Birchbark documents in Novgorod. 

Much of Novgorod’s casual personal and business correspondence was carried out on birchbark, including collections and records of debts, directives from landowners to peasants, shopping lists, child’s writing practice, personal letters, and much more. (Thompson 56-63, Petrova et al 38-40, Franklin 37) Birchbark is also found as containers, fishing floats and shoes. (Kolchin)

Alphabet on birchbark document 778. Source Yanin 2001

While birchbark is occasionally encountered as a writing surface elsewhere in northern Europe, Novgorod’s archaeological conditions are exceptionally good for the preservation of wood and wood products. (Yanin 2001 11-12) These documents have survived in large numbers in the muddy layers in Novgorod, and have changed significantly the understanding of literacy in the city. It is now apparent based on the type and frequency of these documents, taken together with the frequency of graffiti, that most of the populace had some functional literacy, and the more well off much more. (Franklin 39)

These documents are generally written with a stylus on the softer inner surface of the birchbark. The messages are direct and notable for their brevity, usually beginning with the formula “From Name to Name…’

A somewhat pragmatic marriage proposal is found in letter #377 which reads ‘From Nikita to Ulyanitsa. Marry me. I want you and you me. And as witness will be Ignato…..’ (Thompson 63)

Birchbark letter 377. Source: Thompson 63
Birchbark letter #731. Source: Rybina 128

The grooms mother negotiates with a match maker in letter # 731. (Rybina 128) 

In letter #605 Ephrem the monk apologizes for missing time with his brother, while in letter #497 Gavril invites relatives to visit. (Petrova et al 110-111)

Birchbark letters 605 and 497. Source: Petrova et al 111

Birchbark was the medium on which young Onfim practiced his alphabet, in birchbark letter #200. (Thompson 63)

Birchbark letter #200. Source: Thompson 63

Much of the content provides a window into the economic activity of Novgorod and its outlying areas, including the fur trade, agriculture, fisheries, and moneylending.
There are multiple references to fur, the 40 fur unit sorochok, and other economic activity in various birchbark documents. Five birchbark documents from the 11th-12th century show verevitsy, squirrel fur, used to mean ‘money’. (numbers 105, 246, 335, 657, 772)(Makarov 2012 385)

Many birchbark letters discuss trade, tribute or debt, with foodstuffs appearing as a medium of exchange. Various cereals are frequently mentioned, including rye, barley, wheat and oats, usually referred to as a tribute item. (Rybina 127) Other items such as peas, hops, cheese, beer, wine, and flax are mentioned as well. Fish of various kinds and preparations appear as tribute starting in the 12th century. (Rybina 128-129)

Birchbark letter #92. Source: Rybina 129

References to moneylending and debt collection are found in several letters.

Birchbark 336  discusses who is responsible for a debt, all figured in sorochoks:

“Letter from Petr to Volchko: Was it you who told Rozhnet that 2 sorochoks are to be collected from Nustui? He does not owe a penny. Recently I borrowed 2 times 2 sorochoks for 5 sorochoks from Dan’sha, and he will collect from him.”

Birchbark letter #366. Source

We can see that the debt has been sold, and will be paid with interest. (Noonan & Kovalev 2004, Kovalev 2003a 33)

The birchbark letters also provide a trove of naming information, showing both given and bynames in the Novgorodian dialect, as well as allowing connections to be made between people and locations in the archaeological record based on where letters are found. Many documents have clues to the relationship of the sender and receiver, shedding light on the social structure of the time.




“Birchbark Document 336.” N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Jan. 2017. <;.

Brisbane, Mark, and David R. M. Gaimster. Novgorod: The Archaeology of a Russian Medieval City and Its Hinterland. London: British Museum, 2001. Print

Brisbane, Mark, Jon G. Hather, and Katherine Judelson. Wood Use in Medieval Novgorod. Oxford: Oxbow, 2007. Print

Franklin, Simon. Writing, Society and Culture in Early Rus, C. 950-1300. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print

Kolchin, Boris. Wooden Artefacts from Medieval Novgorod. Oxford: B. A. R., 1989. Print

Kovalev, R. K. “Birch-sorochki: Upakova Mekhovykh Shkurok v Srednevekovom Novgorode.” Nogorodskoi Istoricheskii Sbornik 9 (2003a): 36-56. Print

Makarov, N. A. “The Economy of the Fur Trade in the Northern Borderlands of Medieval Russia.” The Archaeology of Medieval Novgorod in Context; Studies in in Center Periphery Relations. Ed. Mark A. Brisbane. Oxford: Oxbow, 2012. 381-90. Print

Noonan, Th S., and R.k. Kovalev. “What Can Archaeology Tell Us About How Debts Were Documented and Collected in Kievan R US’?” Russian History 27.1 (2000): 119-54. Web

Noonan, Thomas, and Roman Kovalev. “The Furry 40’s. Packaging Pelts in Medieval Northern Europe.” States, Societies, Cultures, East and West. Essays in Honor of Jaroslaw Pelenski. Ed. Janusz Duzinkiewicz. New York: Ross, 2004. 653-82. Print

Petrova, E. N., C. Griffith Mann, Peter Bray, and Kenneth MacInnes. Sacred Arts and City Life: The Glory of Medieval Novgorod. Baltimore: Palace Editions, 2005. Print

Rybina, E. A. “The Birch-Bark Letters: The Domestic Economy of Medieval Novgorod.” Novgorod: The Archaeology of a Russian Medieval City and Its Hinterland. By Mark Brisbane and David R. M. Gaimster. London: British Museum, 2001. 113-18. Print

Thompson, M. W. Novgorod the Great; Excavations at the Medieval City Directed by A.V. Artsikhovsky and B.A. Kolchin. New York: Praeger, 1967. Print

Vydrina, Predslava. Name Frequency in the Novgorod Birch-Bark Letters:Introduction. Web. <;

Yanin, V. L. “Novgorod and Medieval Archaeology.” Novgorod: The Archaeology of a Russian Medieval City and Its Hinterland. By Mark Brisbane and David Gaimster. London: British Museum, 2001. 11-14. Print


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