In 11th to early 15th century Novgorod, Russia, squirrel fur was so important to the economy that some kinds of tribute and rent were calculated in fur. Words for squirrel fur, such as vevrereitsy, vekshi, and bely, were used to mean money, and the forty fur unit, known as a sorochok, was used as a general monetary unit. The sorochok is found in birchbark documents, on tally sticks, and used on tribute bag seals.
Fur was exported from Russia either by sea via the Baltic, down the Volga to Constantinople, or south east through Khazaria. These routes changed over time in response to shifting economic and political currents such as the Mongol invasion and the rise of Moscow as a political power. (Martin, Gaimster)
The Russian fur trade was important enough that Constantinople lifted its own restrictions to allow a permanent Russian trade outpost. Novgorod preferred the Baltic route, but early on sent some fur to Kiev as tribute. (Martin)
From its beginning in the 9th century, Novgorod was a trading center, with its advantageous placement on Lake Ilmen, near the Baltic Sea, generally maintaining trading relations with the Hanse, Sweden, Denmark, the Baltics, and onward as far as Bagdhad through the Volga, as well as with Kiev and Moscow. Both the Hanseatic league, a powerful confederation of Germanic trading cities, and Gotland had their own trading outposts beginning in the 12th century (Birnbaum).
Fur, particularly squirrel fur, made up a large portion of that trade, receiving silver, other non-ferrous metals, cloth, wine, beer, spices, amber and weapons in return. (Gaimster, Martin). Hanseatic records show up to 230,000 squirrel pelts traveling by individual ships from Estonia in the 14th and 15th centuries(Makarov 2012, Martin) This fur would reach markets as far as England, France, and Italy, feeding the appetite for fur for linings of garments. (Veale)
Novgorod’s fur trade was multifaceted, and can be reconstructed from a variety of evidence. Blunt arrowheads designed to be used for fur hunting have been found in quantity in Byeloozero, Ryurik Gorodische, and Novgorod, as well as osteological remains found at Mininio outside Novgorod supporting the overall fur trade, with beaver accounting for a large portion of the assemblage. (Makarov 2012) Marten is mentioned in the birchbark letters in the 14th-15th centuries. (Rybina 2001) Beaver fur was a constant in trade through the 14th century, after which both mentions of beaver fur and bone remains found decrease sharply. (Makarov 2012) Sable is mentioned by Arab writers as a consistent export from Russia, with one mention in the birchbark documents, but most osteological finds are from Siberia, (Rybina 2001, Makarov 2012) suggesting that sable was not a local product.
Both tally sticks using the fur accounting unit, the sorochok/timber, and wooden seal locks for securing tribute bags have been found in Novgorod. The birchbark documents also contain many references to the fur trade. (Rybina 2001)
Grey squirrel was the mainstay of Novgorod’s fur trade, being the type most frequently mentioned in the Novgorod birchbark letters, from the 12th -15th centuries. (Martin, Rybina, 2001) We can see from the complexity, geographic reach, and boyar participation in the pelt collection system that the squirrel fur trade was central to medieval Novgorod’s economic and political well-being, allowing the city to obtain cash and other trade goods, as well as maintaining ties outside Russia. (Makarov 2012) It is estimated that at least 200,000 pelts were exported yearly. (Makarov 2012, Martin) The trappings of this trade permeated the life of the city; tribute and rent were paid in fur, and the sorochok was used not just to count furs, but as a unit in other monetary transactions. Fur was not only obtained as tribute, but also was a commercial enterprise for both the townspeople and those in outlying areas, reaching into the far north. (Martin, Makarov 2012) See figure 1
Squirrel fur was collected and sold in units of forty pelts, called sorochok in Russia or timber in the west and Scandinavia, flowing to Novgorod from the northern hinterlands through the boyars as tribute, as well as from individual merchants, and thence outward to western europe. Pelts were counted in the thousands on one seal lock and the words for squirrel fur, vevrereitsy, vekshi, and bely, were used as general words to mean money. (Makarov 2012) The Hanseatic League carried a large portion of this volume west. Many grades and ways of making up the fur are attested, including gray and white vair, grey gris, and white miniver. (Martin, Veale)
Fur was a medium of exchange in early Rus, including Novgorod, along with silver ingots and non native coinage, since native coinage was not actually all silver, and was largely limited to a period on either side of the year 1000, and again around 1070 (Franklin, Pavlova). Trade conducted in silver in the 12-14th centuries was conducted in foreign coinage or in grivnas, silver ingots. (Spufford) The major source of silver coinage in Novgorod was the fur trade. (Martin)
Birchbark documents show that several words, vevrereitsy, vekshi, and bely, were used to mean both squirrel fur and amounts of money. (Makarov 2012) In the 14th century one Vasilii Matfeev paid 20,00 squirrel pelts and 10 rubles for a large tract of land, indicating the buying power of fur. (Martin)
Tribute to Novgorod, particularly from the far north, was often assessed and paid in fur. (Martin, Veale) A charter of Prince Sviatoslav, dated to 1136, assigns a portion of his income to a church endowment, expressed in fur, detailing which pogosts (adminstrative districts) would pay how many sorochoks. (Martin, Noonan & Kovalev 2004) In areas where peasants owned their land outright, Novgorod taxed in fur. (Martin) Some 16th c taxes were levied as ermine tax and squirrel tax. (Martin, Makarov 2012)
Rent was frequently paid in fur. A late 15th century document listing rents paid in Obonezh’e (a district of Novogord’s outlying lands) shows that at least half the landowners charged half or more of their rent in fur, which holds true for the other six districts where data is available. (Martin)
By the 14th century, a three part supply system was established; landowners procured fur in the form of rents, Novgorod taxed landowners, peasantry and townsfolk, and individuals trapped and sold fur independently. Martin estimates a minimum of 200,000 squirrel pelts exported yearly in the late 15th century, down from 400,000 to 600,000 yearly at the height of the trade in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. The markup on fur was as high as 54%, allowing for a generous influx of cash both to the city treasury and its merchants and landowners. (Martin)
This steady flow of silver allowed Novgorod to retain its independence from Moscow; the loss of the hinterlands combined with changes in fur fashion set the stage for Novgorod’s eventual capitulation to Moscow.
Excerpted from my paper for An Tir’s Kingdom Arts & Sciences Championship 2017, Forty Pelts in a Bundle: Archaeological Evidence for the Use of the Sorochok/Timber Unit in Medieval Novgorod. Paper available in full here:
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