By Minoru Ozawa
Hermeneutique du texte d’histoire: orientation, interpretation et questions nouvelles (2009)
Introduction: The Spoleto Symposium, held in 2004, was remarkable for the fact that attending historians discussed certain problems of communication in the early middle ages. Since the 19th century, linguists and philologists have expanded our knowledge of medieval forms of communication, but the proceedings of the Symposium were still able to shed new light on some aspects of how languages functioned in a historical context. Regrettably, however, no articles devoted to Scandinavian cases were published in the proceedings.
Why were Scandinavian cases excluded whenever any problems of communication in the early middle ages were discussed? Some reasons are immediately obvious. First, the Scandinavians communicated with each other in a different language from many other European cultures at this time. What we now call ‘Old Norse’ was the common language throughout Scandinavia at that time. Since it is one of the North Germanic languages, the Scandinavians could—by and large— make themselves understood to those who used Old English or Old German, whereas they had more difficulty in communicating with those who used Romance languages. Second, the Scandinavians used a different script to the Latin alphabet. Their own alphabet was runic, and is now known as the ‘futhark’. According to a recent study, the runes were created in the territory between the Roman world and the Germanic one somewhere around the first or second century CE. The futhark consisted of 24 letters up until the eighth century, when the number of the letters drastically decreased to 16. Third, no contemporary written documents have been transmitted to the present day. The earliest original document extant in Scandinavia is a Danish royal charter issued in 1134, while the earliest copy is a charter granted to Lund cathedral in 1085. If we include the royal charters which Cnut, who reigned both in England and in Denmark, issued in England, then the earliest extant document dates back to 1018. Apart from these documents, runic inscriptions and skaldic verses are the only accessible Scandinavian written sources from early medieval times.