Writing on birchbark

From the 11th to 14th centuries, the people of Novgorod had an unusually literate culture for its time. Men, women, peasants, and even children knew how to read and write, and they used slips of birchbark for business and personal correspondence.

Messages on birchbark were typically short, written on the inner, smoother side of bark strips – 5-15 inches by 1-5 inches on average. They usually name the writer, then the recipient, followed by a statement and a clear ending. Many writers began with a cross as a way of blessing. There was no punctuation or capitalization.

The birchbark was prepared for use by being boiled in water to make it pliable (Lobatcheva et al). However, in my experiments in rendering birchbark that I had purchased online, hot, non-boiling water curled up the bark like cinnamon.

Boiling, or even cuir bouilling birchbark: I can’t recommend it.

More experiments will be needed to determine how to reproduce “boiled” bark as it might have been rendered in period.

What DID work was simply soaking the bark for at least a few hours, with better results from soaking overnight. The pieces I ordered online were pretty thick, so soaking enabled me to peel them apart into thinner strips — thus giving me more pieces to work with.

Soaking birchbark. The screwdriver is used as a weight, since the pieces want to float. This method wasn’t terribly effective, and after taking this photo I switched to some blocks of soapstone I had lying around.

The thinner the strip, the more flexible it is, too, and easier to curl, fold, or manipulate in other ways. The oldest message found, according to Lobatcheva et al, had been torn into thin strips and tied in a sailor’s knot before being thrown away.

Writers pressed letters into the bark with a sharp-pointed pen made from bone or iron – no ink was used. More than 200 of these pens from the 10th-15th centuries have been found in Novgorod.

Metal pens from Novgorod (Fuller)

The bark is soft enough that a stylus will leave an indentation without any ink. (Again, thinner strips seem to work better, as the indentations leave a little discoloring in the bark to make the letters easier to see.) I’ve also found that wooden and brass pens work just as well. A lead stylus will leave a gray mark similar to a pencil.

Testing different types of writing material on a thicker piece of bark (from top to bottom): lead, silver, bone.

References

Fuller, Michael J. “Medieval Novgorod: Metal Artifacts.” Medieval Archaeological Remains at Velichy Novgorod. Web page with photos from a museum visit. July 30, 2006. http://users.stlcc.edu/mfuller/NovgorodMetalp.html

Lobatcheva, Irina; Bosworth, Amanda; and Lobatchev, Vlad. Letters One Thousand Years Old. Lexington: Parallel Worlds’ Books, 2014.

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Russian birchbark messages: language and literacy

From the 11th to 14th centuries, the people of Novgorod had an unusually literate culture for its time. Men, women, peasants, and even children knew how to read and write, and they used slips of birchbark for business and personal correspondence.

Linguistically, Slavs from different tribes in the 9th-11th centuries could understand each other without much trouble. The Old Novgorod dialect was also spoken in Pskov, Perm, and Northern Belarus. It differed from the central dialect spoken in Kiev, Chernigov, Ryazan, Smolensk, Rostov, and Suzdal. This central dialect was closer to the Church Slavonic that became the standard written language. The difference between dialects increased in the 11th-12th centuries but disappeared by the 17th century, after the Novgorod Republic was annexed by the Grand Principality of Moscow. Modern Russian language has features from both dialects (Zaliznyak, Andrey).

Russians wrote in the Cyrillic alphabet, developed by Cyril of Byzantium and his brother Methodius, who were tasked with creating a Slavic alphabet based on the Greek model.

The Sofia First Chronicle tells us that Yaroslav the Wise traveled to Novgorod in 1030 and gathered 300 children of local priests, then put them into a school where they learned from the local bishop. The first students became the earliest birchbark scribes, likely social elites. It became common practice to teach children how to read and write at age seven. The most “famous” example of this education comes from 17 scraps of birchbark lessons and doodles by a seven-year-old boy named Onfim in the 13th century. His drawings look much like a modern seven-year-old’s.

Onfim’s homework and doodles.

Another doodle by Onfim: father and son as warriors, perhaps?

More of Onfim’s doodles. The one on the left shows his parents, the other may be a type of game played with friends.

Many researchers theorize that wax tablets were used for practice. The Novgorod Psalter, considered “the oldest book in the Slavic world of Russia, Bulgaria, and the Balkan,” was a type of wax tablet. It dates back to 988 to 1010 and consists of three bound wooden tablets with four wax pages containing Psalms 75-76 and a fragment of Psalm 67 in Church Slavonic.

