Whose Runes are These? I (Don’t) Think I Know

In the mid-twelfth century, a stoneworker in the far northwest of England at Bridekirk, Cumbria cut a lavishly-decorated baptismal font with reliefs of dragons, mysterious figures, and, curiously, a line of runic writing. By the early modern period, the characters on the Bridekirk font were nothing but strange. Early English historian and chronographer William Camden, who included a sketch of the runic inscription in the 1607 edition of his Britannia, declared himself perplexed: “Quid autem illae velint, et cuius gentis characteribus, ego minime video, statuant eruditi.”[1]

The east face of the Bridekirk font, by permission of Lionel Wall. 

First published in 1586, Camden’s massive historico-chronographical Britannia went through six editions in the author’s lifetime, and Camden continually updated and expanded the text, augmenting it with maps and diagrams, such as the rendition of the Bridekirk runes seen below. The last Britannia edition on which Camden collaborated was a 1610 English translation by Philemon Holland, who translates: “But what they signifie, or what nations characters they should be, I know not, let the learned determine thereof.” Camden’s uncertainties cut straight to the heart of the matter: whose runes are these? and what do they mean?

The Bridekirk runes as pictured in the 1607 edition of Britannia. Courtesy of Dana Sutton.

In the more than 400 years that have passed since the publication of Camden’s Britannia and despite the best efforts of the eruditi, no simple answer has been found to either of Camden’s questions, the first of which I’ll consider in today’s post. Whose runes are these?

Danish antiquarian Ole Worm learned of the inscription from the Britannia and included his own version of the runes in a 1634 letter to one Henry Spelman:

But if a well-printed text of the monuments inscribed with our characters that exist [in England] is sent to me, they would make up the much-desired appendix to those from our country. As far as the one Camden shows us in his book Britannia, I hardly know whether it can be read: [RUNES] That is, as I interpret it according to the laws of our language: “Harald made [this] mound and set up stones in the memory of [his] mother and Mabrok.” But I claim nothing as certain until someone can supply us with a more accurate description.[2]
Leaving aside Worm’s wildly inaccurate translation, which he based off of the second-hand evidence of Camden’s printed transcription, I’d like to note that Worm seems to claim the Bridekirk runes among the monumentorum nostris notis consignatorum (monuments signed with our script): he counts these as Scandinavian runes.

At other times the inscription has been claimed as English. The description of the Bridekirk font in Charles Macfarlane’s Comprehensive History of England, first published in 1856, praises the “ingenuity of design and execution” of the font and notes its “Saxon inscription.”[3] 

The font as pictured in Macfarlane’s History. 

Modern scholars agree with Worm that the incised characters are, in the main, Scandinavian. But the inscription is not wholly so: the text employs a few non-runic, decidedly English characters, including ⁊, Ȝ, and a bookhand Ƿ. Moreover, the language is not the Norse one might expect from Scandinavian runes but rather English:

Ricard he me iwrokte to þis merð ʒer ** me brokte.[4]
Richard crafted me and brought me (eagerly?) to this splendor.

So if the runic inscription is neither fully Norse nor fully English, whose runes (cuius gentis) are they? While Charles Macfarlane claimed them as “Saxon” and Worm counted them as Scandinavian, the runes are actually neither but rather the product of a mixed society continuing to encode both English and Norse cultural practices on stone. Most literally the runes represent phonological values and a particular message, but for most of the font’s history the place of these symbols in cultural memory – whose runes they have become – has been just as important as what they originally meant. The cultural equivocality of the Bridekirk inscription is emblematic of larger ambiguities involving Anglo-Scandinavian ethnicity and culture as imagined by the post-Hastings medieval English. These ambiguous cultural signs, later re-imagined in the early modern period, raise the question of what it meant to be Anglo-Norse in an Anglo-Norman world.

Rebecca West, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

[1] William Camden, “William Camden, Britannia (1607) with an English Translation by Philemon Holland: A Hypertext Critical Edition,” ed. Dana F. Sutton (The Philological Museum, 2004), Descriptio Angliae et Walliae: Cumberland, 7.

[2] Ole Worm, Olai Wormii et ad eum doctorum virorum epistolæ, vol. 1 (Copenhagen, 1751), Letter 431. This translation is my own.

