Everyday Life and Letters in Ancient Russia

By Braichevsky, Mikhail J. | UNESCO Courier, June 1988 | Go to article overview

Everyday Life and Letters in Ancient Russia


Braichevsky, Mikhail J., UNESCO Courier


Everyday life and letters in ancient Russia

IN ancient Rus', birch bark played a similar role to that of papyrus in ancient Egypt and wax tablets in Rome. Although feudal deeds, which were meant to be preserved indefinitely, were written on parchment, birch bark was used for writing of a more everyday kind, such as instructions about farm or household matters, acknowledgements of debt, memoranda, and private correspondence. In 1951, archaeologists working in the ancient Russian city of Novgorod unearthed several score of these texts, the oldest dating from the late eleventh century. The importance of this remarkable find for the history of language and culture is comparable to that of papyri for classical studies.

The writers and recipients of the birch bark missives were people of various degrees of eminence and from different sectors of society. They included boyars, patricians, ordinary artisans, peasants and soldiers. Hundreds of such writings have been found. Nearly all deal with everyday matters, reflecting the humdrum side of life which in most historical sources is overshadowed by events of national importance. Such material is a mine of information about the extent of literacy in Rus' and about the existence of a well-established primary education system there. Schoolchildren even had "exercise-books", as we know from the discovery of those that once belonged to a little boy called Onfim, who lived in Novgorod in the first half of the thirteenth century.

Thus it is not surprising that many inscriptions should have been found on instruments used by the master craftsmen of ancient Rus'. A jeweller's matrix unearthed in Kiev is inscribed with the name of its owner, "Makosimov". Arabic inscriptions on matrices discovered in the Podol district of Kiev provide valuable evidence about the international composition of the patrician class in Kiev. The inscription on an amphora found in Kiev reads "Mstislavl's amphora", indicating its owner. A fragment of another amphora is inscribed with the word "good"--probably part of a formula expressing good wishes. Another inscription, which reads "May this amphora be well filled!", is quite unambiguous.

Specialists are still arguing about the meaning of the inscription on the best-known amphora, which was discovered in a graveyard at Gnezdovsk near

Smolensk. Some read it as Goroukhshcha (mustard), others as Goroushna (gaseous mixture), while yet another school has suggested the curious reading Goroukh psa (Goroukh wrote this). This find is particularly interesting because it dates from the first half of the tenth century, before Prince Vladimir's baptism. We know that writing existed in Rus' long before 988 from treaties concluded between Rus' and the Greeks, from the "Life of Cyril the Philosopher", and from information recorded by writers from the East. But on the amphora from Gnezdovsk we have a "real-life" autograph written before the time of Vladimir.

A tenth-century writer named Chernorizets Khrabr, who wrote a treatise on the rise of Slav literacy, suggested that writing developed in the following stages: "first, our ancestors used `marks' and `cuts' when they wanted to transmit information, then they used characters from the Greek alphabet `without adaptation', and finally Cyril invented a specifically Slav alphabet."

An alphabet recently discovered on the wall of the chapel of St. Mikhail, in the cathedral of St. Sophia in Kiev, shows the first stage of the "adaptation" of the Greek alphabet to the phonetic characteristics of Slav languages. In addition to the Greek letters, it contains four characters indicating the Slav sounds "B", "Zh", "Sh" and "Shch", for which symbols had to be found.

In any society, the introduction and spread of literacy is accompanied by revolutionary changes in all spheres of social life. With the coming of literacy, information becomes autonomous and acquires almost unlimited possibilities for transmission in space and time. …

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