If one of the themes I’ve narrowed in on for my vikings research is cult, another is documentary practice. This is perhaps unsurprising given who my doctoral supervisor was; but what is surprising is that for such a nuts-and-bolts (Cnuts-and-bolts, snrk) subject, in this context it goes in some very strange directions. Almost inevitably, the culprit is the Rus’, who, rather like the Peace of God, seem to attract this sort of thing. General evidence for Rus’ literacy is well after my period, although what there is is pretty abundant, including a whole treasure trove of birch-bark letters from Novgorod and a fairly extensive chronicle tradition that a certain strain of scholarship wants to push back about a hundred years earlier than our first evidence for it. Where things get strange is looking at the tiny scraps of information about what was happening before, say, the mid-eleventh century. Fair warning, because this is a blog post not any kind of final or reviewed work, I’m going to be throwing out a lot of crazy ideas and many of them will be wrong. But what’s this blog for if not for exploring ideas that would never make it into print?
So, let’s start at the very beginning. What writing was in use in the world of the Rus’ before, say, c. 1000? We have evidence, exiguous though it mostly is, for five main scripts. First, unquestionably, Hebrew. The famous Khazar Correspondence shows that by the tenth century the Khazar rulers were conducting diplomatic correspondence in Hebrew. However, whilst this is unambiguous, it’s also uninfluential: there’s no evidence of the Rus’ using Hebrew or even really engaging with Judaism. (I’d love to find evidence for this, but it seems to be conspic. by its a.) Second, Greek. This is pretty straightforward: Greek-speaking communities in the Crimea encountered the Rus’ from an early point, and as we’ll see shortly the Byzantine emperors probably communicated with the Rus’ in Greek. Third, Norse runes. There’s much less runic text from former Rus’ lands than you might imagine: a bit of graffiti scratched on coins, an engraved stick from Staraya Ladoga, a runestone in modern-day Ukraine. There are, however, hints that it might have gone further. The Life of St Constantine refers to its eponymous hero staying in Cherson, in Crimea, where he encounters a Gospel and Psalter written in ‘Rus’ letters’ (росьскꙑ писмєнь, ros’kyi pismen’). Exactly what this means is unclear. It’s certainly not Cyrillic. The general consensus is that there’s been a mistake in the manuscripts and it’s in ‘Syriac letters’. I don’t really like this idea, because if it’s an error it’s an early one, since some form of ‘Rus’ letters’ is in every extant witness. I prefer, myself, the idea that it’s in runes. We don’t – as far as I’ve been able to find – have any surviving runic Gospels, but by the time of Constantine in the 860s there had been Scandinavian Christians for at least a hundred and fifty years, and it’s not inconceivable that there had been some translation work. Fourth, Turkic runes. We have a letter from the Jewish community at Kiev which appears to have an endorsement in Turkic runes, possibly in the Khazar language. We’ll return to this later, but for now let’s just not that Turkic runes were at least an option. Fifth and finally, a potential pre-Methodian Slavic script. A Bulgarian tract of c. 900, On Letters, written by one Khrabr, refers to pre-Christian Slav groups using marks and notches as a kind of rudimentary script. It’s vague, and no examples of such a script have been found in the wild; but hey, it’s possible. Overall, our picture is one of heterogeneity, with several scripts co-existing.
Part of the reason the evidence is so fragmentary is because archival practice in the lands of Rus’ was either non-existent or very different from Christian lands. One of the reasons that such a two-horse part of the ninth-century world as Europe is so well documented is the role that that the Church played as an archive. Early Rus’ had no Church, thus no archives. Or did it? After all, we know that Church archives were not the only kind of Western archives. The evidence for lay archives has been extensively documented, although we tend to only find out about such things when they get assimilated into Church archives. We also have evidence for government archives, the so-called gesta municipalia, although these are if anything even more shadowy. This raises a significant point. Simon Franklin has argued that the patterns displayed by the gaps in our evidence for writing in eleventh- and twelfth-century Rus’ suggests that there is unlikely to have been a massive loss of material, rather than that material simply having not been there to begin with. His point probably stands for the later period, but in the different world of early Rus’ it might actually be weaker. The Western analogies suggest one thing that can affect patterns of document survival is if whole types of archive disappear. Could the same thing have happened in Rus’?
