Our Gentle Boy Onfim – Birch Bark Doodles of a Medieval Russian Kid

Written evidence composed by those living in the past confronts us with the humanity of those who, once living and now long gone, are often unfairly relegated to the grey, impersonal blob of “history.” One of the most powerful recent finds in this respect is that of the drawings of Onfim, a tender, seven-year-old Russian boy from the thirteenth century. Onfim’s doodles wouldn’t look out of place in a modern kindergarten classroom. Looking at them, one can’t help but be struck by the truth that even centuries ago, children were children, and school was school.

Part of an extensive collection of manuscripts, unearthed in the Russian city of Novgorod more than five years ago, these childish writings were produced by an old practice of writing on birch bark. Which, as all those who live in the right climates know, is uniquely thin and soft, making it a near-perfect replacement for wood-pulp paper. Novgorod, as attested to by these manuscripts, was uniquely literate at the time. The discovered documents vary in their nature, ranging from curses to shopping lists to legal deeds, and reveal quite a bit about what life was like back then.

But, to many, what is especially noteworthy and precious about the manuscripts found are the unique drawings of a child named Onfim, whose age has been estimated around six or seven years old. Whimsical doodles of him riding a horse, or him disguised as a wild beast, or even of pitchfork armies, Onfim’s drawings were clearly made at the expense of his studies. On many of the manuscripts, we see his efforts at practicing the alphabet or copying out biblical verses abandoned for his doodles.

The soil of Novgorod preserves these manuscripts uniquely well, and these are definitely not the last manuscripts that will be found (though this may be all we will ever have of our precious Onfim.) Along with what we learn about Onfim and his schooling, these documents reveal quite a lot about life in Novgorod at the time, as well as the history of the Russian language, and scholars continue to work on the finds, uncovering new and interesting glimpses of everyday medieval life there.


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