Birch Bark Letters, part 1

Sep 12, 2011 by

This past summer a certain anniversary might have slipped you by: July 26 this year was the 60th anniversary of the first birch bark document discovery in Novgorod, Russia. While birch bark has been used for writing in various cultures (e.g., some Gandharan Buddhist texts have been found written on birch bark and preserved in clay jars), it is the documents from Novgorod that are particularly celebrated and for a good reason: like the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Novgorod birch bark documents changed our understanding of the Old Novgorod dialect, Slavic philology and linguistics in general and of the early Northern Russian culture. In a series of postings, I’d like to examine Novgorod birch bark letters and what we have learned from them.

So what are these birch bark documents? These are typically short texts written, or rather carved, on the bark of the birch tree, which is very common in northern Russia. Letters (and sometimes pictures) are scratched into the birch bark by using a sharp instrument, a stylos; typically, no ink is used and therefore there is no risk that the ink would fade during the long time since these documents have been written. And it is a long time indeed, since most Novgorod birch bark letters date from the period between late 11th and early 15th century (this would roughly correspond to the Middle English period).

Birch-bark letter no. 497, c. 1340-90, Novgorod (photograph)

The very first birch bark document, was found on July 26 1951; since then well more than a thousand such documents have been unearthed. Most of them — over a thousand — come from the ancient city of Novgorod (also known as Veliky Novgorod, or Great Novgorod) and the surrounding territory. The second biggest source is near Staraya Russa (44 documents), and much smaller finds come 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.

Cities where birch bark letters have been found
(the figures are smaller than those cited in the text as they are older)

According to researchers Valentin Yanin and Andrey Zaliznyak, who head the birch bark document project, most of these documents are ordinary letters of a personal or business character written by various people: men, women and even children. For example, five birch bark letters were found written by a woman to a woman. Also, this document (see picture below) 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.

Birch-bark letter no. 202, mid-13th century, Novgorod (photograph)

The discovery of birch bark documents penned by people of both sexes, of different ages and of varying social status changed our notions about the literacy rates in northern Russia: it clearly must have been far more developed than previously thought. Professor Andrey Zaliznyak even claims that the overall literacy (not to mention literacy among women) in Old Novgorod was higher than in Western European cities of the time.

Another important aspect of how personal these birch bark letters are: most of the documents found to date are torn. Unlike with many other ancient documents — most of which arrive to us less than perfectly preserved — it has been shown that birch bark letters are typically destroyed not after they were buried (by weather, moving earth layers, careless excavation or what not) but before: they are torn by human hand, the hand of the recipient. Think about all the scrapts of business letters, memos, personal notes, receipts, etcetera that are lying torn up in your paper recycling bin.

Birch-bark letter no. 3, Moscow (photograph)

Even though most of the birch bark documents are torn, they are incredibly well preserved and much easier to read than corresponding medieval manuscripts: as was mentioned above, there is no potentially fading ink involved. Also, these documents are remarkably well preserved, in part because of a deep culture layer in Novgorod (up to eight meters, or 25 feet) and in part because of the heavy waterlogged clay soil which prevents the access of oxygen.

What makes such birch bark letters particularly valuable to philological and linguistic research is that they are written in a fairly vernacular language, and using a vernacular system of writing. In the early years since the first birch bark letter discovery, scholars thought they many of them were written by people who were not highly literate and therefore made many spelling errors. However, further careful study showed that there is a certain convention of writing birch bark documents that is simply different in minor ways from the system used to write other documents (books and the similar) around the same time. Essentially, this vernacular writing system is different in only three minor ways. First, the letter “e” of the “bookish” writing style can be represented either by “e” or by “ь” (front yer), which in the bookish system represents the very short front vowel [ĭ] (similar to the vowel in the English pit, but shorter). Second, the letter “o” of the “bookish” writing style can be represented either by “o” or by “ъ” (back yer), which in the bookish system represents the very short back vowel [ŭ] (similar to the vowel in the English put, but shorter). Finally, the letter “ѣ” (yat) of the “bookish” writing style can be represented either by “ѣ”, by “e” or by “ь”. No other “spelling errors” have ever been found in birch bark documents, indicating that these are not really errors at all!

Next time, we will look a little more closely at some of these priceless documents.

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