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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Vol. I. Poetry for Scandinavian Rulers 1: From Mythological Times to c. 1035

1.3. The primary evidence for the skaldic corpus

1.3.1. Poetry in runes (EM)
1.3.2. Poetry recorded in manuscripts and printed books (GN)

(Vol. I. Poetry for Scandinavian Rulers 1: From Mythological Times to c. 1035 > 2. General Introduction > 1. Defining and characterising the corpus > 1.3. The primary evidence for the skaldic corpus > 1.3.1. Poetry in runes)

1.3.1. Poetry in runes (EM)

Runic poetry is characterised by its transmission – with one exception (the Canterbury formula, Run DR 419VI) – not in manuscripts, but in runic script on diverse portable objects and rune stones. Runologists distinguish two phases of runic writing: the period of use of the so-called Older Fuþark and that of the so-called Younger Fuþark. The Older Fuþark consists of twenty-four characters and was developed from a Latin alphabet between the first and second centuries A.D. The specific details of this process are controversial. This runic alphabet, named fuþark after its first six characters, was in use until c. 700. Afterwards, regionally different alphabets developed in Scandinavia, known collectively as the Younger Fuþark. Common to all these, at first, was a reduced inventory of just sixteen characters. But these fuþark alphabets were differentiated again relatively soon (starting in the tenth century) by the use of diacritical signs, usually dotting. In the medieval period, the alphabet was adapted to the Latin alphabet in its sequence of characters and use of additional runes for c and z.

The runic corpus can be divided chronologically into three periods: that of the Older Fuþark (c. 150-700), that of the Viking Age (c. 800-1100), and that of the medieval urban inscriptions, which extends into the fourteenth century and, in some isolated cases, even later. During the eighth century there was a transitional period from the Older to the Younger Fuþark in which only a few inscriptions are found, which already use some of the characters of the Younger Fuþark. In all three periods, some inscriptions were composed in metrical form, and it is these metrical inscriptions that are edited in SkP VI.

A. The older period (c. 150-700)

Here we find metrical inscriptions both on stones and on various portable artefacts. The most numerous group are the stone inscriptions, found predominantly in Norway. The inscriptions are arranged in various ways, including along the edge of the stone, horizontally or vertically running from bottom to top. Smaller objects with metrical inscriptions include weapons (a shield-boss), a buckle, a richly decorated gold horn, a bracteate (a gold medal, inspired by Roman coins) and a whetstone.

B. The Viking Age (c. 800-1100)

From this period we find numerous metrical inscriptions in the three Scandinavian countries, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Here too, the stone inscriptions are the most numerous group. Sweden is distinguished not only by the number of its inscriptions, by far the largest, but also by a particular way of arranging them. Whereas the Danish inscriptions are arranged vertically or in a line following the edge of the stone, with few ornamental elements, inscriptions on Swedish stones are often integrated into a so-called rune animal, an animal-shaped band which forms loops on the stone.

C. The later Middle Ages (c. 1100-1500)

The custom of erecting rune stones was abandoned in the early Middle Ages. Runic inscriptions of the medieval period come predominantly from an urban cultural context (Bergen, Trondheim, Sigtuna, Lödöse near Göteborg and Schleswig). The majority of metrical inscriptions are found on so-called rune sticks. The number of rune sticks found in Bergen from this period is strikingly high, and one can infer from various subjects of the inscriptions that they were probably the standard means of written communication in the city, learned book culture excluded. Bergen, with its many rune stick finds, is also the source of a large number of metrical inscriptions. Artefacts such as amulets, small boxes, hafts of knives and other ordinary wooden objects bear metrical inscriptions. A special group of metrical inscriptions are those associated with churches; they are found on church portals and wooden pillars (Norway) and on church walls and tomb slabs (Sweden); one is found on a stone window frame (Denmark).

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