Birch Bark Letters, part 2

Sep 12, 2011 by

In the previous posting, I embarked (no pun intended!) on an exploration of Novgorod birch bark letters. Let’s consider them a little more closely.

As I mentioned in the previous posting, most of these birch bark documents are written in a vernacular northern dialect of Old Russian (in fact, several northern Russian dialects can be distinguished but I won’t get into that level of detail for the moment). However, there is also a small number of birch bark documents that are written in other languages: two birch bark documents were written by foreigners living in Novgorod in Latin and Low German; one Greek document has also been found and one in Karelian. The latter document, 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; in fact, it is quite remarkable how unaffected by Old Church Slavonic most of the Novgorod birch bark letters are, unlike books from the same period.

While the majority of the birch bark documents are in vernacular Old Russian (of the Novgorod variety), it would be mistaken to think that these documents faithfully represent spoken language of the time. After all, these are letters and as such they are full of epistolary conventions. For example, most birch bark letters open with a customary address formula: from X to Y. For example, the first line of the following birch bark letter (#109, shown both in photograph and in diagram) states that it is “gramota” (document) “from Zhiznomir to Mikula”. This missive talks about a purchase of a stolen slave woman by a warrior (“druzhinnik”). Note also that there are no breaks between words and no punctuation: none were used in birch bark letters.

Birch bark letter #109, c. 1100, Novgorod (photograph and diagram)

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 frozen epistolary formulas such as “tsѦtьlouju tѦ” meaning ‘I kiss you’ or “dobѦtь sъtvorѦ” meaning ‘be so kind’ or ‘please’, as at the end of the birch bark document #199, a letter from a woman Gostjata to her male relative complaining about an unfair treatment from her husband and admonishing him to come and sort the matter out (see picture below).

(Note that the letter “Ѧ” is pronounced [ja]; cf. Modern Russian “я”; for the pronunciation of the other two “funny” letters, see here). Clearly, these formulas for the Old Novgorod folks were just like our “Sincerely”, “Best wishes” or “Lots of love”.

Birch bark letter #199, Novgorod (photograph and diagram; highlight mine)

And like our private correspondence, these birch bark letters talk about the everyday problems and affairs, touching on family life and household management (e.g., #363), trade and finance, crimes and legal proceedings, travel, military expeditions, and much much more. Thus, they reveal an enormous amount of details of medieval northern Russian life. And not all birch bark documents are private letters in the narrow sense. Among these documents we find bills, IOUs, receipts, ownership labels, wills, purchase contracts, complaints from peasants to their lord and various other types of documents. Some of the most curious finds include learning materials: scribbles of children learning to write, alphabets (e.g, #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 which lists 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. You can even find curses, a riddle and an occasional joke in these documents (although it is not always easy to judge medieval humor, as discussed below).

Quite naturally such a range of genres requires different registers of speech. Unsurprisingly, much attention in recent years, especially in the popular press, has been paid to birch bark documents containing very colloquial vocabulary, curses or even obscene words (Russian: мат). For example, in a seven-line long birch bark letter dated from the 12th century Žiročka and Teška communicate to a certain Vdovin that Šilьnik (some of these characters have already been known to researchers from previously found documents), as they put it, пошибает (“pošibaet”) other people’s pigs and horses, thus shaming his neighborhood in the eyes of the whole city’s inhabitants. The word “pošibaet”, according to philologists, had several meanings in Old Russian. Most commonly, albeit still colloquially, it meant ‘to steal’; but it also had another meaning, that of ‘having sex with’, which would make Šilьnik’s crime even worse in the eyes of his fellow Novgorod men.

Other birch bark documents from Novgorod that contain curses include two letters dated also from the first half of 12th century. For example, in one of them, a Novgorod woman curses her female acquaintance for borrowing money and not giving it back.

But the oldest birch bark document containing мат (obscene words) has been found in a neighboring city of Staraya Russa, south of the Lake Ilmen, about a 100 kilometer drive from Novgorod. At the end of this letter (#35), addressed from Radoslav to Xoteslav and conveying a request to take money from a merchant, another hand added a phrase which literally means ‘Yakove, brother, f*** lying down’. Historians interpret this added phrase as an advice from a man to his brother to do exactly as he’s told, as is the norm and custom, that is to be like everybody else. Below, the same hand adds two other extremely obscene descriptions of Yakov referring to his alleged lubricious nature. According to one interpretation, Yakov is the Christian name of Radoslav, and the note is Xoteslav’s reaction to his brother’s business recommendations. An alternative interpretation is that Yakov is actually the same person as Xoteslav, whereas the note was added by Radoslav himself to a letter written by a scribe. According to this version, the note is just an example of a rude joke between brothers. Perhaps, if the author of this note could have known that it would be found nearly a millennium later and would be puzzled over by scores of philologists and historians, perhaps he would have signed his name and thus officially became the first Russian man to use such obscene words (in writing). But on a more serious note, such discoveries of obscene vocabulary in Old Novgorod documents contradict the earlier theory stating that the Russian мат (obscene words) is entirely an influence of Turkic languages.

Because the sensationalist topic of obscene words in birch bark documents has been so popular among journalists, certain letters have been reported as containing such obscenities, whereas in reality these words have not yet acquired the modern obscene meaning during the time that these documents were written. For example, in a letter #531 (dated from the early 13th century and one of the longest ever found) a certain Anna asks her brother to defend her and her daughter against accusations of a certain man named Kosnjatin. According to Anna’s complaint, Kosnjatin called her daughter “bljad'”, from the root blud ‘fornication’. In Modern Russian, this word is a very obscene term for a prostitute, but in the 13th century it did not have that strong connotation yet. In fact, it can even be found in Old Church Slavonic texts, where it is just a neutral term for a prostitute. At the time, to call an unmarried woman — such as Anna’s daughter — a whore was an insult (unless a true statement of fact, of course), but to use this term for a married woman was actually a crime punishable by a fine (as described, for example, in Russkaya Pravda, the legal code of Kievan Rus’).

Another example of a word in birch bark documents that can easily be misunderstood as obscene is задница(zadnica), which in Modern Russian is an obscene word for the part of the body just below one’s back, but in Old Russian it had a completely different meaning. Thus, a Russian speaker without special knowledge of Old Russian might be perplexed or even confused by the statement in the birch bark letter #562 (dated from the second half of the 11th century): “a za nimi zadьnicѦ” — and to them is [or ‘they have’]… a behind?! What sort of statement is that?! Actually, in Old Russian this word meant something completely different: that which is left behind when a person dies, that is, an inheritance. The whole document #562 later turned out to be a part of a larger letter, whose missing first line (of only 3 words!) has been known as the birch bark document #607. Once put together, the whole missive goes as follows:

A combined diagram of the birch bark letter #607 and 562, Novgorod



Literal translation:

Zhiznobud [pre-Christian name] murdered by Sychevich [patronymic of a group]

Novgorod freeman and to them inheritance

‘Zhiznobud, a Novgorod freeman, has been murdered by the Sycheviches, and they took his inheritance.’

How is that for a laconic crime report?

Next time we shall examine this letter (documents #607 and 562) from the point of view of the peculiarities of the Novgorod Old Russian dialect.

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