Six-year-old Onfim stifled a yawn. His teacher was droning on and on about Old Russian alphabet, but Onfim had had enough scrawling letters onto his birchbark notebook. His mind wandered to the really exciting things that Novgorod in 1220 AD had to offer: brave warriors, epic battles, and horses. Almost without thinking, his bone stylus scratched the bark.
Little did he know that some 800 years later, people would marvel at his rudimentary sketches, or that they would be sharing them in seconds across something called the Internet.
Birch-bark manuscripts represent one of the most enigmatic phenomena in Russian history. And yet, they 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. Its use didn’t fade away until the 19fth century.
This is mainly because of economic reasons: Birchbark was cheap as compared to parchment and, later, to paper. Along with writing, the natural and accessible material was widely used in birch-bark handicraft for decoration and household. To prepare birch bark for writing, all that people needed to do was boil it in water, then delaminate it, removing its cruder layers; a process that was fast and economic.
In the picture above, you can see a 14th-century beresta (writing tablet), a birch-bark book (middle) and metal and bone styli. Near the top are two wooden writing tablets, used by students and meant to be covered with wax. The holes in the first tablet served as “wax wells.” The wide end of the styli served to erase the wax text. The reverse side of the writing tablet (upper right) is carved with an alphabet, presumably for use in school. Students did their first lessons on wax tablets before advancing to birch bark, which required more strength and a firm hand.
At the left of the picture are Onfim’s exercises, consisting of the Old Slavic alphabet. Onfim covered the remaining space with battle scenes and pictures of himself and his teacher.
The Novgorod Manuscripts
The Novgorod feudal republic consisted of Novgorod, Staraya Russa and Torzhok. In 1951, archaeologists made an amazing find, right in the pavement, in a chink between two blocks of decking: 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, with 13 lines and some 38 cm (15″) long. The document contained a list of settlements and their compulsory services to someone named Roma.
Since then, thousands of manuscripts have been discovered, including Onfim’s playful scrawlings–altogether, 12 manuscripts by Onfim have been discovered, along with several birch-bark drawings.
The majority of the manuscripts, however, were 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 these, there are birchbark drafts of official acts, such as wills, receipts, deeds of purchase, minutes of the court, and so on.
Other types of birch-bark monuments discovered include 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).
Many of the manuscripts were written in the Old Novgorod dialect. However, many were written in Old Russian, a few in Church Slavonic, and others in a variety of languages: 292 in Baltic-Finnish, 488 in Latin, 552 in Greek, and 753 in German, revealing a well-educated and cosmopolitan world.
So, next time you want your fantasy world hero to send a message, you may have them look around for a birch tree!
You can find out more about this fascinating medium in russia-ic.com.
I have Erik Kwakkel’s Medieval Books to thank for notifying me to this discovery. Erik Kwakkel is a book historian and lecturer at Leiden University. His blog brings the world of medieval manuscripts to life in a wonderful way.
This post is part of a multi-part series of posts on ancient and Medieval wonders, to celebrate my 99c Pearseus: Rise of the Prince promo. As Pearseus has been described as “Ancient Greece in space,” it seemed strangely appropriate.