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.


  1. “How can Cambridge University Press charge $70 for a 342-page book? It’s insane.”
    It seems an entirely reasonable price for a book from a renown academic publisher. Oxford University Press and Routledge, among others, charge the same prices nowadays. If you are interested in the book, chances are you are connected to a university and can get the book at no cost from the library, so the price is a non-issue.

  2. Your idea of “reasonable” and mine clearly differ. I’m aware that Oxford and Routledge charge similarly outrageous prices, but that doesn’t make it any less insane in my view. And we won’t even get started on the academic journals that charge such high prices for subscriptions libraries are forced to cut back on book purchases.
    And no, I’m not connected to a university, and the local libraries aren’t going to carry a book like that. (I just checked the MARS catalog, and it’s not in any of the Massachusetts libraries in the system.) Is information going to be only for the wealthy or well connected in the brave new world?

  3. No, LH, I guess it is assumed in academia that nobody but faculty members are interested in such topics…

  4. John Emerson says

    “Poshibaet” probably means something like “covet” as in “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his ass, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s”.

  5. I don’t think even in medieval Russia you could get away with charging somebody five grivnas for coveting. A few vekshas, maybe, but five grivnas? There would have been rioting in the streets.

  6. John Emerson says

    Didn’t coveting include not only the wish, but the act? I don’t think it meant people who just sat there and yearned wrongly for something.
    “Coveting they neighbor’s ass” is rushed past in Sunday School. The whole concept of coveting is pretty archaic, I think.

  7. Nope, it’s just the wish. OED:
    1. trans. To desire; esp. to desire eagerly, to wish for, long for.
    2. To desire with concupiscence or with fleshly appetite. Obs. (or merged in 3).
    3. To desire culpably; to long for (what belongs to another). (The ordinary sense.)
    4. intr. To lust. Obs.
    There are subdefinitions, but none that involve actually doing anything.

  8. For what I know, Novgorod was not known for puritanical mores — merchant towns seldom are. This paper on old Russian treaties quotes one between Novgorod and German towns (1189–1199; it was apparently normal to include criminal justice provisions into such treaties so that visitors from one party to the other would be covered not by local laws but by the treaty):
    Статья 7 говорит об изнасиловании замужней женщины либо дочери (видимо незамужней девушки). «Оже пошибает мужеску жену любо дчерь, то князю 40 гривн ветхими кунами, а жене или мужеское дчери 40 гривн ветхими кунами».

  9. So if you raped a man’s wife or daughter you had to pay 40 grivnas (in “old kunas”) to the prince and to the woman. Interesting. Maybe that supports the ‘hits’ sense for пошибает, unless they charged foreigners eight times as much for the same crime.

  10. Nikolaeva quotes from Yaroslav’s Canonical Codex — a document allegedly going back to Yaroslav the Wise of Kiev and Metropolitan Ilarion. (There was no metropolitan in Novgorod but an archbishop elected by popular vote of both the clergy and the laity, although “metropolitan” could stand for the Church.) Kiev grivnas and Novgorod grivnas, especially from different centuries, don’t have to be the same.

  11. Hmmm, this article looks to me as incentive for Princes (and Mitropolites, too) to get more women raped (by folks who’s able to pay, naturally)…

  12. This is ridiculos. Birch barks with “mat” words are not sensational, but rather well known – there is no reason for scholars to sit tight on these (see Zaliznyak 1995, 2004). I can quote from 531, which written by a woman, who is asking her brother to start a court procedure against her husband; allegedly the husband shamed her before the people by calling her коровою ‘cow’ but this is actually a pleonastic/ ‘skandirovanie’ spelling of курвою ‘bitch'(ask me if you want to get into the phonetics of it). The same husband also called her daughter блядью ‘whore’. Yaroslav’s statute is indeed full of ‘juicy morsels’. Here’s a relatively mild one: аще кто з двема сестрама в блоуд впадет, митрополиту ви гривен. аще кто с падчерицею блоудит, метрополиту ви гривен. аще деверь с ятровию впадет, митрополиту ви гривен. аще два брата сь единою женою, митрополиту л гривен. I think I have written about this on Glosses, which is sadly deceased.
    BTW Hat, I have the Franklin book, bought it for 35$ during a scholarly conference. It is well-written, but not as concise as one would wish for, plus its already outdated, even though printed in 2002. There were some great discoveries in Novgorod lately (I mean mainly the Novgorodian Codex and Zaliznyak’s claims about its palimpsest nature). Follow Zaliznyak and disciples’ latest publications in Russian Linguistics, or talk me into showing you the “insider reports”. Still, read Franklin if you can get your hands on it. If you won’t be able to get hold of the book, I will loan it to you.

  13. BTW if you want to read about law, I warmly recommend Kaiser, the Growth of Law in Medieval Russia. It is very, very very good – though also could be supplemented with exciting recent discoveries. Err…

  14. “Sadly deceased” is right. So very, very right.

  15. Hi Renee! Thanks for the informative remarks and the offer, and of course I second Tatyana’s comment.

  16. Renee — I thought Glosses were on hiatus only but the archives are gone, too! What a shame.

  17. I didn’t intend Glosses to go entirely, but WordPress hiccupped (during an attempted update) and in vain I tried to find support for this. The only way I can make it work now is by purging the database and starting afresh (or finding a WP guru who is willing to help, which is apparently harder than finding Franklin in a non-academic library). But I think “deceased” is best, really. Glosses readers were better served when my stuff was simpler. My entries on law (Old Icelandic, and the Pravda), and on the Novgorodian birch bark spellings received no comments. I think I will have a larger readership for my stuff if I’ll ever publish the monograph.

  18. Hey, I was well served by those entries! No comments hardly means no readers, you know.

  19. I was fond of those entries too. I didn’t feel qualified to add anything, I suppose, but I should have commented to let you know I appreciated them.

  20. *sigh* I didn’t mean to complain… I miss Glosses too.

  21. OK, you can look now.

  22. Yay!

    [April 2020: Alas, it only lasted a couple more years; the last entry seems to have been October 16, 2007. I provided an archived link for the “Yay” comment.]

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