Novgorod in northern Russia is a treasure trove of birch-bark documents which tell of medieval daily life in the ancient city.
Almost a thousand of the perfectly preserved documents, scratched on the bark of birch trees, have been recovered from the deep layers of Novgorod’s anaerobic clay soil over the past century. It has been estimated that another 20,000 still lie buried and that it will take another 200 years to recover them all.
The birch-bark documents date from the 11th to 15th centuries and include tax returns, school exercises, wills, IOUs, marriage proposals, prayers, spells and curses. They are mostly written in a northern dialect of Old Russian by people of both sexes, of different ages, and of varying social status.
In one letter from the first half of the 12th century, a Novgorod woman curses a female acquaintance for borrowing money and not giving it back.
Another written by a man named Semyon contains household instructions for his daughter-in-law concerning malt and meat; she is also instructed to pay a debt to a man named Ignat amounting to one rouble.
A letter from a woman named Gostjata to her male relative Vasiliy complains bitterly about unfair treatment from her husband; she pleads with Vasiliy to come and sort the matter out.
A man called Mikita is straight to the point in his written marriage proposal to his beloved Anna: “marry me—I want you and you want me, and the witness to that is Ignat Moiseev.”
A heartfelt letter from a man named Danila, writing to his brother, pleads poverty (“I walk around naked—I have no cloak, nothing”) and asks for a place to live.
The most charming, however, are a series of 13th century drawings by a boy named Onfim, who was about 7 years old when he drew them around 1220 AD. Onfim was supposed to be learning to write, but his daydreams got the better of him and his spelling exercises are mixed with doodles.
In this example, Onfim has diligently copied out the first eleven letters of the alphabet in the corner of the page, but got bored and drew a picture of himself as a warrior, sword in one hand and impaling an enemy with a spear in the other – he even labelled the figure on the horse as ‘Onfim’.
In another example, he drew a picture of himself as a wild beast (which he identified by writing “I am a wild beast” over it). The apparently friendly beast carries a sign which reads “Greetings from Onfim to Danilo” – Danilo (or Daniel) presumably being Onfim’s schoolmate.
In this final example, Onfim draws his father and mother.
I love them. They show that no matter where, and no matter when, kids are kids. Which parent hasn’t had something similar gracing their refrigerator door?