Both runic and alphabetic inscriptions from the Middle Ages are being analyzed

runes (left), letter inscriptions (right)
Photo: University of Oslo
The Roman alphabet and runes coexisted in the Middle Ages. The idea that runes are more of an oral and less of a taught kind of written language is contested by a recent discovery.

The Roman alphabet and runes coexisted in the Middle Ages. The idea that runic are more of an oral and less of a taught kind of written language is contested by a recent discovery.

Johan Bollaert, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics and Scandinavian Studies, investigated the written language used in public inscriptions in Norway from the 1100s to the 1500s. According to a statement released by the University of Oslo, last fall he defended his PhD thesis ‘Visuality and Literacy in the Medieval Epigraphy of Norway’.

Johan Bollaert says that some of the inscriptions may have been made using runes and others using Roman letters. The idea that the runes represent a more oral tradition is based on the fact that runic inscriptions were rarely in Latin, which was associated with an academic culture.

The notion might also be due to comparisons made between runic inscriptions and medieval Latin manuscripts by academics. “I think this is wrong, because inscriptions and manuscripts have different forms and functions.  A manuscript is often written so that it can be read and understood out of context, i.e. in other places and times. A gravestone, on the other hand, was made to be placed and understood locally”, he says.

“While it is easy to write a sentence or two on parchment, it takes time and effort to carve words into a piece of stone. Therefore, the text used in inscriptions will necessarily be shorter and simpler.”

What Bollaert has investigated is called epigraphy, the study of reading and interpreting inscriptions. He has contrasted runic inscriptions on wood, stone, and metal with letter inscriptions. This is the first study of medieval letter inscriptions in the whole of Norway.

Because the use of written language in the Middle Ages was primarily for religious purposes, the majority of the writings are from gravestones and are housed in museums throughout Norway. The largest exhibition is housed in a cellar beneath Nidaros Cathedral. He also examined graffiti on church walls.

He has examined the use of what he refers to as the visual resources of writing, including points, spaces, figures, and pictures. According to Bollaert, an inscription’s written form becomes more sophisticated the more visual resources are utilized.

“Here lies Ragnhilder husfreyja, wife Holta Biarnar, whose soul rests in peace” A tombstone with letter inscriptions from the monastery in Hovedøya. Photos: University of Oslo

“The biggest difference between oral and written language is that oral language can only be heard, while the written can only be seen. That is why the visual aspects are so important in written language. An inscription that has detailed punctuation, a carefully planned layout and ornamentation shows better use of the writing’s visual possibilities than a text without punctuation and spaces”, he explains. He has discovered that runic inscriptions utilise visual resources just as much as those involving letters. However, there are some differences.

The first known writing system in Norway is known as runes, and it was used continuously from the second century until the late Middle Ages and into the 1400s. The Roman alphabet was introduced in Norway at the same time as the introduction of Christianity, gradually taking over from the runes.

A significant distinction between runic and letter inscriptions is that runic inscriptions have also been discovered in minor locations around the nation, whereas letter inscriptions have been found in cities and episcopal centers like Nidaros, Oslo, Bergen, and Hamar. The majority of letter inscriptions were discovered in Trondheim.

Another distinction is the material utilized. Marble and limestone, which are softer and lighter in color, were utilized for letter inscriptions. Runes, on the other hand, can be discovered engraved into hard rocks like granite and quartzite.

The oldest runic alphabet consisted of 24 characters, with each character representing a sound. There is a clear resemblance to classical alphabets and it is therefore assumed that the creators of the runic alphabet knew other alphabets, such as the Roman alphabet.

But there is not much information about who mastered the runic script and how it was taught runes have an enigmatic history.  

 “We are now working on creating a database of both runic and letter inscriptions. It will be freely available online and I hope it will make the inscriptions more widely known” says Bollaert.

Cover Photo: runes (left), letter inscriptions (right)

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