Writing on birchbark required scribes to press harder, and the results were more permanent – but it made for cheap, convenient stationary, since wax tablets were harder to send back and forth. While parchment was expensive and reserved for important and/or sacred documents, birchbark was plentiful and disposable. People used it for drafts of deeds, domestic notes, and private letters.

Townspeople also read books on parchment. Monastic libraries loaned them out. Letter No. 271 from the 14th century asks for the recipient to send the author something to read.

Literacy spread over the centuries. 95 percent of all discovered birchbark letters were non-religious in subject matter. Women were also literate. Many letters were either written by or addressed to female relatives, based on the names, pronouns, and gendered reflexive verbs in the messages.

A few powerful nobles, like Petr Mihalkovich in the mid-12th century, employed scribes to write their letters for them, but researchers take this to mean that even his servants were literate – and not to assume that Petr himself wasn’t. We even have letters written from peasants to other peasants.

References

Birchbark Literacy from Medieval Rus: Contents and Contexts (INTAS-Project Ref. Nr. 03-51-3867). Rukopicniye Pamyatniki Drevney Rusi. http://gramoty.ru/.

Lobatcheva, Irina; Bosworth, Amanda; and Lobatchev, Vlad. Letters One Thousand Years Old. Lexington: Parallel Worlds’ Books, 2014.

Paul Wickenden of Thanet. “The Art of Onfim: Medieval Novgorod Through the Eyes of a Child.” Text with images based on an article for Tournaments Illuminated #116 (Fall 1995). http://www.goldschp.net/SIG/onfim/onfim.html.

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Russian birchbark messages: when and where they were used

From the 11th to 14th centuries, the people of Novgorod had an unusually literate culture for its time. Men, women, peasants, and even children knew how to read and write, and they used slips of birchbark for business and personal correspondence.

Photo of a birchbark message, No. 10 Staraya Russa, 1160-1180. (Birchbark Literacy from Medieval Rus: Contents and Contexts)

The first birchbark scroll to be discovered was found in a gap between beams of a wooden walkway, crumpled up and covered in mud. If it weren’t for characters on the surface that managed to shine through the mud, archaeologists likely would have dismissed it as a bobber for fishing tackle. Enough scrolls have been uncovered since then that we have plenty of evidence that they were used widely, and this has given us ample insight into everyday life.

We have a rough idea of when they written based on where they were found in the strata of medieval roads. The wooden beams used for pavement have been dated by comparing their tree rings with dendrochronological scales. Novgorodians repaved their roads roughly every 25 years – adding another layer when the dirt on the old pavement got slippery enough to make horses fall. Birchbark scrolls found between two layers of pavement can be dated between the dates when those layers were paved.

Researchers can also date the writing on scrolls based on linguistic features that are similar to those found in manuscripts from those eras. For example, someone writing a book on parchment in the 11th century would have used the same grammar, syntax, and writing style as someone writing a birchbark memo from the same period, because the two scribes were taught the same way.

Of more than 1,200 birchbark scrolls excavated from medieval Russian cities (Novgorod, Staraya Russa, Smolensk, Pskov, Vitebsk, Torzhok, Moscow, and Tver’), 85% were found in Novgorod and were written in the Old Novgorod dialect.

Map of Kievan Rus (Wikimedia Commons)

Letters were usually discarded after use, either torn into pieces along the text or cut with a knife or scissors and thrown out to protect the recipient’s privacy. These messages survived due to Novgorod’s cold, humid climate and high water table. We have far fewer archaeological records after the second half of the 18th century when Catherine the Great ordered the town’s soils to be drained.

Novgorod fell to Ivan III in 1478. Scholars believe that this was the end of birchbark letters. Ivan III executed or evicted a number of the Novgorod elite and a few severe famines wiped out a lot of other people. Enough people lost their wealth, homes, etc. that the way of life was interrupted – literacy education ended, along with the practice of keeping business notes and sending correspondence. By the time of a 1614 census, the city was practically deserted.

References

Birchbark Literacy from Medieval Rus: Contents and Contexts (INTAS-Project Ref. Nr. 03-51-3867). Rukopicniye Pamyatniki Drevney Rusi. http://gramoty.ru/.

