Retaining Ancient Ways: Codex Runicus, How the Runic Script Survived in the Middle Ages
Runic script was developed in Scandinavia between the 2nd and 8th centuries AD. It was originally used for short inscriptions. After the Viking Age, this famous form of writing was altered to compete with the Latin script. Following the Christianization of Scandinavia, that foreign script came to be used increasingly for legal and ecclesiastical texts. The local runic script, however, remained popular for everyday use. The Scandinavian peoples weren’t going to disregard years of tradition just to appease foreign influence, and the Codex Runicus was one of the results of this resistance.
A Famous Runic Law Document
During the 13th century, laws in the Scandinavian kingdoms began to be codified in manuscripts. Most legal codes were written in the Latin alphabet and language, but in some cases they were created using runes in a Scandinavian language.
The most well-known example of this is the Codex Runicus, a 202-page legal text written in manuscript form. Since this document is rare it does not appear to be a natural transition from Viking Age uses of runes to Medieval manuscript culture. Instead, it may have been an attempt to resist acculturation from Medieval Western Europe using runes. There is evidence of other manuscripts created with runes, though they are uncommon. One example is a religious text about the Virgin Mary.
A page in the Codex Runicus. ( Public Domain )
The Codex Runicus is divided into three parts, a section on Danish Scanian Law, a section on Scanian Ecclesiastical Law, and a list of Danish kings with a description of the Swedish-Danish border. The script is written using a later Medieval form of the runic writing which consisted of 27 letters to match all the phonemes represented by the Latin alphabet. It was based on the Younger Futhark system, which contained only 16 letters and was limited to the sound system of Scandinavian languages. The Younger Futhark system itself is based on the Elder Futhark, which originated around 150 AD and contained 24 characters.
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A 1710 map of Skåneland, which consists of the provinces Scania, Halland and Blekinge. ( Public Domain )
Runes for Resistance
Compared to the Medieval runes, the runes used during what is called the Viking Age (roughly 750-1050 AD) and prior were quite limited in their use. They were commonly used for marking personal possessions and for making magical inscriptions. In contrast, Medieval runes were used in common business transactions by traders, farmers, and artisans. They were also used to decorate official buildings, such as churches.
Drawing of a church bell from Saleby, Västergötland, Sweden, with a runic inscription from 1228. ( Public Domain )
Runes continued to be used in Scandinavian countries, especially Sweden, into the 19th century. According to scholars such as Sven BF Jansson, Latin letters were considered to be a foreign element by many Swedes - which meant people resisted their use for unofficial settings and personal communication. There were Swedish provinces, such as the Dalarna province, where runes were still in common use until at least the early 18th century. Runes were also in regular use in Iceland in the 15th century and possibly later.
Although Scandinavia is generally considered to be absorbed into the western European cultural block today, there always seems to have been a tension between Scandinavian cultural identity and the rest of Europe. Another example of this is seen in Scandinavia’s slow adoption of Christianity. Paganism persisted in parts of Scandinavia until at least the 12th century, and perhaps even later. This may have been a stand against the influence of western European culture as well as resistance to a new, unfamiliar religion. It is possible that the use of runes in the Codex Runicus could be another manifestation of this opposition in the legal realm.
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Dalecarlian rune inscription from 1635 in Orsblecksloftet, Zorns gammelgård, Mora, Mora Municipality, Dalarna, Sweden. ( Public Domain )
Changing Legal Codes
The ancient Norse legal codes were oral. Wise men known as lawspeakers would memorize and recite the laws before assemblies (known as things ( þing) - an institution which functioned in most Scandinavian societies as a parliament, court, or both.) Later, during the Middle Ages, as the kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland formed, the position of lawspeaker was made into an official office and in most cases, lawspeakers became authorized members of the thing, or royal officials.
Illustration by C. Krogh depicting Þorgnýr the Lawspeaker showing the power of his office to the king of Sweden at Gamla Uppsala, 1018. ( Public Domain )
In the 13th and 14th centuries, when laws began to be written down in Latin, rather than being transmitted orally in native languages, some Scandinavians probably saw this by as a foreign intrusion, and possibly even a threat to the importance of the lawspeaker in Scandinavian society. The use of runes would have allowed at least some “Scandinavian-ness” to be preserved, despite the adoption of western European legal practices - which ultimately derived from Roman and Canon law.
The oldest known vernacular manuscript (c. 1250) in Scanian/Danish with the Scanian Law and the Scanian Ecclesiastical Law. ( Public Domain )
The content of the Codex Runicus mostly contains laws that fit within the Medieval Western European legal tradition, but it is in a native language written with a runic script and it contains a section on Danish history. These points all suggest an attempt to differentiate Denmark (at least) from the southern region of Europe.
Legal codes reflect the values and worldview of a culture. Thus, it makes sense that there would be an attempt to keep the transmission of legal codes somewhat indigenous. Making legal practices less Scandinavian would do more than just change law codes, it would cause Scandinavian core values to become less authentic.
A page of the Codex Runicus containing the oldest recorded music in Scandinavia. ( Public Domain )
Top Image: A 16th-century depiction of children taught to use runic calendars. ( Public Domain ) Background: Detail of writing in the Codex Runicus. ( Public Domain )
By Caleb Strom
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Jansson, Sven Birger Fredrik. Runes in Sweden . Royal Academy of Letters &, 1987.
McKinnell, John, Rudolf Simek, and Klaus Düwel. Runes, magic and religion: a sourcebook . Fassbaender, 2004.
Short, William R. 2016. Viking-Age Laws and Legal Procedures . Available at: http://www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/society/text/laws.htm
Visit Reykjavík. n.d. Althingi. Available at: http://www.visitreykjavik.is/travel/althingi
The runes themselves are derived from the Latin script. They were developed by Germanic traders during the Roman age.