Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Holy Shit, Onfim!

Onfim 199

Remember when you were a kid, and you would fidget in all your classes and make weird doodles in your notebooks? Maybe you even still do it. It's a pretty common form of expression, usually reserved for when you can only spare about half your attention.

Onfim was a kid from Novgorod, Russia who doodled a lot. By itself, that doesn't mean much. But when Onfim was a student, Novgorod wasn't in Russia. It was the administrative center of the Novgorod Republic, which hasn't existed since 1478.
Novgorod Republic
I mean it was practically the size of Continental Europe. How am I just now learning about it?

We know about Onfim because he wrote his notes (and the aforementioned doodles) on soft birch bark. Before paper became a really big thing, birch bark was often used for that purpose. It's hearty and water-resistant, which is great for preservation since water is the mortal enemy of history.
We'll beat you someday, water. You just wait.

Most of Onfim's writing involved practicing the Old Slavic alphabet and writing Psalms. The doodles, though, were likely not part of any assignment. He sketched portraits of himself, his friends, and his tutor. He drew fanciful monsters with arrows sticking out of them. He even drew pictures of knights in battle. I'm not sure which of those is the 13th Century equivalent of the Bond-Villain's-Underground-Bunker that every boy knows how to draw today, but I'm sure it's in there somewhere.
Onfim's sketches
I'm sure I've done something similar to this with helicopters instead of horses.

The great thing about Onfim is that he puts a human face on history. Not just a human face, but a face we all know. Because everybody doodles in school, and thanks to Onfim we know that we share that subtle desire to express ourselves with our ancestors going back at least 800 years.

Holy Shit.

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