Lobatcheva, Irina; Bosworth, Amanda; and Lobatchev, Vlad. Letters One Thousand Years Old. Lexington: Parallel Worlds’ Books, 2014.

Map of Kievan Rus. Wikimedia Commons, 2010. https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kievan_Rus_en.jpg

Zaliznyak, Andrey. The Old Novgorod’s Dialect. 2004. Zaliznyak is a Russian linguist famous for his specialization in this dialect; he describes about 500 linguistic features that could be used to date birchbark letters.

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The Poet Behind The Song of Igor’s Campaign

We don’t know exactly who wrote The Song of Igor’s Campaign, Russia’s most famous and enduring medieval epic poem from the 12th century. It’s believed that he was someone hired to write a poem commemorating the campaign shortly after it happened (Nabokov). There are significant differences between the events in the poem and the history recorded in The Chronicle (Wikipedia), which would indicate that the poem and the historical record were written by two different people at different times, possibly with access to different pieces of information. The styles of writing are also very different from one another. The Song takes artistic license (and possibly plays loosely with known facts) to create a more interesting, creative work. The poetry itself displays a masterful grasp of rhyme and meter (Nabokov) that has helped it endure over the centuries as the best known work of literature from medieval Russia.

The poet makes several references to another bard named Boyan. Although we don’t have any historical reference to Boyan outside this poem (Nabokov), the Song poet refers to him as a famed “song-maker of the times of old” (831-832), a poet/seer with a magical power for inspiring those who listened to him. The poem uses the word veshchiy – a word that connotes not just the power of inspiration, but also a magical ability. It’s possible that Boyan was a real artist known to the Song poet, but whose own work was never recorded (or has been lost).

Nabokov, Vladimir. The Song of Igor’s Campaign: An Epic of the 12th Century. New York: Ardis Publishers, 1960. Online version: http://lib.ru/NABOKOW/slovo.txt.

“The Tale of Igor’s Campaign.” Wikipedia, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tale_of_Igor%27s_Campaign.

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The Origin of The Song of Igor’s Campaign

Russia’s most famous and enduring medieval epic poem from the 12th century, The Song of Igor’s Campaign, is known in Russian as Слово о плъкоу Игоревѣ (Slovo o plŭku Igorevě). This has been translated alternately as The Lay of Igor’s Campaign, The Tale of Igor’s Campaign, etc. Слово literally translates as “word.”

The original poem only survived in a single manuscript that was discovered in 1795 in Spaso-Yaroslavsky Monastery in Yaroslavl. Alexei Musin-Pushkin (not to be confused with Pushkin the poet) bought the manuscript and transcribed it for Catherine the Great, then published it in 1800. This original (along with Musin-Pushkin’s entire library of antiquities) is believed to have been destroyed during the great Moscow fire of 1812 (Wikipedia), when Russians decided they’d rather nuke everything than give it to Napoleon.

The lack of an existing manuscript has led to questions regarding the poem’s authenticity (Mann); however, most scholars agree that it was indeed written in the 12th century for several reasons – largely to do with its language corresponding linguistically with other writing from that time period.

Further disagreement regards whether the poem was originally meant to be performed orally or as a written work. While the language fits into its time period, some have speculated that it was written using a formula based on motifs that point to an oral tradition similar to other early epics (Nabokov), especially considering this poem’s pace and emphasis on nature and the supernatural – the latter of which feels almost anachronistic within the context of medieval Christianity. It’s possible that the Christian elements were tacked on when the poem was composed in written form based on an older, oral tale.

Mann, Robert. “The Forgotten Text of Nikolai Golovin: New Light on the Igor Tale.” Oral Tradition, 26/1 (2011): 145-158. http://journal.oraltradition.org/files/articles/26i/06_26.1.pdf.

Nabokov, Vladimir. The Song of Igor’s Campaign: An Epic of the 12th Century. New York: Ardis Publishers, 1960. Online version: http://lib.ru/NABOKOW/slovo.txt.

“The Tale of Igor’s Campaign.” Wikipedia, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tale_of_Igor%27s_Campaign.

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Historical Setting for The Song of Igor’s Campaign

Russia’s most famous and enduring medieval epic poem from the 12th century, The Song of Igor’s Campaign, is based on a series of real, historical events that took place in 1185-87. Russian culture was centered further east of the area we think of as Russia today – more in the Ukraine.

