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Birchbark Manuscripts
December 9, 2009 19:35

Birchbark manuscripts represent one of the most enigmatic phenomena of Russian history. Proved to be amazingly long-lasting, they open up unlimited possibilities for learning about the past in historical areas where quests for new sources were recognized hopeless.

The farther into the depth of centuries, the less written evidences. Birch-bark manuscripts found in the 20th century allow looking into remote centuries of our past.

Birchbark manuscripts used to be a common element of medieval Novgorod household. Dwellers of Novgorod constantly wrote and read letters, tore them up and threw them away, just like we get rid of unwanted or used papers today.

Museums and archives harbor pretty many documents written on birch bark. There are latest manuscripts of the 17-19th cc, entire books among them. Thus, in 1715 in Siberia tribute to the Moscow tsar was recorded in a birch-bark book that has come down to us. Ethnographer S.V.Maksimov who saw a birch-bark book at the settlement of Old-Believers on Mezen’ River in the mid 19th century was very enthusiastic about that writing material, which was already out of common use in Russia.

Birchbark was cheap as compared to parchment and, later, to paper. There are lots of evidences of the fact that paper and especially parchment were very expensive in antiquity. Along with writing, the natural and accessible material was widely used in birch-bark handicraft for decoration and household.

Special processing was needed to prepare birch bark for writing: it was boiled in water, and delaminated, with cruder layers removed. A sheet of birch bark prepared for writing was most often trimmed from all sides and had accurate right angles. Finally, inscriptions were usually put on the inner side if birch bark, i.e. on that surface, which always turns to be on the outside, when a birch bark sheet is rolled into a scroll.

The first Novgorod birchbark manuscript was found on July 26, 1951 during archeological diggings in Dmitrovskaya Street, called Kholopia Street (i.e. the street of serfs) in the Middle Ages. The manuscript was discovered right in the pavement, in a chink between two blocks of decking. First time seen by archeologists, it appeared as a dense and dirty scroll of birch bark with clear letters showing through the dirt. It was one of the biggest birch bark manuscripts ever found in Novgorod. It has 13 lines and is 38 cm long. If the lines were put into a single row it would make five meters! Almost all the lines were marred, though. In spite of that, the content of the document could be easily figured out. It was a list of settlements with detailed description of their compulsory services to someone named Roma.

Majority of birchbark manuscripts are private letters of business nature (concerning debt collection, trade, or household instructions). That category borders upon debt lists, which could serve as instructions “to take that much from so-and-so”) and collective petitions from peasants to their feudal lord (14-15 cc). Besides, there are birchbark drafts of official acts, such as wills, receipts, deeds of purchase, minutes of the court, and so on.

Comparatively rare but especially interesting are the following types of birch-bark monuments: church texts (prayers, beadrolls, icon orders, and sermons), works of literature and folklore (charms, school jokes, riddles, household admonitions), and learning notes (alphabets, syllables, exercises, children’s drawings and scribbles). Learning notes and drawings by a 6 or 7 year-old boy named Onfim from Novgorod (mid 13th c)that were found in 1956 gained wide fame. These notes present a valuable evidence of elementary education in Old Rus’. When having rest from studies, the boy turns to drawing. The unskillful and yet expressive pictures show horses, warriors in helmets and cloaks, a horseman striking an enemy, etc. Altogether there were discovered 12 manuscripts ( 199—210 & 331) by Onfim, and several birch-bark drawings, not enumerated as manuscripts, because they have no text. Most of his manuscripts and drawings were found on 13-14 July 1956.

Birch-bark manuscripts are, as a rule, very concise, pragmatic and bearing only the most important data; the things that are known to both the author and the addressee are not mentioned, naturally. The difficulties of interpretation that modern researchers constantly face due to absence of context are the pay-off for reading “others’ letters”.

Majority of birch-bark manuscripts were written in Old Russian, and just a few of them in the Church Slavonic language. There are also several manuscripts written in non-Slavonic languages: 292 Baltic-Finnish, 488 Latin, 552 Greek, and 753 German ones.

Most of the birch-bark documents from the territory of the Novgorod feudal republic (Novgorod, Staraya Russa and Torzhok) were written in the Old Novgorod dialect, which differed from the Old Russian language, known from traditional monuments, on various levels: phonetics, morphology, and partly even vocabulary.

Letters were pressed or scratched on birch bark with the point of a special metal or bone writing instrument, kind of a stick. Only two of the discovered manuscripts ( 13 496) were written in ink.

Recently great sensations have been brewing in mass-media concerning finds of certain birch-bark manuscripts containing foul or obscene words found in some of the manuscripts.


Tags: Russian Birchbark Manuscripts Birchbark Handicrafts Archeological Monuments   

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