This article originally appeared in Tournaments Illuminated #116
Children's drawings in the Middle Ages?! Even if such things were created in period, how could they have survived to the present day? After all, finger paints, magic markers, and crayons were not yet in use, paper was far too valuable of a commodity to waste on children, and refrigerator doors were unavailable for the display of Junior's artistic genius. Most of the products of childhood inspiration probably were expressed on the ephemeral canvas of dirt or sand. Still, a few examples exist.
One such example comes from a Russian boy named Onfim, who lived at the end of the twelfth century or beginning of the thirteenth century in the city of Novgorod. By the estimate of the archaeologists who unearthed his works, he was around seven years old at the time that he made these drawings. (1) He drew on the bark of birch trees -- a fragile medium, but one which has survived to the present.
Onfim was being taught to write, but he was obviously restless with his lessons and when he could get away with it, he intermixed his assignments with doodlings. In this first example, he started to write out the first eleven letters of the alphabet in the upper right corner, but got bored and drew a picture of himself as a grown-up warrior impaling an enemy with his spear. To remove any doubt about the identity of the warrior, he even labeled the person on the horse as "Onfim." Fantasies of becoming a mighty warrior were not the only things that Onfim thought up though. In another example, he took the piece of bark that he was practicing on, turned it over, and drew a picture of himself disguised as a wild beast (which he identified by writing "I am a wild beast" [Ia zver'] over it). The beast, with its long tongue (or fiery breath), is apparently still a friendly beast as it is carrying a sign that reads "Greetings from Onfim to Danilo" [Poklon ot Onfima ko Danile]. Danilo was probably a friend, perhaps even a schoolmate sitting next to Onfim. In still other drawings, Onfim draws warriors in armor, fierce battle scenes, and children playing around a tree. (2)
Russian children were not the only creative young people out there, of course. The drawings in this last illustration come from England and from three hundred years earlier, around 900 CE. It appears on the back page of an ecclesiastical manuscript housed at Oxford. Little is known about the little book vandal who left this contribution, except that he too was learning his alphabet and also how to sing. The page is covered with practice phrases and musical notes. He was also a fairly creative boy, as Marc Drogin notes in his commentary on this work: "...he got bored and did a bit of writing backwards. At some point he decided it was more fun drawing the monastery cat apparently chasing the monastery dog, and even a sketch of one of his classmates or perhaps himself." (3) As Drogin goes on to note, writing in books was a serious matter in the tenth century and this boy was certainly not commended for what he had done, thus demonstrating that misbehavior was also in period!
1. A. V. Artsikhovskii, "Berestianye gramoty mal'chika Onfima," Sovetskaia arkheologiia, 1957, #3, p. 222 [215-223].
2. These pictures were taken from A. V. Artsikhovskii and V. I. Borkovskii, Novgorodskie gramoty na bereste (Vol V: 1956-1957) (Moscow: Izdatel'stvo akademii nauk SSSR, 1963), pp. 17-32. The birchbark documents of Novgorod are a major source for information about life in Medieval Novgorod. Other pieces contain personal messages, IOUs, love letters, shopping lists, and so on. Further discussion of the birchbark documents in general (and Onfim in particular) can be found in Valentin L. Yanine, "The Dig at Novgorod," in Readings in Russian Civilization, Vol I, Thomas Riha, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), pp. 47-59.
3. Marc Drogin, Yours Truly, King Arthur (New York: Taplinger Publishing Company), p. 23. The drawing came from the Bodleian Library at Oxford (MS Auct. T. 2. 28, folio 43 recto) and is reproduced in Drogin, p. 22. My special thanks to Mistress Jaelle of Armida for bringing this example to my attention.