August 13, 2022

Onfim (Old Novgorodian: онѳиме) was a boy from Novgorod who left behind a number of fist documents that have been preserved in clay soil. He wrote in the Old Novgorod dialect of Old East Slavic, and is said to have been between six and seven years old when he wrote his works, sometime between 1234 and 1268. The works include, among other things, his notes, various reading and writing tasks, in addition to drawings of battle scenes, self-portrait and drawings of other acquaintances. Most of the documents were found on 13 and 14 July 1956. These were found together, which suggests that he lost them all together and at the same time. The documents were given to the State Historical Museum, where they are part of the permanent collection. More than 1,000 birch sap documents have been found in the clay soil in Novgorod.


When Onfim lived, it must have been common to be able to read and write in the Republic of Novgorod, across both social classes and gender, compared to the rest of Europe. The city of Novgorod is surrounded by birch forests, and the bark from these trees has been used as writing material for several hundred years, as it is soft and thus relatively easy to write on. Since 1951, over 1,100 fist documents have been found. This, in addition to the corresponding amount of writing tools that have also been found, is one of the reasons why it seems that the Republic of Novgorod had an unusually strong writing culture.

Onfim's works

Onfim left behind 17 fist documents. Twelve of these contain illustrations, while five of them only have text on them. One of the illustrations depicts a rider on a horse stabbing someone on the ground with a lance. It is assumed that the rider is Onfim himself, as his name is written to the right of the figure. Several of the texts are typical reading and writing tasks, which show that he practiced, among other things, writing the alphabet and repeating syllables, in addition to writing extracts from hymns that he could. His texts include phrases such as "Lord, help your servant Onfim", but most of his texts are excerpts from the book of Psalms, including 6.2 and 27.3. Onfim's drawings include knights, horses, arrows and enemies defeated in battle. Document number 199, one of the images that is supposed to depict him disguised as a fantasy animal, shows an image of an animal with a long neck, pointed ears and a tail. The animal must also have an arrow with a feather on the end in its mouth, but it may also happen that this should show that the animal breathes out fire. The text given with the picture says "I am a wild animal" and "Greetings from Onfim to Danilo", who was presumably a friend or fellow student of Onfim. The number of fingers depicted in his drawings varies between three and eight per hand, as he had not yet learned to count. On the other side of document number 199, there is an alphabet exercise. On document number 205, Onfim wrote out the Cyrillic alphabet and signed it with "On[f]". Below this is a drawing believed to be a boat with oars. Document number 204 has yet another alphabet task and depicts Onfim and several of his friends. In addition to his texts showing how education took place in Novgorod, his texts also have value from a linguistic perspective. In the text he writes himself, Onfim never uses the letters ъ and ь; they are consistently replaced by о and е, despite the fact that he writes ъ and ь in his alphabet exercises. This suggests that the pronunciation of ъ and ь has coincided with о and е. ъ and ь still occurred, but only in texts written in a higher register. For simple and informal fist documents, this orthographic distinction was clearly not worth bringing out. Despite this, Onfim was taught to know the ancient letters as well, to also be able to read older texts.




Chambers, John H. (October 16, 2008). Everyone's History (English). Xlibris. ISBN 978-1-4628-2167-9. Schaeken, Jos (2012). Stemmen Op Berkenbast: Berichten Uit Middeleeuws Rusland: Dagelij