Birchbark documents constitute the most significant set of early Rus written sources to have been discovered since 1950, when the first such document was discovered by archaeologists in Novgorod. As of the early twenty-first century, the total number of Novgorodian documents was close to one thousand. Smaller quantities of birchbark documents have also been unearthed in Staraya Russa, Smolensk, Pskov, Vitebsk, Mstislavl, Torzhok, Tver, Zvenigorod in Galicia, and Moscow. Besides being of fundamental importance to the study of early Rus writing itself, and to the study of early Rus language, the birchbark documents shed new light on a wide range of historical issues, including social and family relations, commerce and trade, taxation, law, and administration. They provide direct insight into the lives and concerns of groups of people who are underrepresented in traditional written sources: the non-princely, nonecclesiastical urban elites (though churchmen and princes do figure in the birchbark documents as well); women; and to some extent even sections of the peasantry.
Birchbark was the available, cheap, disposable writing material in the forests of Rus. Paper was virtually unknown before the fourteenth century, and manuscript books were written on parchment (treated animal skins), which was relatively expensive to procure and cumbersome to prepare. The typical birchbark document consists of a single piece of the material (just one birchbark book—made from three folded leaves—has been discovered). The letters were not written in ink but incised in the soft surface with a pointed stylus of metal, wood, or bone. Hundreds of such styluses turn up in excavations, suggesting that this type of writing was even more widespread than the extant documents might suggest. It has become conventional to refer to them as Novgorod birchbark documents, but there is no reason to suppose that their production and use was in fact a specifically or predominantly Novgorodian speciality. The preponderance of Novgorodian discoveries is due in part to the intensity of Novgorodian archaeological investigation, but in part also to the favorable conditions for birchbark survival, because organic materials are preserved almost indefinitely in the saturated, anaerobic (oxygen-free) Novgorodian mud.
Few, if any, of the birchbark documents can be dated with absolute precision. However, approximate datings to within two or three decades can often be supplied by means of dendrochronology by fixing the location of their discovery in relation to the chronological scale produced by the study of the tree rings on the logs that formed Novgorod's roads. In addition, birchbark paleography (the study of the shapes of letters) has now developed to the extent that it, too, can be used to indicate relative chronology. A small number of the birch-bark documents probably date from the first half of the eleventh century and are thus among the oldest known specimens of East Slav writing, but the vast majority of the documents date from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries.
The language of the birchbark documents was at first something of a puzzle. The spelling, grammar, and, to some extent, the vocabulary differ in some respects from the presumed norms of correct writing on parchment. This discrepancy was initially attributed to the presumed insufficient education and resulting semiliteracy of the writers. However, it is now clear that birchbark linguistic deviations from parchment norms are not random errors. Indeed, in most cases they are not errors at all. Birchbark literacy is consistent with its own conventions, and the documents reflect a vibrant and functional urban literacy with a strong local vernacular accent. The birchbark documents therefore add a vital new dimension to our understanding of the history of the Russian language.
The contents of the birchbark documents are remarkably varied. Many of them are concerned with money or (especially among the later letters) property. These range from brief lists of private debtors—just a sequence of names and the sums they owe—to fairly systematic registers of tax or tribute obligations from a village or region. Sometimes payment is a matter of dispute, and the documents reveal much about the processes of conflict resolution, whether informal (through family and associates) or formal (through judicial process and administrative enforcement). Although birchbark was mainly for ephemeral communication, not designed for official use, a few of the documents appear to contain drafts of texts whose official versions were destined for parchment, such as testaments for the disposal of property. Among the later documents are even found formal petitions sent from outlying settlements to their urban-dwelling lords. Yet it would be misleading to characterize the birchbark documents as merely a form of unsystematic unofficial business and financial archive. Their delight, for the modern researcher, lies in their apparent randomness, in the serendipitous, unexpected nature of their contents: love letters, fragments of folksy wisdom, amuletic incantations, family squabbles, childish doodles, drafts of designs for icons, a correspondence between nuns, practice alphabets, prayers. Each fresh season produces novelties, and even after more than half a century of discoveries there is no reason to suppose that birchbark is close to exhausting its capacity to surprise, and to add continually to the understanding of early Rus history.
At the end of the fifteenth century the continuous tradition of regular writing on birchbark came to an end. No contemporary commentator mentions this, so the reasons are subject to speculation. Perhaps the birchbark simply lost out in competition with paper, as a less fragile and more adaptable material. Or perhaps there were also structural factors, such as the spread of bureaucratic administration, which expanded the market for paper and pushed down its price while highlighting the comparative crudity of the traditional local alternative. Whatever the explanation for its demise, the age of birchbark literacy, in a country where written sources in general are notoriously scarce, has provided researchers with an expanding body of writing unique in medieval Europe.
See also: novgorod the great
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Franklin, Simon. (2002). Writing, Society, and Culture in Early Rus, c. 950–1300. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Levin, Eve. (1997). "Lay Religious Identity in Medieval Russia: The Evidence of Novgorod Birch-Bark Documents." General Linguistics 35:131–155.
Mühle, Eduard. (1994). "Commerce and Pragmatic Literacy: The Evidence of Birchbark Documents (from the Mid-Eleventh to the First Quarter of the Thirteenth Century) on the Early Urban Development of Novgorod." In California Slavic Studies XIX: Medieval Russian Culture II, eds. Michael S. Flier and Daniel Rowland. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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Vermeer, Willem. (1995). "Towards a Thousand Birch-bark Letters." Russian Linguistics 19:109–123.