Poemas del río Wang has a doozy of a post about the fabled city of Novgorod and its long and contentious history; it’s probably superfluous to say it has many splendid illustrations, since that’s the spécialité de la maison. The main focus of the post is icons, and there are fascinating details like this:

The half-figure icon [of St. George], which has been in the Uspensky Cathedral in Moscow since 1570, was probably ordered by Prince Yuri Bogolyubsky after his patron saint. In 1174, he left the city for Georgia, to marry Queen Tamar: this indicates the ante quem of the icon’s preparation. It is very interesting, that the most popular and much-copied icon in Georgia, a half-figure icon of St. George, exhibited today in the Svaneti National Museum, which resembles very much the Novgorod St. George icon, albeit with some folk features, was prepared and popularized shortly after the arrival of the prince to Georgia.

But near the start there’s an account of the birch bark letters (discussed here in 2011 and elsewhere), with this clearly LH-relevant passage:

Another interesting thing emerges from the birch bark texts: that the peculiar dialect of Novgorod is not due to a change in the way of speaking of the Eastern Slavs who emigrated to the isolated north, but rather to the fact that the accent of the Slavs from somewhere else was assimilated to that of the Eastern Slavs. “From somewhere else” roughly means the place where I am writing this now: the area around Berlin, the eastern part of present-day Germany and the western part of Poland, which was a Slavic region at that time, before the medieval German Drang nach Osten. From here came the two Slavic tribes, the Slovenes and the Krivichs, which, together with the Finno-Ugric Chuds, founded Novgorod and invited the Viking Rus.

Go and enjoy!


  1. It’s a gorgeous icon, but George’s head is weirdly too small.

  2. As d’Artagnan told Portos “Your strength is not in your head”.

    Great post in general. But this caught my eye

    14th-century letter on birch bark: “To our lord Mikhail Yuryevich, from your peasants from Cherenshchany village, which you gave under the control of Klima Oparin. We humbly ask you. We don’t want him. He’s not a friendly person. Violent and arbitrary.” This letter not only proves that the peasants in the Novgorod estates were literate, but also that they were able to express an opinion to the landlord against the administrator sent above them, which would have been unthinkable in the other Russian principalities.

    Maybe. But not necessarily, they might have employed someone literate to write for them. More impotrantly, I went and checked the actual letter.

    Господину своему Михаилу Юрьевичу крестьяне твои черенщане [жители села Черенское] бьют челом. Ты отдал деревеньку Климцу Опарину, а мы его не хотим: не соседний человек. Волен Бог да ты

    I really don’t know what соседний means in the context (in modern Russian, it would be “not from the neighborhood” or with some forcing “not neighborly”) maybe “unfriendly” is ok, but “violent and arbitrary” is complete fantasy. The letter ends with “God’s will and yours” (probably a polite formula to end a letter of this type).

    While searching for this letter I found some interesting tidbits:
    One letter is “от Микиты к Черту” that is “from Mikita to Devil”, but it is of obvious petty business matter, no mentioning of blood oaths or anything exciting.
    Riddle: “Есть град между небом и землей. К нему едет посол без пути, сам немой, везет грамоту неписанную” — “There is a city between heaven and earth. An ambassador rides to it without a path, he is mute, carries unwritten letter [or charter]”

  3. Thank you, Language, for the quotation. In the meantime I have added a continuation about a special folk icon of Novgorod, the wooden crucifix of Lyudogoshch.

    As to the phrase which D.O. considers “complete fantasy”, it is in fact part of the original letter: “Своевольно поступает”. See for example Yury Sandulov’s edition of the text in his Selected works in Russian history. He also interprets the original “суседний” as “unsocial”.

    I’m no expert of Slavic language history, so whatever I wrote about the Western Slavic origin of the founders of Novgorod, I took from V. L. Ianin’s article in the Cambridge History of Russia. He also wrote a number of essays about the birch bark letters.

  4. Is “the accent of the Slavs from somewhere else” attested, and if so, what is it called?

  5. Yes, indeed, it’s in the Sandulov’s book, but I cannot see it on the bark. I guess it’s another reading of “Волено Бог да и ты” (I won’t try to reproduce the actual orthography, the link shows everything) as “Своевольно”, but the bark strip seems to me clear in this place.

  6. The Svaneti History and Ethnographic Museum (mentioned in the text as the Svaneti National Museum) is an absolutely wonderful museum. The collection and the presentation of icons is really spectacular, not to mention the fact that at any point in one of the small villages dotting the countryside, you could be mere feet away from another one just the same, but locked inside of a small church, open only on special holidays.

    Of the two images I uploaded after my visit to the museum, one was of the same icon of St. George and the other is of a book open to what I believe is the month of November in the Biblia Bacarii (text, assuming it’s the same thing), in case anyone would like to see the same picture bigger, but perhaps a bit dimmer. 🙂

  7. Very cool! The only reference to “Biblia Bacarii” that Google can find is the TITUS Text you linked to; what does the “Bacarii” refer to?

  8. It’s the name of the Georgian prince who published in Moscow Georgian translation of the whole Bible in 1743.

    He is known in Russian as lieutenant-general Tsarevich Bakar Vakhtangovich Bagration-Gruzinsky.

  9. David Marjanović says

    There’s nothing particularly West Slavic about the Novgorod dialect. To the contrary, all the other Slavic languages share a few innovations that the Novgorod dialect lacks.

    When Krivichi are found in two places, they don’t need to have come from one of them; and Slovenes is just the cover term, retained to this day by all those who never got themselves an ethnonym of their own.

  10. I just want to mention that I found Poemas del rio Wang through Hat-links years ago, and periodically go back and binge its pages like an addictive Netflix series, then drop it till the next time Hat mentions it or I stumble on a link somewhere. Thanks to you both, Hat for letting me know and Studiolum for putting it together.

  11. There’s nothing particularly West Slavic about the Novgorod dialect.

    Gvezda (гвѣзда) alone is enough, I think.

    What this Polish word is doing in supposedly East Slavic dialect?

  12. Features of the Old Novgorod dialect ascertained by the philological study in the last decades are:

    lack of the second palatalization in root-initial position, e.g. кѣл-, хѣр-[11]
    a particular reflex of Proto-Slavic *TьRT, *TъRT clusters, yielding TьRьT, TъRъT. However, in some dialects these yielded TroT, TreT.
    West-Slavic-like reflex of *TоRT clusters, e.g. погродье versus погородие
    the change ml’ > n’, e.g. емлючи > енючи
    no merger of nominative and accusative singular of masculines regardless of animacy, e.g. Nom. sg. погосте : Acc. sg. на погостъ
    Proto-Slavic *kv, *gv clusters were retained (as in West Slavic languages) instead of being transformed to cv, zv before front vowels as in other East Slavic dialects[12]

  13. Christopher Culver says

    “Gvezda (гвѣзда) alone is enough, I think.”

    Gvezda in West Slavic and in Novgorod Russian is a shared retention (in all other Slavic dialects the second palatalization applied to initial *kw and *gw clusters) not a shared innovation. Therefore, it tells us nothing about whether Novgorod Russian and West Slavic maintained a close relationship after the Proto-Slavic stage.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    Relevant not to Novgorod proper but to that part of the world more broadly, it is come to my attention that today is Old Permic Alphabet Day (on account of it being the feast day of St. Stephen of Perm, who created that script in the 14th century), so I wish you all a joyous celebration.

  15. Stepan Khrap!

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