Let’s go back to the Khazar Correspondence I mentioned above. This is one of our very few ‘internal’ sources for the Khazar Khaganate, a letter (actually, three different surviving redactions of a letter) written by the Khazar ruler Joseph ben Aaron to the Andalusi statesman Hasdai ibn Shaprut, in the mid-tenth century. Hasdai had written to Joseph because he had heard that there was, in the far-off reaches of the world, a Jewish kingdom and he wanted to find out about it. Ibn Shaprut’s introductory letter survives, explaining who he is and who his lord, the Caliph Abd ar-Rahman III, was. Joseph’s response is interesting: he thanks Ibn Shaprut for the letter but then says that he already knew about al-Andalus, because his ancestors used to engage in diplomatic correspondence with it and this is preserved in writing (ספר, sefer, lit. ‘book’, but can also mean written record more broadly). Elsewhere, he refers to the Khazars possessing genealogical tracts (ספר יחוסים, sefer yikhusyam). There is some supporting evidence for this. Another Khazarian Hebrew letter, known as the Cambridge Document, tells a version of the story of the Khazar debate, when the Khazar ruler invited Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy men to debate with each other at the court (an event likely to be historical, because it shows up completely independently in the Life of Constantine). In this version, the Khazar magnates order books – in this case, the Torah – to be brought forth from a cave in the plain of TYZWL so the holy men can expound upon their contents. If we take this story at something approximating face value – and that might well be a dangerous thing to do – this could indicate that the ‘cave in the plain of TYZWL’ acted as a kind of document storage repository. It doesn’t have to have been an official one, just one that the Khazar officials knew about and could readily access.
We have, then, hints that there were Khazarian archives. You might now be asking, ‘so what’, and that’s simple enough to answer: what if the early Rus’ took over Khazar archival practice, at least for a little bit? The Russian Primary Chronicle preserves the texts of four tenth-century (but, interestingly, no eleventh-century) Rus’-Byzantine treaties, of which three seem to be legit. General scholarly consensus is that these were found in Byzantine archives pretty close to the compilation of the Primary Chronicle at the start of the twelfth century, but this is, as far as I can see, an assumption and there are a few points against it. First, why would Rus’ scholars be allowed into the Byzantine state archives? Second, these treaties were written in Greek but translated into Slavonic, apparently – according to philologists – by someone very familiar with Bulgarian, which doesn’t scream ‘eleventh-century context’ to me. Third, why does the series stop in 971? We know there were eleventh-century Rus’-Byzantine agreements, they’re just not preserved in the Primary Chronicle. (Malingoudi, the most influential scholar of this matter, argues that the putative Byzantine documents came from one of the hypothetical earlier works used by the Primary Chronicle author, but recent research is increasingly sceptical of the existence of these works.) Several of the treaties make reference to there being two versions produced, one for the Byzantines and one for the Rus’. What if the copies we have really are those made for the Rus’, stored in Kiev in archives which in some way derived from Khazarian practice and which consequently don’t preserve eleventh-century treaties either because their maintenance decayed after the end of the Khazar Khaganate in the latter part of the tenth century or because the Rus’ conversion to Christianity in the early eleventh century overwrote (erm, so to speak) Khazarian archival traditions?
A final Hebrew letter, which I mentioned above, may also provide a key to unlocking this mystery. The so-called Kievan Letter, written to Jewish communities abroad in the early-to-mid tenth century to ask for help ransoming a member of their own community who had been taken by bandits, bears an endorsement in Turkic runes which says ‘I have read this’. This bears close parallels to Roman traditions of the legimus endorsement, and was probably put in place by a Khazar official in Kiev to signify that the letter had permission from the local government to be sent. This is interesting, because by this period Kiev was under Rus’ rule. This letter may therefore provide the most direct evidence for the initial maintenance of Khazar administrative traditions under the early Rus’ great princes.
…Or, it would if it were not for the fact that pretty much everything I said just now is is heavily disputed. It’s not clear this letter is original. It’s not clear that the letter was written by the Kiev community rather than to it. The dating is heavily disputed, and paleographical evidence only narrows it down – if that’s not too generous a phrase – from the late ninth to the twelfth centuries. It’s not clear that the runic inscription was put there in Kiev. It’s not clear it’s in Khazarian. If it is in Khazarian, there are arguments over what it says. (For what it’s worth, scholarly consensus still puts the letter’s date in the early/mid-tenth century, I’m convinced by arguments saying that a) it is original (because it bears signs of having been transported from Kiev elsewhere and indeed comes to us from the Cairo Genizah) and b) it was from not to Kiev; but the Turkological wranglings are a) technical and b) as-of-yet unread by me.)
Nonetheless, if we assume for the state of argument that the extremely suspect hypotheses in the initial paragraph are correct, then we put it together with other elements of early Rus’ political culture like their titulature to give a picture of a very early Rus’ state which is, in essence, a ‘barbarian kingdom’ of the Khazar empire rather like the ‘barbarian’ successor states of the Roman Empire. This doesn’t mean a one-to-one correspondence, but just as lots of early medieval Europe looks like evolutions of Roman provincial culture, so too do political-cultural similarities between groups such as the Rus’, Petchenegs, Magyars and Volga Bulghars suggest the importance of regional Khazarian legacies in the ninth century.