Medieval Russian Stove (Pech')

Updated 22 March 2009

Through archeology and ethnography we know something about the cooking utensils and stoves of the Middle Ages.

It seems that the massive, efficient flat-topped Russian stove of lore and legend had not been developed yet in the Middle Ages.

All of these sources mention "smokey" Russian stoves without chimneys, however, my (admittedly limited) research into "primitive" stoves indicate that properly burning fires are not that smoky. Traditional indoor stoves still survive in the developing world and often lack chimneys. I haven't found enough information about the exact details of the design of the medieval Russian stove to know how it compares to stoves such as the "Rocket stove" (very clean burning) vs. a "Russian stove" fireplace (aka kachelofen, also very efficient) vs. the traditional beehive oven known in Western Europe (efficiency?). Note that the more efficient a stove is, the more completely it burns the fuel, the less smoky it will be.


Place of the Stove in Structures

While the traces of stoves are an important clue to identifying Novgorod dwellings, their traces are preserved far from always. A.V. Artikhovskij believes that this is because many of them were raised high enough in the dwelling that they were completely removed when the structure was rebuilt or destroyed. (Generally, only the lowest parts of buildings are preserved in Novgorod - usually only the first couple of logs). [Zasurtsev]
The presence of a stove was one of the most important clues for identifying dwellings in the Novgorod excavations. The usual traces were the upright wooden stakes supporting the stove, and sometimes traces of the clay stove itself. The stoves had 3 or 4 stakes at the corners, 8-12 inches in diameter, that were embeded 8-16 inches into the ground, above which they rose 16-24 inches to just above the level of the floor. [Thompson]
All of the stoves identified in dwellings were constructed/raised on columns. 75% of stoves were located one of the back corners (away from the entry) either to the right or the left. The direction of the mouth of the stove is rarely defined, since the stoves were nearly square, and very little of the upper part of the stoves survive. [Zasurtsev]
Further development of residential homes went along the line of increasing the number of rooms. Great antiquity have, as already said, whole-log two-chamber frames, in which the main log 5th wall divided the home in two parts. The functional significance of these parts of the residence of affluent city-dwellers up to now is not exactly clear. P.I. Zasurtsev, researching in Novgorod, put forth the opinion that the larger chamber, where usually is located the remains of the stove is the izba in the proper meaning of the word (istobka [истобка]), and the smaller room, where the stove is not traced, is the hall/porch. Objecting to this, Yu. P. Spegal’skij advanced another hypothesis: the room with the stove is the povalusha [повалуша, usually a large tower-like area with its own roof, joined to other living spaces with a hall, often used for feasts], while the one without the stove is the podklet [understory] of the gornitsa [usually a dining room?], an upper apartment, where was established warm bedrooms, which were heated with smoke [warmth?] rising from the povalusha. Rabinovich says that Yu. P. Spegalskij is not correct. His position that in this “log upper part of the frame and its covering could liken to our radiator” (p. 111), is unjustified from the point of view of elementary physical laws. (The thermal conductivity and heat capacity of wood is very low, that gives it good insulation, but does not give it similarity to a “radiator”.) However, debatable also is the unconditional definition of the unheated room as a hall. In Muscovite 5-wall-houses in the 14th-15th centuries this was rather a “clean” unheated solar [свелица] in which they passed through from porch through to the izba with the stove. The size of the izba and solar were in this case essentially identical. [Rabinovich] [p. 34]

