Birch Bark Documents from Novgorod, Russia
The first birch bark document was found in July 1951 during an archeological dig in Novgorod. Nina Akulova, the worker who accidentally stumbled upon the piece of rolled up birch bark with some letters carved on it, received a prize of 100 rubles (about a month’s salary), but for science the discovery was priceless. Since then over 1,000 such documents have been unearthed, about 500 of them dating from the pre-Mongol period from the 11th to the early 13th century (for comparison, only two parchment documents of non-religious nature dating from the same period have been found). The great majority of the birch bark documents, over a thousand, come from the ancient city of Novgorod (also known as Veliky Novgorod, or Great Novgorod) and the surrounding territory. At the time, Great Novgorod was a key link between Russia and Western Europe; archeological evidence, including some of the birch bark documents, confirms that Novgorod’s citizens traded with merchants of the Hanseatic League.
The second biggest source is the nearby Staraya Russa (45 documents), and the much smaller finds from Torzhok (19 documents), Pskov (8 documents), Smolensk (15 documents), Tver’ (5 documents), Moscow and Zvenigorod Galitskiy in Ukraine (3 documents each), as well as Starya Ryazan’, Nizhniy Novgorod, Vitebsk and Mstislavl’ (the latter two in Belorussia) with one document each. (The map on the left shows the smaller, older figures.) Most of these documents are written in a vernacular northern dialect of Old Russian, but a few documents that are written in other languages. For example, two birch bark documents were written by foreigners living in Novgorod in Latin and Low German; one Greek document has also been found as well as one in Karelian. The latter find, birch bark document #292, is a text of a pre-Christian prayer from the mid-13th century and is particularly important because it is 300 years older than the oldest extant text written in Finnish or Karelian. It should be noted that only a few birch bark letters in Old Church Slavonic have been found; it is quite remarkable how unaffected by Old Church Slavonic most of the Novgorod birch bark letters are, unlike books from the same period.
These birch bark documents are typically short texts written, or rather carved, by using a sharp instrument, a stylos, on the bark of a birch tree, which grows commonly in northern Russia. Although most of the birch bark documents are torn into pieces, they are otherwise very well preserved. They are actually much easier to read than corresponding medieval manuscripts, as no ink was used, so there was no risk of the ink fading over the years. In Novgorod, the documents were preserved in a deep layer (up to eight meters, or 25 feet) of heavy, waterlogged clay soil, which prevents the access of oxygen. Still, freshly unearthed documents look like scrolls of birch bark rolled up inside out: the external, white side of the bark is on the inside of the scroll and the inner side, with letters scratched on it, is on the outside. The unearthed scrolls are first humidified in boiling water, then pressed down flat between two layers of glass. Many of the birch bark documents have been torn, so flattened, dried sections need to be glued together; curiously, scientists spent almost as much effort searching for the best glue as they did on deciphering the documents themselves. Once a birch bark document is glued together, it is photographed, and then an artist makes a diagram of it. Then, finally, scholars can scrutinize it.
According to researchers Andrey Zaliznyak and Valentin Yanin, who head the birch bark document project, most of the documents are ordinary letters of a personal or business nature, which helps explain why most of them are torn. Unlike with many other ancient documents, the birch bark letters were typically destroyed not after they were buried (by weather, moving earth layers, careless excavation, etc.) but before. In most cases, they were torn by the hand of the recipients—much like business letters, memos, personal notes, and receipts are now shredded. . These birch bark letters were inscribed by people of both sexes, of different ages, and of varying social status. The discovery of such letters changed our notions about the literacy rate in northern Russia, which clearly must have been far more widespread than previously thought. Zaliznyak claimed that the overall literacy in Old Novgorod was higher than in Western European cities of the time. The high level of literacy among Novgorod women is particularly remarkable for the epoch; it is said to be higher than that of women in 17th century Moscow, at the time of Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich. In Great Novgorod of the 11th century, women were often literate, had almost equal rights with their male compatriots, and could own land and conduct trade. At least five birch bark letters were written by a woman to a woman. For example, in one letter dated from the first half of 12th century, a Novgorod woman curses her female acquaintance for borrowing money and not giving it back. Some of the birch bark documents were penned by children, such as the one reproduced on the left, which shows spelling lessons and drawings made by a boy named Onfim; based on draftsmanship, experts estimate his age as between 6 and 7 at the time.
