Summer 2017

Onfim the Artist

The birch bark drawings of a thirteenth-century Slavonic schoolboy

Justin E. H. Smith

It was not until the fortuitous discovery, well into the Soviet era, of troves of manuscripts in Novgorod that the modern world learned of medieval Slavonic literacy.[1] They are composed on beresty, thin pieces of birch bark that possess most of the virtues of wood-pulp paper, while requiring nothing for their manufacture. What is written on the beresty are, generally but not always, gramoty, texts or letters, usually in the Novgorodian dialect of Old Slavonic, but also, occasionally, in Karelian, German, or scattered other regional languages. A project of the Russian nonprofit organization Rukopisnye Pamiatniki Drevneï Rusi (Manuscript Monuments of Old Rus’), entitled Drevnerusskie Berestianye Gramoty (Old-Russian Birch Bark Gramoty), has catalogued and made available online a great number of medieval gramoty, searchable by year, by place of origin, by archeological dig, by condition of preservation, and by genre.[2]

There are around 956 catalogued gramoty from the period between 1050 and 1500 AD. Only eleven of these have been identified as having a literary or folkloric content, while most of the rest describe commercial transactions or legal disputes, or consist of transcriptions of biblical passages. It does not take much to earn the designation of literature. One Novgorod fragment classified as literary, No. 837, composed sometime in the mid-twelfth century and including a partial drawing of a bird, says simply:

... оуамышьлиш[ь]лижє...

Which gives us, when we add spaces between words:

... оу а мы шьли ш[ь]ли жє...

Which is to say, in modern Russian (dropping the initial word fragment): “А мы шли да шли,” that is, “And we went and went,” or, “And we went on and on,” or, “We just kept on going.”

If No. 837 is the Odyssey of the birch bark gramoty, No. 521 is the Kama Sutra and the Song of Songs, a truly beautiful fragmentary poem, composed in Novgorod in the early fifteenth century. It is catalogued as a “love spell,” and when properly spaced, it translates roughly as: “May your heart burn and your body and soul burn [with desire] for me and for my body and for my face.”

We are not drawn to these texts for their rich, living detail, any more than we are impressed with Neolithic stone tools in view of their horsepower. Their rough and fragmentary quality is their virtue and their poetry. This is what Anne Carson, most notably, understood in her faithful rendering of the fragments of Sappho, and it is what the human past has to most compellingly recommend it: its initial rudimentary form and subsequent further corruption.[3]

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