Runes were as advanced as the Roman alphabet, the researcher says

Inscriptions of runes and letters have been found since the Middle Ages. Johan Bollaert has found equal use of visual resources in both inscriptions. But there are also differences between the use of runes and letter inscriptions. Among others, runes (on the left) were carved into hard rock types such as granite and quartzite, while lettered inscriptions were carved into softer rock types such as marble and limestone. Credit: University of Oslo

In the Middle Ages, the Roman alphabet and runes lived side by side. A new PhD thesis challenges the idea that runes represent more of a spoken and less of a learned form of written language.

“Bishop Peter rests here may have been inscribed on a tombstone from the 1200s. Some inscriptions may have been made in runes, others in Roman letters,” says Johan Bollaert, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Linguistics and Scandinavian Studies.

He has researched the written language used in public inscriptions in Norway from 1100 to 1500. Last fall, he defended his PhD thesis “Vision and Literacy in Medieval Norwegian Epigraphy”.

Runes are no more verbal than other inscriptions

The hypothesis that the runes represent a more oral tradition is based on the idea that runic inscriptions are contextual and rarely in Latin — something associated with a scientific culture.

“But Old Norse can also be written, and it’s not written any worse just because it’s vernacular,” says Bollaert.

Another reason for the hypothesis may be that the researchers compared runic inscriptions with medieval Latin manuscripts.

“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, that is, in other places and times. On the other hand, a tombstone was made to be placed and understood locally,” he explains.

“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 the inscriptions will necessarily be shorter and simpler.”

Visual resources when using runes and letters

What Bollaert has researched is called epigraphy, the study of reading and interpreting inscriptions. He has compared letter inscriptions with runic inscriptions on wood, stone and metal. It is the first time that a survey of letter inscriptions from the Middle Ages has been conducted throughout Norway.

Since the use of the written word in the Middle Ages was largely in an ecclesiastical context, most of the texts are from tombstones and are stored in Norwegian museums. The largest display is in a cellar in the cathedral of Nidaros, while some are still in cemeteries. He has also looked at graffiti on church walls.

He has analyzed how points, spaces, figures and images are used, what he calls the visual resources of writing. Bollaert’s argument is that the more visual resources are used, the more advanced the inscription in its written form.

“The biggest difference between spoken and written language is that spoken language can only be heard, while written language can only be seen. This is why visual aspects are so important in written language. An inscription with detailed punctuation, a carefully designed layout and decoration shows better use of the visual capabilities of writing than a text without punctuation and spaces,” he explains.

Here, he discovered that visual resources are used to the same extent in runic inscriptions as in those involving letters. However, there are some differences.

Letter inscriptions are more standardized

Runes are the oldest known form of writing in Norway and were in continuous use from the 200s to the late Middle Ages and up to 1400. The Roman alphabet was introduced to Norway at the same time as the introduction of Christianity, gradually taking over from the runes.

An important difference between the finds of letters and runic inscriptions is that the inscriptions of letters are associated with cities and episcopal seats, such as Nidaros, Oslo, Bergen and Hamar, while the finds of runic inscriptions have also been made in smaller parts of the country . . Most letter inscriptions have been found in Trondheim.

“The inscriptions of the letters are more standardized and look alike, for example they start with a cross and ‘Here he rests.’ The explanation may be that they were produced in workshops connected to the dioceses. The runes were made locally and there is a great variety,” he says.

Dots indicate gaps

Another difference is the material used. Softer and lighter types of stone were used for letter inscriptions, such as marble and limestone. Runes, on the other hand, are also found carved into hard rock types such as granite and quartzite.

“In Nidaros they mainly used marble that came from a quarry about 70 km north of the city. The stones used for the runes were local, they took what they found in the local community. But that doesn’t mean the runes represented less knowledge or were more sloppily executed,” says Bollaert.

In inscriptions, it is customary to place dots between characters instead of spaces. In letter inscriptions, two dots were most often used, while several dots could be common in runic inscriptions. The more important a word was, such as the name of a dead person, the more dots there were after the word to indicate spaces.

The enigmatic history of runes

The oldest runic alphabet consisted of 24 characters and each character represented a sound. There is a clear resemblance to classical alphabets, and so it is assumed that those who created the runic alphabet knew other alphabets — such as Roman, according to the Great Norwegian Encyclopedia (SNL).

But who mastered the runic script and how was it taught?

Bollaert says there isn’t much knowledge here. runes have an enigmatic history.

However, he made an interesting discovery showing that it was to be expected that a large percentage of the population could read runes. There are two reasons for this: The first is that he found runic writing inscribed on the entrances of churches through which most people would move. The second reason is that lettered inscriptions on tombstones often have a large image of the deceased, while runic inscriptions do not.

“The lack of designs in the runic inscriptions indicates that a high degree of literacy is expected, while the designs found in the letter inscriptions may indicate that they were adapted to illiterate people,” says Bollaert.

What was the tradition of tombstones?

Tombstones with runic inscriptions are a tradition dating back to the Proto-Norse era, long before the Viking Age.

“Before Christianity was established, the stones were placed where people could see them, such as along a road, and not on the mound. Common men and women did not have tombstones erected in their memory, they were reserved for the upper classes and other people who possessed high values. Towards the end of the 1100s, it became more common to place tombstones in cemeteries,” says Bollaert.

In addition to “here he rests,” there were often verses of prayers on the stones. Work and status were common, such as child, bishop, lord or doctor. Family relations were also mentioned, such as “Anders’ wife”. In addition, where one lived was often mentioned. such as ‘Brynjólf of Ága’.

He says Scandinavia differs from the rest of Europe in that no date was written in stone. It wasn’t until the late Middle Ages that death dates became more common in Scandinavia.

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

Provided by the University of Oslo

Reference: Runes were as advanced as Roman script, says researcher (2023, March 3) Retrieved March 4, 2023, from alphabet.html

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