Like our modern private correspondence, birch bark letters generally focus on everyday issues, touching on family life and household management, trade and finance, crimes and legal proceedings, travel, military expeditions, and much more. For example, document #363 (reproduced on the left),written by a man named Semyon, contains household instructions for his daughter-in-law concerning malt and meat; she is also instructed to pay a debt to a man named Ignat in the amount of one ruble. Missive #109 talks about a purchase of a stolen slave woman by a warrior (“druzhinnik”). The birch bark document #9 is a letter from a woman named Gostjata to her male relative Vasiliy complaining about unfair treatment from her husband and admonishing him to come and sort the matter out. In another letter found in Tver, Stanimir asks someone Mikhal Domazhirovich to take only half the amount of money he owes him, as “more I cannot give you”. Letter #377 is a forthright marriage proposal from a man called Mikita to his beloved Anna: “marry me—I want you and you want me, and the witness to that is Ignat Moiseev”; unfortunately, the end of the missive has not been found. In another heartfelt letter, #765 from Novgorod, a man named Danila, writing to his brother, depicts his poor state (“I walk around naked—I have no cloak, nothing”) and asks for a cloak and a place to live.
Other documents are not private letters in the narrow sense but rather bills, IOUs, receipts, ownership labels, wills, purchase contracts, complaints from peasants to their lord and various other types of material, all of which reveal an enormous amount of details of medieval northern Russian life. Some of the most curious finds include educational artifacts, such as the scribbles of children learning to write, alphabets (e.g. document #591), lists of digits, syllabaries, and other materials used in teaching how to read and write. Birch bark document #403 (dating from 1350s-1380s) contains a little dictionary listing approximate Balto-Finnic translations of Russian words. Very few of the birch bark documents are of religious or literary nature: bits of liturgical texts, prayers, sermons. One can even find curses, a riddle, and an occasional joke—although it is not always easy to judge what is meant as a joke or as a curse.
Another birch bark document with an interesting history is letter #562, dated from the last quarter of the 11th century, whose content remained mysterious for several decades after discovery. Scholars eventually realized that was a second part of a larger letter, whose missing first line, containing a mere three words and known as the birch bark document #607, allowed researchers to figure out that the whole missive is a laconic crime report:
ŽIZNOBOUDE POGOUBLENE OU SYČEVIČЬ
NOVGORODSKE SMЬRDE A ZA NIMI ZADЬNICѦ
Zhiznobud [pre-Christian name] murdered by Sychevich [patronymic of a group]
Novgorod freeman and to them inheritance
In plain English:
‘Zhiznobud, a Novgorod freeman, has been murdered by the Sycheviches, and they took his inheritance.’
This document can serve as an illustration of several important linguistic points. First, it underscores the differences between Old and Modern Russian. Today’s Russian speakers without special knowledge of Old Russian might be perplexed or even confused by the last word of this letter, задница (zadnica), which to them is an obscene word referring to the part of the body just below one’s back. In Old Russian, however, the meaning of this word was completely different: that which is left behind when a person dies, that is an inheritance.
Second, this document illustrates an important morphological difference between the Old Novgorod dialect and the “standard” variety of Old Russian, as was spoken in Kiev and Suzdal. In Old Novgorod texts, including this one, we find that masculine nouns (as well as adjectives and predicative participles modifying them) end in -e, whereas in “standard” Old Russian this ending was written as the letter -ъ (back yer), which represented a very short back vowel [ŭ] (similar to the vowel in the English put, but shorter). For example, the proper name ŽIZNOBOUDE and the common noun SMЬRDE (‘freeman’), the modifying adjective NOVGORODSKE and predicative participle POGOUBLENE (‘murdered’) all end in -e. In “standard” Old Russian these words would have been ŽIZNOBOUDЪ, SMЬRDЪ, NOVGORODSKЪ and POGOUBLENЪ, respectively. The same peculiarity of the Old Novgorod dialect is also evident in another birch bark letter (#424), dating from the first quarter of the 12th century, in which a Novgorod man named Georgij wrote: DEŠEVE TI XLEBE? (literally ‘cheap here bread?’ or in a more colloquial English ‘Is the bread cheap here?’). In this missive, he advises his parents to sell their household goods and to move to Smolensk or Kiev because of the famine raging in Novgorod at the time. Note again the two -e endings, on the noun XLEBE ‘bread’ and the adjective DEŠEVE ‘cheap’.