[3] Charles MacFarlane, The Comprehensive History of England :Civil and Military, Religious, Intellectual, and Social : From the Earliest Period to the Suppression of the Sepoy Revolt, Rev. ed. (London, 1861), 164.

[4] The transliteration above is based on that of Page, who reads “+Ricarþ he me iwrocte / and to þis merð (?) me brocte.” R. I. Page, Runes (University of California Press, 1987), 54.

Undergrad Wednesdays – The Refugee Tales: A Modern Canterbury Tales Gives Voice to the Silenced

[This post was written in the spring 2018 semester for Karrie Fuller's course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It responds to the prompt posted here.]

Open your morning newspaper or scroll through the news report that just popped into your inbox and there’s a good chance that one of today’s top stories surrounds the global refugee crisis. It’s today’s top story, it was yesterday’s, and it’s likely to be tomorrow’s too. With countless news stories dictating faceless facts and figures of the growing number of refugees, one UK organization – the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group – decided to make things personal, drawing inspiration from an unlikely source: our good friend Geoffrey Chaucer and his work, The Canterbury Tales. Like The Canterbury Tales’cast of characters embarking on a religious pilgrimage and participating in a tale-telling contest along the way, a group of writers, poets, and journalists set out on their own pilgrimage across the UK, journeying in solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers, and immigration detainees. They stopped along the way to tell the stories of those who had walked that path before them; then those tales were compiled into the Refugee Tales. A look into the Canterbury Tales, specifically the “Man of Law’s Tale,” illustrates how the structure of storytelling is an effective mode for educating about the refugee crisis as well as how the issues of persecution and discrimination pervaded even Chaucer’s society hundreds of years ago.

The Man of Law’s Tale follows Constance, a devout and pious Christian woman, on journeys across the seas and back; though she endures persecution, violence, and trial at each step, she remains steadfast in faith and eventually returns home. Two snapshots of Constance’s voyages speak directly to the experience of refugees and migrants throughout history. First, upon arriving in Syria, Constance is courted by the Sultan who is so taken by her and her faith that he converts to Christianity and urges his people to do the same. The Sultan’s mother, however, fears that Constance is trying to force her religion onto the Syrians, saying: “What sholde us tyden of this newe lawe / But thraldom to oure bodies and penance, And afterward in helle to be drawe” (Chaucer, 337-339). She fears that this new member of the community, who has brought in her own set of beliefs and practices different from their own, will overtake the native culture, ruin its integrity, and enslave the people in a life they do not want. In retaliation, the Sultan’s mother orders a merciless massacre of all who converted – including her own son – and Constance is forced to flee. This kind of violent religious persecution was not uncommon at the time and it endures today; there is a persistent danger in demonstrating foreign practices or customs for fear of persecution. It is rooted in a lack of understanding of other cultures as well as a desire to preserve one’s own culture, at any cost.

The second important episode of Constance’s story finds her as a refugee just landed in a pagan country. Knowing that she has arrived in an environment hostile to Christians (“In al that lond no Cristen dorste route; / Alle Cristen folk been fled fro that contree” (Chuacer 540-541), Constance is forced to hide her faith and lie about part of who she is in order to appear less different and threatening – to save herself from the kind of violence she faced in Syria. This is a common experience among refugees who feel the need to blend in to their new communities and avoid standing out for fear that they will be discovered and apprehended. The need for safety eclipses all other needs, and many refugees and immigrants are forced to hide or even give up integral pieces of themselves in order to avoid punishment, ridicule, or even removal.

[Disclaimer: Religious persecution ran rampant during the Middle Ages, so a story such as this is not uncommon; however, this tale is problematic in its telling. While the tale is certainly plausible,  it is necessary to note that it is inherently malicious in its portrayal of other religions – i.e. the portrayals of the Sultan’s vicious mother and of the pagans are not flattering and are, in fact, exaggerated, rendering the tale itself spiteful and discriminatory against non-Christians and demonstrating the multi-faceted and widespread persecutions from all angles in Chaucer’s time. For more on the Man of Law’s tale, check out Meggie Kollitz’s piece on "Islamophobic Rhetoric in Chaucer: Not Just ‘A Thing of the Past.’”]