Igor, the prince of Novgorod-Seversk, and his people had been battling the Cumans, a nomadic Turko-Mongolian people who lived around the Don River in the grassy steppes north of the Black Sea. In Turkic languages, “cuman” is related to words for light yellow or blond. This race has also been named Polovstian, derived from the Slavic root polv’, which can mean light yellow, blond, or straw.

kievanrusmap

Figure 1: Kievan Rus on the map. Prince Igor ruled Novgorod-Seversk. The Cumans lived in the area north of the Black Sea by the Don River.

In 1183, Igor’s father, Svyatoslav, had defeated the Cumans and pushed them back east. In 1185, Igor and his brother, Vsevolod, along with their nephew (also named Svyatoslav) and Igor’s son Vladimir, marched east to Cuman territory to pick a fight with them.

Igor’s campaign was not as fortunate as his father’s. His brother Vsevolod and nephew Svyatoslav died in battle. Igor and his son Vladimir were taken hostage. With the Rus state weakened, the Cumans were free to push further west into Rus territory and take over several cities. Igor escaped two years later. Vladimir managed to escape a few months after his father, married the Cuman chieftain’s daughter in the process in the interim.

The historical accounts of these events can be found in two different sources: the Ipatiev Chronicle, which covers four centuries of Kievan history up through the end of the 13th century, and the Lavrentiev Chronicle, a briefer account with some differences in dates and details. Most scholars consider the Ipatiev Chronicle to be the more dependable source, and closest to The Song of Igor’s Campaign – though The Song has its own differences in details.

Boĭkova, Elena Vladimirovna; Rybakov, R. B. (2006). Kinship in the Altaic World. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. ISBN 978-3-4470-5416-4. Cited in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cumans.

Dragosani-Brantingham, Justin. (19 October 2011) [1999]. “An Illustrated Introduction to the Kipchak Turks” (PDF).  http://www.kipchak.com/Resources/AnIllustratedIntroductiontotheKipchakTurks.pdf Cited in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cumans.

Map of Kievan Rus. Wikimedia Commons, 2010. https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kievan_Rus_en.jpg

Nabokov, Vladimir. The Song of Igor’s Campaign: An Epic of the 12th Century. New York: Ardis Publishers, 1960. Online version: http://lib.ru/NABOKOW/slovo.txt.

“The Tale of Igor’s Campaign.” Wikipedia, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tale_of_Igor%27s_Campaign.

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Challenge of the Traveling Scholar 1/5: Midlands

[This is an in-persona post based on the Challenge of the Traveling Scholar.]

A bow from Sofya Chyudskaya Smolyanina to my fellow scholars on this traveling challenge. My travels recently took me to the Shire of Ravenslake in the north Midlands, where I taught my first class in my challenge on September 17.

Many good people at this event were engaged in teaching and learning martial arts so that they may better defend our fair realm, likely from the nomadic tribes which continue to encroach upon our lands. I, however, joined a small band of artisans in teaching more peaceful arts. I set up camp along a small path and offered to share my knowledge in the ways of leathercrafting to any and sundry who expressed an interest.

In total, I had eight students over the course of the day. The first was a small boy who — while very enthusiastic about hands-on learning — might have given me a gray hair or two under my povoinik. I turned to talk to another student for all of ten seconds, and when I turned back to him, he had found my sharpest and most dangerous knife. No fingers were lost, luckily, nor skin broken, and the other student was patient enough to come back later in the afternoon when the child had been reunited with his parents. She and another student made covers for ax blades; two others made scissors sheaths, and a few more practiced carving and stamping. One student began a small pouch for a brooch, which we agreed she could finish when I meet her in two weeks at a Fox Hunt. Enough students also were kind enough to donate a few rezanas for the cost of leather so I can request more from my supplier for future lessons. All in all, I consider this teaching experience a success.

There was also time to cool my wearied feet in the waters of a small, babbling brook below a copse of trees next to our site. While I now live in the booming metropolis of Novgorod and am used to large bodies of water like the Volkhov River and Lake Ilmen, it reminded me of small brooks that fed into the Dniepr by my childhood home near Smolensk.

Now, I am resting at home. And as the saying goes, at home, even one’s own walls are a comfort. Yet I must look to my books and continue preparing for my next class in another region. Where and when that will be, I know yet not…

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