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Medieval Daily Life on Birchbark

When Russian archaeologists came across a piece of birchbark in 1951, little did they know that they had found something very different from most medieval finds. This strip of birchbark had writing on it, in Old Russian, that was hundreds of years old. It would be the beginning of a fascinating new field of research, giving us insights into the daily lives of medieval people.

Birch-bark letter no. 202 dates from the mid-13th century. It contains 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.

Soon more birchbark letters were discovered, mostly in and around the city of Novgorod in northwestern Russia. By the end of 2017 this collection had reached about 1200 pieces, mostly dating between the 11th and 15th centuries. It is remarkable that these items have not decayed from being in the earth for hundreds of years, but the particular types of clayish soil in these parts of Russia have allowed them to be preserved.

Simeon Dekker’s new book Old Russian Birchbark Letters is part of the research covering this field, known as berestology – to better understand these unique documents and the people who were using them. They are often short letters, usually no more than 20 words long, with relatively simple messages between friends and family members. Most deal with business matters, but we have found pieces written by children, and one that has a marriage proposal.

This 11th century birckbark document contains the cyrillic alphabet. Source: Birchbark Literacy from Medieval Rus / Wikimedia Commons

Dekker’s book, which focuses on the linguistic and communication patterns of the Birchbark Letters, includes English translations of dozens of these documents. Here are our 10 favourites:

From Boris to Nastas’ja. As soon as this letter arrives, send me a man on a stallion, because I have a lot of work here. And send a shirt; I forgot a shirt.

From Ilijca to Il’ja. Sujga is overwriting the marks on the oaks and has taken out the honey from the hives, saying “I am taking away the oaks on my own mark.” He is cutting away the cut-mark, saying “It is my oak. Your former beekeeper has fallen into robbery.” And now come here yourself; confirm your ownership of the bee-yard.

Request from Semen to the priest Ivan. May you check up on my goods so that moths will not ruin them; I request to you, my lord, in regard of my trunk. And I have sent the key with Stepan. And the mark on the trunk is an ermine.

From Kulotka a letter to Xudota. Go to Pskov and tell them.

Greetings from Radko to father. I have sent the goods to Smolensk. But they have murdered Putlia, and they want me and Vjaceska instead of Foma, saying “Pay four hundred grivnas or call Foma here, otherwise we will put you in jail.” And greetings from Vjaceska to Lazor. I have sent the packhorse, and I myself am ready.

Greeting from Smen to my daughter-in-law. In case you have not celebrated the commemoration meal: you had malt. The rye malt is in the cellar. You take a handful, and as much flour as you need, and you bake it in the proper measure. And the meat is in the pantry. And concerning the rouble that is due to Ignat, you give it.

A letter to Zirocko and from Tesko to Vdovin. Sat to Sil’ce: “Why are you damaging other people’s pigs? Nozdr’ka has made this known. And you have disgraced the entire Ljudjin End. There has been a letter from the other side of the river. It was about horses, that you have done the same with them.”

Greetings from Panfil to Mark and to the priest. Buy some lamp oil and send it over here.

Greetings from Grior’ja to Jermola and Ozekj. I have sent to you six barrels of wine, filled to a finger’s length from the top. And you check it carefully, and sell them like those others, under the same conditions. And if you have sold them, send back the proceeds. And don’t give my servants the money; send it along with the debt.

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Hereby I, God’s servant Marija, leaving this world, write my testament at the end of my life. I bequeath my inheritance to my Maksim, because I am childless. Let him remember me by it.

12th century birchbark letter. Source: Birchbark Literacy from Medieval Rus / Wikimedia Commons

Old Russian Birchbark Letters: A Pragmatic Approach by Simon Dekker, is published by Brill. Click here to visit the publisher’s website, or buy it on Amazon.com

Further Reading:

Russian collection of medieval birchbark documents

‘B-mails’ from the Middle Ages

Don’t shoot the messenger. A pragmaphilological approach to birchbark letter no. 497 from Novgorod

The origin of the ‘l-less perfect’ in the Novgorod birchbark documents

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