it?), the sorceress would no doubt be confused. They were in fact the strange ones. How could one ride a horse effectively in skirts? And how could one bathe or wash one’s clothes without polluting the water cycle, and thus angering the dragons who controlled it? As for the sash, all unmarried women wore it. That is the way.

Oh well, soon she would be done with this. These meetings were always rather swift. The wise ones surrendered immediately, and then the army would move on, ever further west to claim Batu’s inheritance. The unwise scoffed at her and sent her back with several provocations to share with Batu and the other generals. Only a year prior, she had been kicked out of Bulghar and told to go drown herself in the Volga. Sübedei, veteran of the previous campaign in the west and true leader of this new army, paid them back terribly in kind. She recalled sitting on the shores of the Volga, watching that walled city crumble before the might of the stonethrowers hauled to this empty land from China. Many Bulghars drowned themselves in Volga trying to flee. She counted them for a while but gave up when the infantry started to breach the walls.


Life of Alexander Nevsky page 34 Mongols


These Russians would face a similar fate, she predicted, picking up from the body language of the princes that they were not going to accept her demands. The men sent to guard her stirred uncomfortably, either from boredom or from a perceived threat. She gave them a quick glance, they ceased. The interpreter, a wormy looking Kipchak, broke away from the group and stated with clear prose the direction of the cliff from which she should jump off. More resigned than annoyed, she bowed briefly and swiftly left the hall accompanied by her guards. Within an hour, their horses were racing towards the east, mere dots on the grand sprawl of the Russian steppe.

As the men of Ryazan prepared for battle and argued immaturely among themselves, a young monk scratched a brief account of the interaction into Ryazan’s chronicle. Within a year, that monk and many of the others fluttering around him would be dead, the church in which he wrote demolished. But the account of this strange sorceress (for any woman with authority must possess magicks of some kind) traveled its way north, to the untouched city of Novgorod, where priests, perhaps sensible, perhaps lucky, were able to record it in their own city’s chronicle. And here I sit, nearly eight hundred years later, contemplating this unnamed sorceress who exists in a single sentence in a largely unread history, an unlikely harbinger of Russia’s coming doom.



The opening quote is from Robert Michell and Nevill Forbes’ English translation of The Chronicle of Novgorod, 1016-1471, published in 1914. A free PDF of the book is available here for those interested. In building the narrative, I found J.J. Saunders A History of the Mongol Conquests (1971) very useful. I have not yet read Jack Weatherford’s The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, which focuses not only on Mongol queens but also Mongol women in general (turns out Mongol society was relatively enlightened in regards to the treatment of women (especially compared to most of the societies they encountered during their brutal conquests)); I plan to eventually. 

The header image is Mongol Circus by an unknown Chinese artist and is currently housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The inserted image comes from the illustrated manuscript of the 16th century hagiography Life of Alexander Nevsky and can be found here.

Specters 1: Bessie

Specters 1: Bessie

Specters is an ongoing series that focuses on the lives of individuals I’ve come across in history books. For the most part, these people are not the emperors and generals whose names are well known to enthusiasts of history, but instead people who, through a stroke of luck, have been preserved in the records of empires and nations. Given the limited nature of these sources, these essays toe the line between fact and fiction.

(music for reading)


We do not know much about Bessie. Only two written documents exist to suggest her existence: the one a record of the property of an unknown slaveowner following his death in 1654; the other an inventory of one William Browne, a plantation and slave owner of Barbados, dated March 17, 1662. In the former, she is listed alongside her “piqueninies”, the sole enslaved woman to be named. In the latter, she appears under the headline “Women”, next to “Bessy”, who appears under the headline “Cows”.

A lot of information can be gleaned from these two records, stored in the Barbados Department of Archives alongside some 3,000 similar wills and inventories from the second half of the seventeenth century. We can tell that by 1654, she had no husband (all other women in the document are merely included as “wives” to named men). We can tell that whoever recorded that inventory specifically valued Bessie for her children, and more importantly, for her potential to create more. And most significantly, we can tell that for William Browne, she was on an equal footing with his cattle.

But what we cannot see in these administrative documents, written by literate and propertied English men on the island of Barbados, is the woman herself. We see her as her owners saw her, as cattle, as property, as the potential producer of a whole new generation of black bodies whose labor will support the sunburnt Anglo-Saxons in their quest for respectability and wealth, whose debilitating labor in the Caribbean sun will ensure that the lords and ladies of Cornwall and Somerset and Devon and Norfolk could have a bit of sugar with their tea (itself ensured by the labor of Indians and Chinese and the diverse sailors and merchants who hauled those plants half-way across the world). But we do not see her as her children saw her, as her mother saw her, as she saw herself.

We do not know the pain she felt, the love, the boredom, the anger, the resignation. We do not know what became of her children’s father, whether he was dead, sold off or even the man who owned her (rape was as natural to chattel slavery as the whip or the chain). We do not know whether she loved her children; whether she could bring herself to love those little humans who, according to the Virginia Slave Law of 1662, “shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother” and who could be sold off at any moment to a plantation across the island or to the tobacco fields of Virginia or the rice paddies of Carolina. We do not know if she was able to make her children understand, whether she had any answer for why life was as it was, or why the master could give these dark-skinned children to his pale-skinned offspring as gifts, so that his progeny could learn as early as possible the proper way to manage their property and households. Wait, we do not even know how many children Bessie had.

We do not know whether Bessie had been born on that little island, tottering at the eastern edge of the sea named for the people Christopher Columbus had, a century and a half prior, encountered on his journey to India, the people he had promptly enslaved. We do not know if she had instead known the Senegal or Calabar or Gambia or Congo, those rivers “ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins”, as the poet wrote. We do not know if her soul had “grown deep like the rivers.” We do not know if she had poetry in her heart.

We do not know if she traveled across the Atlantic in the bowels of a cramped ship, watching her people (for they were her people now, though they spoke different languages and called for different gods) cough and cry and rage and die. We do not know how alone she felt, how afraid, how tired, how confused.

We do not know much of anything.

Bessie was another body given to feed the mass machinery of the Atlantic world, machinery which we as historians cannot yet call capitalism but give it time, the shape is familiar.

Yet, we have her name, preserved in the archives of the Barbadian government. We know her name, and that is something to hold onto, as we zoom out and write tomes on the institution of slavery with its nameless masters and slaves and overseers and traders and lawyers and accountants and proponents and opponents.

We have her name. She is not forgotten. She cannot be forgotten. We have her name.





Bessie’s story was found in Jennifer Morgan’s Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (2004), an essential examination of women and reproduction in the English/British slave system. The quoted lines of poetry come from Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” from The Weary Blues (1925).

The header image “Albumen print of enslaved women and their children near Alexandria, Virginia”, dated December 2, 1861 to March 10, 1862, currently in the collection of the National Museum of African American History & Culture. It can be better viewed here.