03.07.16, Franklin, Writing, Society, and Culture in Early Rus

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Florin Curta

The Medieval Review baj9928.0307.016


Franklin, Simon. Writing, Society, and Culture in Early Rus, c. 950-1300. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. xvi, 325. ISBN: 0-521-81381-6.

Reviewed by:
Florin Curta
University of Florida

In this elegant book, Simon Franklin examines the function, significance and impact of writing and written culture in Kievan Rus' between the mid-tenth and the late thirteenth century. The subtext is the reception of Christian culture in Rus', particularly the written version of it. Franklin explores "the origins and early uses of writing" in Rus', but at the same time his book serves "as a case study for those with a broader interest either in medieval uses of writing or still more broadly in the cultural history of information technology" (3). While other historians have explored the former more generally (Rosamond McKitterick, Michael Clanchy, D. H. Green, Charles F. Briggs) this is the first such study for medieval Russia. The introduction and the conclusion offer an excellent overview of the central issues surrounding the social and cultural dynamics of writing in Rus'. Franklin is a distinguished scholar in Slavonic Studies from the University of Cambridge, with a keen eye for the social structuring of cultural practices in medieval Rus'. In this book, he addresses a fundamental omission of more or less recent studies of medieval Rus': the degree to which a Christian culture developed in the aftermath of Vladimir's conversion has been the subject of much discussion in literature in both Russian and other languages, but regardless of which position one takes, the role of writing is often over-estimated. Indeed, beginning with ca. 1050, writing seems to have proliferated in Rus' society, but "in terms of types of usage, and in terms of contexts of usage, the basic patterns were set by the end of the eleventh century and remained remarkably stable over the next couple of centuries" (275). Two fundamental problems result from this tendency. The first lies in the failure of previous research (the "technocentric approach," p. 279) to provide social and political context for the use of writing in the culture of medieval Rus'. The second, which Franklin addresses in the second part of his book, is the role of the Church and of trade, respectively, as catalysts for the spread of writing in Rus'.

Franklin explores the ways in which writing was used in administration, learning, multimedia graphic environments (such as church paintings), and, finally, magic. He also looks at a wide variety of media (the "written remains" of part I of his book) from parchment manuscripts to birch-bark letters, seals, zmeeviki, spindle whorls, and church walls. He draws a careful and much useful distinction between primary (artifacts "prepared for the specific purpose of being written on"), secondary (in which "writing is integral to, but not the main purpose of," an artifact's production), and tertiary writing (later addition to artifacts already existing for other purposes, e.g., graffiti). Despite claims to contrary (21), sometimes his discussion of the media looks much like a catalogue raisonné (e.g., on page 62, with the list of frescoes in various churches built in Rus' before ca. 1300). However, Franklin' s classification of writing is instrumental for his analysis of the social and cultural implications of writing practices. For example, he notes that although primary writing spread rapidly among city dwellers, secondary writing did not involve artifacts produced locally, but almost always objects originally imported (usually from Byzantium). There are many more examples of Greek (both language and script) in secondary, than in either primary or tertiary forms of writing. Franklin also notes that secondary message-inscriptions are predominantly Greek beginning with ca. 1050, and that this coincides with Yaroslav the Wise's intensive program of public works "ostentatiously reminiscent of Constantinople" (104). The middle and second half of the eleventh century is also the period with the largest involvement with Greek primary writing by bookmen in Kiev. Despite the replacement of Greek with Slavonic secondary writing between 1100 and 1200, "caption" inscriptions, especially saint names or abbreviations (such as those for Christ -- ICXC -- and the Mother of God), remained Greek until the present day. Since it would be absurd to conclude that in Russia there is still a widespread knowledge of Greek among church-going Orthodox Christians, the author suggests that these caption inscriptions "have become ideograms, rather than specimens of alphabetic script." They ceased to be purely "writing" and became part of the iconography.

