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  • Epigraphic Literacy and Christian Identity: Modes of Written Discourse in the Newly Christian European North by Kristel Zilmer and Judith Jesch, eds
  • Roderick McDonald
Zilmer, Kristel and Judith Jesch, eds, Epigraphic Literacy and Christian Identity: Modes of Written Discourse in the Newly Christian European North (Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy, 4), Turnhout, Brepols, 2012; hardback; pp. 279; 39 b/w illustrations, 15 b/w line art; R.R.P. €80.00; ISBN 9782503542942.

Epigraphy, in the context of the Viking Age, offers interesting challenges to theories of literacy and its relationship with the spread of Christianity and associated modes of religious practice. This particular collection of essays is divided into two parts, bringing together two significantly divergent bodies of runic epigraphic writing – runic text inscribed in Scandinavian rune stones chiefly found in Sweden, with some Danish and Norwegian parallels, and that inscribed in rune staves (Old Norse rúnakefli) from Bryggen, in Bergen, Norway, and north-western Russian birchbark pieces – from the late tenth through to the first half of the thirteenth centuries.

Part I brings together essays that broadly consider the role of epigraphic writing on Scandinavian rune stones – the marking of short statements that serve ostensibly to commemorate – as indicators of social, cultural, and religious values and practices during the early centuries of Christianization. The contexts which the various authors bring to this study include consideration of who carved these various stones, how to understand the meaning of ‘authorship’ in the case of known carvers, how the different content on stones (format/layout, text, decoration) can be interpreted, and the part that these stones might play in both the earthly and the spiritual economies.

The first two essays deal with issues around the roles and identities of the commissioners and carvers of runestones. Magnus Kållström’s contribution considers what can be learnt from the evidence regarding the expansion of runic carvings, the relationship between runic and Latin literacy, the spread of literacy, and the extent to which it is possible to analyse the role of the carvers in terms of lay literacy, as compared with clerical or Christian book culture.

Laila Kitzler Åhfeldt’s essay is the second that deals with carving technique and the implications for the spread of literacy and Christianity. Her analysis is based on high resolution scans used to differentiate the carvers engaged in the work, and she draws conclusions about certain named carvers, their social status, the processes by which stones were carved, and the possible connection of these runic expressions of Christianity with transitions from a pre-Christian to a Christian milieu.

The remaining two papers in Part I both deliver textual analyses of runic material. Kristel Zilmer presents a structural analysis of the formulaic make [End Page 300] up of runic prayers, and concludes that rather than being at best a symbolic expression of an uncertain degree of Christian faith, the textuality of the prayers points to regional characteristics of different types of Christianity in place, such as the Kristr-prayers from Södermanland and Uppland indicating a likely early cult of Christ. Henrik Williams makes a sound case for the Old Norse expression ‘dauðr i hvitavaðum’, found more broadly in literary as well as runic sources, as an epigraphic indicator not necessarily of being baptized when dying, but marking a death that has occurred while the person is in the state of grace conferred by confirmation.

Part II then considers a more diverse set of texts. Largely set in the frame of the pragmatics of instrumentalist communication, this part of the book moves on to discuss rune staves from Bryggen in Norway, birchbark pieces excavated in Western Russian sites such as Novgorod, and finishes with a consideration of graffiti in Novgorod churches.

The textual material analysed in Part II is comprised largely of short, often pragmatic notes relating to commercial correspondence, used as writing practice, for charms, carrying simple practical directions, some containing intimate messages and even obscenities. Michael Schulte presents a linguistic analysis which reveals usage that is not formalized by adherence to literary standards, while Terje Spurkland looks at runic writing of Latin and Greek material derived from the Litany, and yet...


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