14th c. birch bark letter found in Moscow

Russian archaeologists have unearthed a letter written on birch bark in Moscow’s historic Zaryadye district close to Red Square. The archaeological team from the Russian Academy of Sciences found the letter 13 feet below street level in a layer with more than 100 small and large artifacts dating to the 14th century.

The first birch bark letters were discovered in 1951 in Novgorod, preserved in its heavy, waterlogged clay soil. Letters were scratched on the inner, trunk-facing side of the birch bark sheet using a stylus made of iron, bone or bronze. The letters were dated with a combination of stratigraphy (dating of the layers in which they were found), dendrochronology (tree ring dating) and palaeography (handwriting analysis) and linguistic analysis (examining the features of the text). They range in date from the 11th through the 15th century.

The vast majority are letters from private individuals detailing the minutiae of their lives. Some are petitions of peasants to their lords. Some are debt lists, but since they open with the imperative “Take” it’s probable that they too were letters, probably of instruction on collecting the enumerated debt. One very special group of birch bark letters appear to be lessons and doodles. There are 17 drawings and notes by a young boy named Onfim. He lived in the 13th century and was around six or seven when he drew scenes of men on horseback, knights in battle, even himself as a fantastical beast next to alphabet and writing exercises. It’s a remarkable testament to a how highly literate this society was at all economic strata.

Since that first discovery in 1951, more than 1000 birch bark letters have been found, almost all of them in Novgorod. The second greatest number, 45, were found in Staraya Russa, a town 60 miles south of Novgorod. Only nine other cities can claim birch bark letter discoveries. None were found in Moscow until 1988. It took 20 years before a second and third were unearthed at the foot of the Kremlin. None of those three quite followed the Novgorod standard. Moscow 1, as the 1988 find was dubbed, was a draft or copy of a property deed or claim. Moscow 2 had a small inscription that was hard to make out. Moscow 3 was a very long inventory of property of a Muscovite prince and it was written in ink, not scratched with a stylus. (Only two of the thousand plus Novgorod letters were written in ink.)

That makes Moscow 4, the newly discovered piece, the first true Novgorod style birch bark letter found in the city. Like the overwhelming majority of the Novgorod ones, this is a private letter. The strip of bark has the smooth surface and carefully cut edges indicating it was specifically prepared for use as stationary. Each letter is printed very clearly and distinctly along the length of the fibers, as they are in Novgorod. The other Moscow letters were written against the grain.

The letter is a sad one. Addressed simply to “Sir,” it tells of the writer’s misfortunes while traveling to Kostroma, a city 217 miles to the northeast that was part of the Grand Duchy of Moscow. The writer was detained along with a certain Yuri and his mother by someone “who had the right to do so.” This person, likely an official of some kind, took 13 bel (a relatively small denomination of currency in medieval Russia) from them and then another three. Finally the author had to pay 20 and a half bel more to buy their freedom. The total of 36.5 bel was a signficant amount of money back then. Since it appears the captor had legal rights, this may have been the repayment of a debt with extra tacked on for interest.

Every Novgorod birch bark letter find is exciting, but the rarity of a Moscow find and the precise printing of this letter make it of particular interest to archaeologists. It will be conserved to ensure its long-term survival and studied further at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Most of the birch bark letters have been uploaded to an online database. The website is down right now but it was working earlier. From what I could gather when it was up, it hasn’t been updated for a while so it’s not quite a complete record. Still, you can photographs of each letters in high resolution, plus transcriptions and translations.

8 thoughts on “14th c. birch bark letter found in Moscow

  1. No Germanic language played any part in the development of literacy in Eastern Europe. Old Church Slavonic was created as a liturgy language in Byzantium in 9th century and spread with the Christianity after it was adopted in the late 10th century. First known birch-bark letters come from 1025-1050 CE and use Cyrillic alphabet. Spelling rules of this secular form of writing were quite different from canonical, and that is a real treat for linguists. Here is sample homework from that time (gramota 591)

  2. Unlike writing, traditional values like plunder, trade and agriculture were common sense – By the time somebody brought a realm under his dynastic control in order to label it ‘Sverige’, the Viking Age was almost certainly over.

    Earlier to that, some of them ‘visited’ Slavonic peoples, in what is now Ukraine and Russia, established trading posts and even traded with Constantinople and far beyond, and it was actually Constantinople, where one of them was at least literate enough to scratch Nordic runes into the marbles of the Hagia Sophia.

    By then, however, the Slavonic Christianization was to a certain extent completed, and after all it seems as if the former Slavs simply were the majority among the literate.

  3. It was the Slavs who brought writing to the area. The earlier population was predominantly Finno-Ugric speakers but only one birch bark letter in a Finnic language has ever been found, and it’s in cyrillic.

  4. More or less, but not quite: The ones who brought writing to the area where most likely writing in Greek and probably were the ones that brought Christianity. In 826/827 AD, Kyrill (Κύριλλος, Кирилъ, Кирилл Философ), originally aka ‘Constantinos’, was born in Thessaloniki, and it seems as if some minor adjustments had to be applied to the Greek letters in order to function with local Slavonic languages.

    The Glagolitic alphabet, also known as Glagolitsa, i.e. the oldest known Slavic alphabet, was created in the 9th century by Saint Cyril, a Byzantine monk from Thessaloniki. This, together with Greek, influenced the Cyrillic letters. The Cyrillic alphabet is derived from the Greek alphabet, with (at least 10) letters peculiar to Slavic languages being derived from the Glagolitic.

  5. “against the grain” is still technically “with the grain”. “Across the grain” is probably what was meant.
    If you think of petting a cat from tail to head, you are petting “against the grain”, which is still in line with the fibers.

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