Literacy and Trade in Late Medieval Norway

Literacy and Trade in Late Medieval Norway

By Jan Ragnar Hagland

Journal of Northern Studies, Number 1, 2011

A detailed graffito of a mid to late 15th century ship. Photo courtesy Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey

Abstract: Only faint traces can be observed of literacy connected to domains other than the legal sphere in late medieval Norway. This may be the result of poor archival practices for keeping written material not strictly connected to legal matters, such as the activities carried out by merchants and tradesmen.

The present article tries nonetheless to study whether or not it is possible to relate the notion of literacy to trade in this period of time. The lack of evidence written in Roman letters may, it seems, to some extent be remedied by runic inscriptions excavated in medieval Norwegian towns. We must assume that the use of runes within the domain of trade grew out of an increasingly more complex organisation of mercantile activities which we see especially in an important port such as Bergen in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

It is, perhaps, not only due to chance that the discovered evidence seems to reflect the situation before the middle of the fourteenth century, when Bergen in particular was struck by the Great Plague. Whether the dramatic events caused by the Black Death did create a discontinuity in runic literacy connected to trade, we do not know.

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