Franklin veers away from linking language and community. Although he follows Alexander Isachenko in postulating the existence of a diglossia in medieval Rus', with Church Slavonic as the "bookish" and East Slavonic as the "practical" register of language, Franklin judiciously concludes that "any given specimen of writing primary, secondary or tertiary might include a hybrid of registers." As a consequence, "the language of early Rus' written culture occupies a space between two poles, but the registers of the language were not always consistently polarized" (88). Both registers of language were thus defined by, rather than defining, the community. Despite the claim of the twelfth-century author of the Russian Primary Chronicle ("The Slavonic tongue is one"), both Church Slavonic and East Slavonic (as rendered, for instance, by the birch-bark letters) were what sociolinguists now call "associated languages" (see Carol M. Eastman and Thomas C. Reese, "Associated language: how language and ethnic identity are related," General Linguistics 21 (1981), 109-116). Franklin's survey (89-119) of scripts in use in medieval Rus' (Glagolitic, Cyrillic, Greek, Latin, and runes) is, to my knowledge, the fullest and most specific to date. The author follows more closely earlier scholarly discussions than it might at first appear, but he also brings to them new insight and challenging questions. An example of the former is his discussion of the Turkic runes appended to a Hebrew letter of recommendation written in the late ninth or early tenth century by the Jewish community in Kiev on behalf of one of its members> Here Franklin uncritically follows Moshe Gil's old idea that the "land of the Slavs" through which the Jewish merchants known as Rhadanites traveled to China was Rus'. In fact, the Arabic source refers to East Central European lands such as Poland and Bohemia. On the other hand, Franklin notes that Cyrillic inscriptions on sword blades are imitative of 'Latin' equivalents such as the famous Ulfberht swords (110). Drawing on a long list of runic inscriptions (from which he should have removed the stone club-head found in Latvia, which has nothing to do with Kievan Rus') on a variety of artifacts from coins in tenth-century hoards to the late eleventh-century Suzdal pendant-mold or the spindle whorl from Zvenigorod, the author suggests that "pockets of fairly mundane, practical rune-script literacy existed in Rus both before and after the spread of Slavonic writing" (115).

Part II discusses functions and perceptions of writing. Chapter 4, "Writing and social organization," primarily deals with normative (codes and rule-lists) and administrative writing (diplomacy and birch-bark documents). Franklin notes that writing "as such" had no special social authority (185). He concludes that "formal and normative administrative writing was very much slower [than ephemeral writing] to take root." Indeed, a regular use of normative and formal administrative writing cannot be dated before 1250. According to Franklin, the "muted Rus' reception of formal administrative writing" is primarily due to the fact that effective and sophisticated systems of regulation were sustained without any use of formal written procedures. Not surprisingly, the evidence indicates that the consolidation of administrative writing practices took place only within and around the Church. Chapter 5, "Writing and learning," indicates that together with a more regular use of administrative writing, by 1300 an incipient professionalization is evident , especially in the terminology for scribes "as people who make the appropriate graphic signs (be they for ecclesiastical manuscripts, or for princely documents, or for church paintings) to order." At about the same time, men of letters (knizhniki) appear, such as Klim Smoliatich, whose ability to read with discernment could be described as "philosophy." Prince Vladimir of Kiev, according to the chronicler, "spoke clearly from Scripture, for he was a great philosopher; and he was a brave and skilled huntsman." However, in native Rus usage, the filosof was usually identified as a foreigner, as someone from outside (usually Byzantium).

Chapter 6, "Writing and pictures," indicates that writing forms only one part of a "complex interplay between building, objects, and performers in the multimedia performance in church" (248). Franklin notes that to unlettered viewers in the audience, writing may thus have been less with image and more as image. "For those unable to decipher the particular written messages [e.g., caption inscriptions], the graphic environment of the church reinforces visually the general status of Writ" (245). It remains to be demonstrated, however, that the "unlettered" of medieval Rus' normally associated script with "Book." The non-textual, "practical" uses of writing are the focus of chapter 7, "Writing and magic." Here, Franklin emphasizes themes now de rigeurin studies of medieval magic: for example the relation between magic and the representation of the "heathen" or the use of defixiones. This does not mean that he neglects discussing the old distinction between "magic" and "religion," categories which, as he notes, contemporaries may have understood as pertinent. But Franklin's conclusion is a reminder of how difficult it is to pinpoint the target: "More significantly, all of the 'marked' magical uses of writing have precedents and parallels within imported Christianity. Psalmomancy, psalm amulets, invocations against personified fevers, even cryptic uterine formulae surrounding Gorgone-like figures these are all firmly within long-established traditions of Christian written magic, alongside routine talismans such as the sign of the Cross, votive inscriptions, or the sanctio spiritualis on written documents." Franklin explains that the non-verbal meanings of writing were not defined as magic, for the latter was always something outside written culture. Very few magical practices exploited writing alone, and writing was not given or viewed as having any magical properties. Among the impressive features of this book are the author's excellent understanding and presentation of the scholarly debates surrounding such issues as translations in Kievan Rus'. Franklin's work has implications for the conventional argument that the introduction of written culture served to transform medieval society in a most dramatic way. He finds that in the case of Rus', at least, "the technology was not stronger than the social institutions which justified it, or which remained impervious to it."

This book is definitely an important building block in our understanding of medieval Rus'. His findings will also be useful to those studying medieval cultural history, as he presents new evidence of the impact of writing on social and political structures. If the spread of "activity-based writing" was "bottom-up," without any obvious conceptual or institutional barrier, then one wonders how the significant changes in the mid-eleventh century were achieved so readily over just a few decades. Still, Franklin is to be commended for raising important issues about the nature and function of writing in a medieval society, and his book deserves to be widely read and debated.

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Author Biography

Florin Curta

University of Florida