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Statue of Onfim in Veliky Novgorod, Russia
Other namesAnthemius of Novgorod
Erac. 1220–1260
Known forHis well-preserved notes and homework exercises scratched in soft birch bark

Onfim (Old Novgorodian: Онѳиме, romanized: Onfime; Russian: Онфим; also Anthemius of Novgorod) was a boy who lived in Novgorod (now Veliky Novgorod, Russia) in the 13th century, some time around 1220 or 1260. He left his notes and homework exercises scratched in soft birch bark[1] which was preserved in the clay soil of Novgorod.[2] Onfim, who was most likely six or seven at the time, wrote in the East Slavic Old Novgorod dialect. Besides letters and syllables, he drew "battle scenes and drawings of himself and his teacher".[2]


Novgorod, now known as Veliky Novgorod, is the administrative center of Novgorod Oblast. At the time Onfim lived, it was the capital of the Novgorod Republic. Scholars believe that the Novgorod Republic had an unusually high level of literacy for the time, with literacy apparently widespread throughout different classes and among both sexes.[3] Some 200 kilometres (120 mi) south of Saint Petersburg, the city is surrounded by birch forests, whose bark was used for centuries by the locals for writing since it was soft and easily scratched.[2] Since 1951, more than 1100 pieces of birch bark with writing on it have been found, and continue to be discovered.[4]

In Russia, birch bark manuscripts are called beresta ('birch bark', plural: beresty), and the academic field that studies them is called berestology[5] (Russian: berestologija).[6] The great number of beresty is indicative of a high rate of literacy among the population,[2] as is the large number of styluses.[7]

Onfim's writings[edit]

Onfim left seventeen known birch bark items. Twelve of those have illustrations, five only text. One of the drawings features a knight on a horse, with Onfim's name written next to him, stabbing someone on the ground with a lance, with scholars speculating that Onfim pictured himself as the knight. The writings are clearly learning exercises: Onfim practiced by writing out the alphabet, repeating syllables, and writing psalms—texts that were presumably familiar to him.[8] His writing includes phrases such as "Lord, help your servant Onfim" and fragments from Psalms 6:2 and 27:3.[9] Most of Onfim's writing consists of citations from the Book of Psalms.[10]

Onfim's homework exercises and "I am a wild beast", c. 1260. (Item 199)

Onfim's illustrations include pictures of knights, horses, arrows, and slain enemies. One image, "a portrait of himself, disguised as a fantastic animal",[11] is found on item 199 (pictured above; it was originally the bottom of a basket made of birch bark), which contains a picture of a beast with a long neck, pointy ears, and a curly tail. The beast either has an arrow with feathers in its mouth or is spewing fire; one of the accompanying texts (the one below the box) says "I am a wild beast" (the text in the box says "Greetings from Onfim to Danilo", likely a friend or classmate of Onfim).[12] The number of fingers on the pictured people's hands varies from three to eight; Onfim had yet to learn how to count.[13]

The rows of five letters each on the other side of 199 are an alphabet exercise.[14] On item 205 (not pictured in this article), Onfim wrote the Cyrillic alphabet and added "On[f]", for his name, in the middle; below that alphabet is what some researchers see as a boat with oars.[15] Item 206 contains alphabetic exercises and "'portraits' of little Onfim and his friends".[16]



  1. ^ Freeze 38.
  2. ^ a b c d Chambers 184.
  3. ^ Ianin, "Medieval Novgorod," 206.
  4. ^ Schaeken 7.
  5. ^ Dekker, Simeon (2018). "The Field of Study: Berestology". Old Russian birchbark letters : a pragmatic approach. Leiden. p. 1. ISBN 978-90-04-35320-6. OCLC 1030304572.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  6. ^ Schaeken 8.
  7. ^ Schaeken 35.
  8. ^ a b Schaeken 101.
  9. ^ Schaeken 103.
  10. ^ Franklin 203.
  11. ^ Yanine 54.
  12. ^ Schaeken 102.
  13. ^ The Birch Bark Post of the Centuries, Valentin Yanin
  14. ^ Schaeken 105.
  15. ^ a b Schaeken 104.
  16. ^ "Slavic Paleography" 522.
  17. ^ Денис Кижаев (13 October 2015). "А. A. Зализняк: О берестяных грамотах из раскопок сезона 2015 года" – via YouTube.


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