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  • Writing society and culture in early Rus, c. 950–1300 by Simon Franklin
  • Gary H. Toops
Writing, society and culture in early Rus, c. 950–1300. By Simon Franklin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. xvi, 325. ISBN 0521813816. $70 (Hb).

Franklin’s latest work is a sober, remarkably systematic description and assessment of all known forms of writing activity in medieval Rus′ from circa 950 (corresponding roughly to Kievan ruler Vladimir’s conversion to Christianity in 988) to 1300. F divides writing into three types—primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary writing is the writing that one finds on ‘objects which have been prepared for the specific purpose of being written on’: parchment, birch bark, and wooden tablets (21–22). Secondary writing is what one finds on objects unrelated to writing per se, but which incorporate writing as part of their design: seals, coins, amulets, medallions, crosses, swords, helmets, icons, wall paintings, and so forth (47–48). Tertiary writing is writing that is found on various objects but that is extraneous to them (and usually added later): a prime example of tertiary writing is graffiti, but writing on objects that designates their owner or producer, or writing on vessels that indicates their contents, is also regarded as tertiary (70–82).

F notes that writing was imported into Rus′ as part and parcel of Christianity. The spread of Christianity is intimately connected with the dissemination of the written word, whether read directly by individuals themselves or read to them by other Christians. Nevertheless, contrary to the impression that one sometimes receives in studying early Slavic (specifically, Orthodox Slavic) literature, writing activity in medieval Rus′ was not an exclusively ecclesiastic activity. While their own society was governed largely by tradition, natives of medieval Rus′ occasionally resorted to writing in their dealings with foreigners, producing, for example, treaties and trade agreements. Legal codes like the so-called Russkaja pravda were also committed to writing; amajor function of such documents was the assignment of various contraventions of norms of civil and personal behavior to the jurisdiction of either secular or ecclesiastic authority. Nevertheless, even Rus′ graffiti were more often than not tied to the Church: aside from the occasional graffito of the type ‘X was here’, many are found on the walls of churches (with the majority of which F gives the impression of being personally acquainted). These tend to be an individual believer’s personal supplications to a particular saint depicted in an icon or wall painting. Truly secular in content are the Novgorod birch bark fragments: first discovered in July 1951, these small, scroll-like documents written on strips of birch bark are largely reminders, admonitions, or simple instructions to various acquaintances to perform certain duties (35ff.).

The thoroughness of F’s work can be best summarized by the table of contents of the book itself: Part 1 (‘The graphic environment’, 16–127) contains three chapters—‘The written remains’, ‘Scripts and languages’, and ‘The changing environment’; Part 2 (‘Functions and perceptions of writing’, 129–279) contains five—‘Writing and social organisation’, ‘Writing and learning’, ‘Writing and pictures’, ‘Writing and magic’, and an afterword titled ‘On the social and cultural dynamics of writing’. Inserted between pp. 279 and 280 are fourteen plates of illustrations, ranging from a ‘Hebrew document from Kiev, with Turkic inscription’ to ‘votive graffiti in St. Sophia, Kiev’ to ‘Birch-bark letter no. 147’ (ix).

All told, F’s book constitutes an enlightening contribution to a proper appreciation of early writing activity among the Eastern Slavs.

Gary H. Toops
Wichita State University


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