Construction of Stoves

Columnar stoves used four, or more rarely three, columns with a diameter of 8-12 inches located at the corners of the stove. They were planted 8-16 inches in the earth and rose 16-24 inches above the earth to project just a little above the level of the floor. The length of the columns was generally 24-39 inches. Since sometimes the upper ends of the columns are charred or cut off, it is not possible to determine the height of the columns in those cases. These may have been taller stoves and the columns would have been in the way of the new house, and were to difficult to dig out so they were cut off, leaving no other trace of the stove that they supported. Some of the upper parts of these do survive in areas such as Yaroslav's Court. [Zasurtsev]
Another type of stove, laid directly on the ground, was associated with workshops. It's lower position made it better for working above the fire, while the household stoves on "stilts" were raised for more comfortable use as an oven, while still allowing work over the stove. [Thompson]
Stoves located in the middle of dwellings only appear in layers belonging to the 10-13th cent. It is possible that this plan was related to the ancient tradition known to us, for example, in the lower layers of Staraya Ladoga. But most likely, such an arrangement was dictated by the demands of some craft production when structures served as both dwellings and workshops. [Zasurtsev]
The stove, serving the ordinary city-dweller both for heating and for preparing food, was usually placed, as before, in one of the corners. But in a home from the beginning of the 14th century, was uncovered in the Russian quarter of the city of Bolgar, a wattle and daub stove standing nearly opposite the entrance of the wall, approximately along the middle of it. The overwhelming majority of stoves were wattle and daub, arched, with flat base/bottom; at the beginning of the Appanage period (13th-15th cent.) are met occasionally stone ones, while at the end of it – brick stoves. The stove stood on a opechka [опечка, stove surround/base], which most often of all was set on four (more rarely three or two) vertical dug into the ground columns, and were not constructed connected with the frame of the izba. In the izbas of artisans the stove did not have a chimney and the smoke went straight out into the room, and from there – through the door or a window to the outside. There could also be dymniki [дымники, smoke bonnets] known by later ethnographic material. [Rabinovich]
The stoves of ancient Novgorod are divided into two types. The first type are the stoves on columns found in dwellings. The second type are laid directly on the ground and are, most likely, for workshops. A special group of stoves have a framework foundation, and can belong to either of the two main types - elevated on columns or laid on the ground. [Zasurtsev]

Sizes

The sizes of stoves generally corresponded to the structures they were in. Larger homes had larger stoves - 6 1/2 feet square. The largest stove was 11 1/2 feet square. The smallest was 3.9 x 3.6 feet. Often the supporting columns had a vertical slot in which was placed a board or beam. In some, the area under the stove was paved with some sort of decking, but for the most part, there was no such paving. The area under the stove was evidently used for storing cooking utensils. [Zasurtsev]
A particularly well preserved stove was located to the right of the entry in the southeast corner of a 14.7 x 18 ft structure. The stove measured 4 1/2 x 5 1/2 feet, with the long axis aligned in a north-south direction (the typical northern Russian plan). The stove stood on 4 columns with a diameter of 8 1/2 inches and a height of 19 1/2 inches. They were dug in a little, so that the upper ends were on a level with the second row of logs of the dwelling, and a little above the floor (which was cut in between the 1st and 2nd row of logs). 4-inch wide apertures were made in the upper ends of the column aligned with the long axis of the stove, in which were laid poles. On the poles was laid planking also of poles. There were no signs of the clay or stones of the stove itself. [Zasurtsev]
The largest stove found was supported on 4 oak columns. In between the columns was found a lot of clay and stones. The stones were of unusually large size - up to 15.7 inches in diameter. The usual size of stones in the remains of stoves does not exceed 7.9 inches. [Zasurtsev]
The largest stove uncovered measured 11 1/2 feet across and was located in a structure that was 28 feet square. [Thompson]
Other stove structures are also found. One was made with a framed foundation. The floor inside the foundation was paved with poles, and the poles then covered over with birchbark. Over the birchbark in places was preserved clay. Zasurtsev proposes that in this case, the stove foundation supported a wattle-and-daub or stone-on-clay stove. [Zasurtsev]
The stoves laid directly on the earth seem to be similar to the Ukrainian kabitsa and are easier to reconstruct because more of their structure survives, but as they are, apparently, not for food preparation, I will not go into further detail here, except to say that clay, wattle and daub, stone, bricks, brick fragments and adobe bricks could be used in their construction (he goes on to say that only clay and stones were found in residential stoves). In a couple of these stoves, the outlines of the oval firebox were visible - one was about 5.2 x 3.9 feet in size (in a stove that was 6 1/2 feet square). Judging by the fact that a wooden spice-cake board [pryanichnaya derevyanaya doska] was found near it, this 13th century structure may have been a bakery. [Zasurtsev]
The residential stoves supported on columns are more difficult to reconstruct, since we find only clay and stones. Brick was found in only 5 places and exclusively in 15th century layers. From this information, Zasurtsev says, we can conclude with certainty that the ancient Novgorod stoves burned "black" or "smokey". Of course, for the escape of the smoke there existed dymniki [smoke bonnets], the construction of which can hardly differ from those noted in ethnographical material (i.e. traditional peasant homes). [Zasurtsev]
According to the 1958 article (but not mentioned in the updated 1963 version?), the construction of the stoves themselves is still unclear, but they were undoubtedly arched. The size of the interior space, on account of the 7.8-9.8 inch thickness of the walls, could be about 35-47 inches by 31.5-35 inches, and in the biggest homes 55 inches square. [Zasurtsev]

