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Birch Bark Letters of Old Novgorod

Studying an old document recently, I came upon a very interesting, scientific, and educational website devoted to birch bark letters of the Old Rus. And since my occupation is related to jurisprudence and law, it was especially interesting to read the old documents, which regulated the relationships between people. Two documents attracted my attention.

One document is a birch bark letter which dates back to the end of the 12th or the first half of the 13th centuries. It is a letter from Anna to her brother Klimjata with a plea to defend her from an unjust accusation. The document is kept in Novgorod State United Museum and Reserve.

Birch Bark Letters of Old NovgorodBirch Bark Letters of Old Novgorod

The scientists carefully studied and translated the Old Russian text, and now we are able to read its contents, which should be regarded properly, because of the use of specific words that are found in it.

This is what the old text says, “From Anna a greeting to Klimjata. Lord brother, stand up for me before Kosnjatin in my case. Make [such] a declaration to him publicly concerning his injustice, “After you imposed the liability (literally, the surety responsibility) upon my sister and her daughter (that is, you declared that they promised to act as a surety) [and] called my sister a kurva (slut), and daughter a blyad (whore), now Fed (Fedor), when he came back and heard of this accusation, cast my sister out and wanted to kill her.” So, lord brother, after consulting with Voeslav, tell him (Kosnjatin), “[Since] you have put up this accusation, thus you have to prove it.” If Kosnjatin says, “She accepted liability for her son-in-law”, then you, lord brother, tell him this, “If there turn out to be witnesses against my sister — if there turn out to be witnesses in whose presence she (in the text – I) accepted liability for the son-in-law, — then  she is (in the text – I am) guilty.” You from your part, brother, after investigating what case and [what] liability he (Kosnjatin) has adduced against me and if it turns out that there are witnesses confirming it, I am not your sister and not my husband’s wife. Kill me then without heeding Fedor (i. e. regardless of him). My daughter gave the money in front of the people, with public announcement, and demanded a collateral. And he [Kosnjatin] summoned me to the pogost, and I went there because he left, saying: “I am sending four dvorjane to get those silver grivnas (that is, to collect the required fine).””.

The text of Anna’s letter to her brother Klimjata is interesting not only because of its purpose, but because of its style and content, and also because of the fact that it tells of the life and manners of the people, who lived before the Mongol-Tatar invasion. For some reason I have always thought, that obscene words came into use in Rus after the invasion of the Mongol Tatars. It turns out that I was wrong. As for the words of limited usage found in the letter, the territory of their origin could be the modern Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania.

And here is another letter, which is no less interesting, that dates back to the first half of the 14th century. It is a complaint from Fovronia to Filix, with a lament about her stepson’s violence. This document is also kept in NovgorodStateUnitedMuseum and Reserve.

Birch Bark Letters of Old Novgorod

This is the translation of the complaint, “Greeting from Fovronia to Filix with a lament. My stepson has beaten me and forced me out of the house. Would you command me to go to the city? Or come here yourself. I am beaten up.”

Fovronia had a stepson, who she had been taking care of. We do not know what happened between Fovronia and her stepson. It is only known that the stepson beat up Fovronia and kicked her out from the house. Most probably, the stepson was the son of Filix, to whom Fovronia addresses her complaint. We do not know what the conclusion of the case was. But the text of the complaint leaves us with the impression of the uneasy family relationships in those times.

More detailed information about these two Novgorod birch bark letters, and many more birch bark documents, can be read on the pages of the following website (in Russian) «Old Russian birch bark letters» at the address:

Один комментарий

  1. Какая прелесть! Летописцы и историки склонны к… Ну, скажем помягче, к некоторой предвзятости и ангажированности. А вот такие документы – настоящая история с настоящими людьми. Где-то вычитал: только с появлением мемуаров и публикацией писем стало возможно по-настоящему изучать историю.

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