Two other linguistic features of the birch bark document #607/562, which also mark Old Novgorod dialect as different from both “standard” Old Russian and from Modern Russian, are syntactic. Note the passive construction using the preposition OU (cf. OU SYČEVIČЬ). In Modern Russian, this preposition indicates proximity, as in Ja stoju u okna (‘I stand near a window’) or possession, as in U menja est’ brat (literally ‘to me there is brother’ or in a more colloquial English ‘I have a brother.’). In Modern Russian passives, the demoted agent (i.e. the person who did it) is expressed by a noun in the instrumental case, without a preposition at all: Cezar’ byl ubit Brutom, literally ‘Caesar was murdered Brutus.INSTR’. (Note that English does use a preposition for a passive agent, as in Caesar was murdered by Brutus.)
Finally, the word order in the birch bark document 607/562 is rather odd to a modern reader: the appositive phrase (i.e. extra description) NOVGORODSKE SMЬRDE ‘Novgorod freeman’ appears not immediately following the proper name that it modifies (ŽIZNOBOUDE), but after the predicate POGOUBLENE ‘murdered’ and the passive agent OU SYČEVIČЬ ‘by Sycheviches’. The birch bark letter expert Andrey Zaliznjak describes this Old Novgorod rule thusly: the most important part of the message comes first, with details coming later. Thus, in this example the core message is that Zhiznobud is murdered by the Sycheviches, and the fact that he is also a Novgorod freeman is a extra piece of information that is less important to the communicative goal of the letter. This relative freedom of word order does not challenge the understanding of the text since the structure of the sentence (who did what to whom and which words modify which ones) can be understood from the case endings: recall from our discussion above that NOVGORODSKE SMЬRDE bears the same nominative singular masculine ending -e (peculiar for the Old Novgorod dialect) as in ŽIZNOBOUDE. In Modern Russian, the word order is relatively free too, but appositives tend to come right after the nouns they modify, just like in English. This odd word order patterns raises an important issue that applies to the study of any ancient written document: how faithfully does it represent how people actually spoke?
That this word order may not have been a feature of Old Novgorod syntax in general but an epistolary convention is suggested by two facts. First, birch bark documents are full of set phrases. Many letters open with a customary address formula, from X to Y. For example, the first line of the letter #109 (which as mentioned above talks about a stolen slave woman) states that it is GRAMOTA (‘document’) “from Zhiznomir to Mikula”. (Note also that there are no breaks between words and no punctuation: none were used in birch bark letters.) Only two types of birch bark documents lack such customary opening address formula: military missives and love letters, which—for obvious, albeit different, reasons—do not reveal who the writer or the recipient was. Many birch bark documents also end in set epistolary formulas whose literal meaning is ‘I kiss you’ or ‘be so kind’, but whose import is like that of our “Sincerely”, “Best wishes” or “Lots of love”. But an even stronger argument for the conventional nature of the important-stuff-first order in birch bark documents comes from the fact that the same peculiarity is found in other ancient documents written in different languages. For example, in Kirkdale sundial inscription, written in Norse-influenced Old English and dated from 1055-1065, we find Eadward dagum cyning (the latter is abbreviated as CNG) and Tosti(g) dagum eorl which literally means ‘Edward’s days king’ and ‘Tostig’s days earl’. In those phrases the titles postponed in exact parallel to ŽIZNOBOUDE …NOVGORODSKE SMЬRDE ‘Zhiznobud…. Novgorod freeman’.
Some scholars suggest that there may be as many as 30,000 birch bark documents still hidden in the Novgorod area. With an average annual find of 18 documents, there is enough work for many generations of scholars who embark (no pun intended!) on this fascinating adventure.
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