Chimneys, mouths, and windows

Brick stoves with chimneys also very early had to be not only sources of heat, but also important elements of decoration of the interior. The folk custom of white-washing the stove and painting it with various patterns and drawings on different subjects, evidently, is very ancient. Later tiled stoves, receiving wide distribution already in the 16th-17th centuries, in all likelihood replaced painted stoves. [Rabinovich]
The location of the mouths of the stoves, as noted above, is very difficult to define. [Zasurtsev]
There were no flues in the Novgorod houses, but presumably vents to allow the smoke to escape. [Thompson]
In the layers of the 14-15th cent. are often found ceramic objects that are somewhere between bricks and tiles (glazed?). The form of these objects and the traces of soot on them allow one to propose they had some application in the construction of the stoves. Most likely, they somehow formed the openings of chimneys, which could be closed with a clay lid. In excavations of these same layers are found ceramic lids that could serve this exact function. [Zasurtsev]
Evidently, already in the Appanage period (13th-15th centuries) in wealthy homes the stoves had chimneys and windows were mainly framed [косящатые], with mica panes [оконницами, window frames/sashes]. In the 14th century in especially luxurious palaces were already also glazed windows – as in the mention of the terem of Dmitri Donskoj with its “stekol’chatym [стекольчатым, from steklo - glass]” windows. About this, as finding such glass, one can judge by finds in Novgorod in layers of the second half of the 14th century. [Rabinovich]
In a smoky izba, as also in the 9th-13th centuries, the ceiling was usually absent. In rich city homes the ceiling was made of beams or blocks [плах], propped on the wall and central beam – the matitsa. Windows in homes with smoky stoves were made small, volokovye [волоковые –small windows with sliding shutters to let out the smoke in traditional izbas, red – basically a missing section of a single log – no window frame], and in poor homes completely left without windows, for economy of heat. In the rooms where the stove was with a chimney or where they lived only in summer, could be made also framed [косящатые, literally with a jamb] windows of modern type. Earlier than in other cities, window glass appeared in Novgorod and Moscow – from the 14th century. [Rabinovich]


References:
  • Домострой: Сильвестровская редакция (The Domostroi: Silvester's Version) from website of "Древнерусская литература" © 2002-2006. http://www.drevne.ru/lib/domos_2.htm [Viewed 2006]
  • Fuller, Michael. Novgorod Archaeology. http://users.stlcc.edu/mfuller/novgorodpublic.html (12 April 2007).
  • Michell, Robert and Nevill Forbes, translators. The Chronicle of Novgorod: 1016-1471. Camden Third Series Vol. XXV. Offices of the Society. London. 1914.
  • Primary Chronicle food references
  • Pouncy, Carolyn, editor and translator. The Domostroi: Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, NY. 1994.
  • Rabinovich, M.G. Очерки Материальной Культуры Русского Феодального Города (Sources of Material Culture of the Russian Feudal City). Nauka. Moscow. 1988.
  • Thompson, M.W. Novgorod the Great. Frederick Praeger, Publishers. New York. 1967. [English-lanaguage text based on Zasurtsev articles.]
  • Zasurtsev, P.I. "Жилища Древнего Новгорода: Усадьбы и Построики Древнего Новгорода" (Yards and Buildings of Ancient Novgorod) Материалы и Исследования по Археологии СССР No 65. (Materials and Research in the Archeology of the USSR) Izdatel'stvo Academii Nauk USSR. Moscow. 1958. [Preliminary report of findings.]
  • Zasurtsev, P.I. "Жилища Древнего Новгорода: Усадьбы и Построики Древнего Новгорода" (Preliminary Report of Buildings of Ancient Novgorod) Материалы и Исследования по Археологии СССР No 123. (Materials and Research in the Archeology of the USSR) Izdatel'stvo Academii Nauk USSR. Moscow. 1963. [This report supersedes the 1958 Zasurtsev report, but leaves out a couple of tidbits.]

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