No, not the kind of mat you sleep on—I’m talking about Russian mat (curse words), and the birch bark used for documents in medieval Novgorod and other areas of north Russia. A new blog, Language Geek, reports that “Archaeologists in Veliky Novgorod have dug up some birchbark documents containing Russian profanities” and quotes from a Novosti article:
Archaeologists did not disclose the texts. They only said one of the findings was a note written by a woman to her acquaintance in which she reprimanded the latter for not paying her debt. The other piece is said to be part of a larger document not found so far. … The first bark document did not contain profanities, but was rather unusual. It said a Velikiy Novgorod resident, known as Shilnik, had stolen pigs and horses.
I await further details with considerable interest.
The Geek also translates from a Russian article in Izvestia Nauka:
…This document said that a Novgorod resident known as Shilnik “poshibayet” other people’s pigs and horses. Historians note that in old Russian the word “poshibayet” had several meanings. In particular, it could mean “steals, robs”. “However, the word ‘poshibayet’ had another, quite different meaning for our ancestors,” the historians explained.
The implication seems to be that it had a sexual meaning, which might fit the quote “Аще кто пошибает боярскую жену, за сором ей 5 гривен золота, а митрополиту такоже” ‘if anyone poshibaet a boyar’s wife, for the shame five grivnas to her, and the same to the metropolitan’ (in an article by T.M. Nikolaeva on the language of medieval statutes) at least as well as Dahl‘s ‘hit, beat’ (implied in Nikolaeva’s “берет ее под защиту от побоев” ‘protects her against beatings’).
Incidentally, in looking up birch-bark documents on Amazon, I discovered an interesting sounding book Writing, Society and Culture in Early Rus, c.950-1300, but when I looked at the price I got a shock: how can Cambridge University Press charge $70 for a 342-page book? It’s insane.