The Refugee Tales adopt the overall structure of the larger Canterbury Tales and delve deep into the specific issues of the persisting refugee crisis seen in the “Man of Law’s Tale.” Having met with and listened to a number of refugees, asylum seekers, and immigration detainees in the UK, the taletellers of the Refugee Tales set off across the country to tell the stories they had learned. One such story is “The Detainee’s Tale in which a writer, Ali Smith, discusses her encounter with a man who was indefinitely detained and her subsequent visit to a detention facility. She writes as if telling the story to the detained man himself, using “you” to refer to him and speaking of herself in the first person: “The first thing that happens, you tell me, is that school stops” (Smith). This point of view draws the reader in and puts us into the detainee’s shoes, as if Smith is telling us our own experience. The majority of the tales, in fact, are told in first person – a significant difference from the original Canterbury Tales, which does not use first person in any of the tales. This important change renders each tale much more personal and each subject more real. It gives a real voice to silenced refugees and migrants while protecting their anonymity. Additionally, the title of the tale (in this case, the “Detainee’s Tale”) names the subject of the story, rather than the teller, shifting the focus from teller to tale (in this case, the Detainee, rather than Smith). While borrowing the structure of the Canterbury Tales, the Refugee Tales tell much more personal and heart-wrenching stories that focus on giving a voice to these people (not stock characters) who otherwise would go unheard.

Among the greatest attributes of the Canterbury Tales is its insight into the vast array of characters living in the Middle Ages, as well as the different values and issues of the time. Similarly, the Refugee Tales spotlight a commonly undocumented section of today’s social spectrum and showcase important social problems and values. Looking back on the Canterbury Tales, it is easy to cringe at and criticize many of the implied social norms. We can look at the society painted by Chaucer and realize it wasn’t all that pretty. But that forces us to acknowledge the stains on the tapestry of human history. We should never sanitize the past and bleach out the bad parts; rather we must recognize them and learn from them. Similarly, there is a need to document all parts of our current history – even the parts that are not so pretty. The Refugee Tales does just that. These tales detail a trying time in our world and shed light on a crisis in human dignity. This particular portrayal of the issue, however, illuminates the presence of humanity, compassion, and hope amidst that crisis. We have seen that the social problems of persecution and discrimination have persisted since Chaucer’s time, and even before; the Refugee Tales show that, yes, those issues still exist, but how we view and approach them has evolved and we are finding new ways to solve them once and for all.

Claire Doyle
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited:

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Man of Law’s Tale, from the Canterbury Tales. Edited by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor, 2ndEdition, Broadview Press, 2012.

Herd, David, and Anna Pincus, editors. Refugee Tales. Comma Press, 2016.

Smith, Ali. “The Detainee’s Tale by Ali Smith: ‘I Thought You Would Help Me’.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 28 June 2015, www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jun/27/ali-smith-so-far-the-detainees-tale-extract.

To Learn More:

“About Refugee Tales.” Refugee Tales, Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, refugeetales.org/about-refugee-tales/.

Brockbank, Hannah. “Refugee Tales.” THRESHOLDS, University of Chicester, thresholds.chi.ac.uk/refugee-tales/.

Cleave, Chris. “World Refugee Day: The Lorry Driver’s Tale, as Told to Chris Cleave.”The Irish Times, The Irish Times, 20 June 2016, www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/world-refugee-day-the-lorry-driver-s-tale-as-told-to-chris-cleave-1.2691968.

Herd, David. “Modern Day Canterbury Tales Refreshes Chaucer to Tell the Lost Stories of Refugees.” The Conversation, The Conversation US, Inc, 16 June 2015, theconversation.com/modern-day-canterbury-tales-refreshes-chaucer-to-tell-the-lost-stories-of-refugees-42981.

The Refugee Tales Website: http://refugeetales.org

Working in the Archives – The Vatican Secret Archives

This post continues an ongoing special series of the Notre Dame Medieval Studies Research Blog called “Working in the Archives.” This series focuses on practical knowledge for accessing archives across Europe and North Africa, for making each archival visit a productive one, and for enhancing the quality of life of the researcher during the visit.

This entry in the series will discuss how to navigate a trip to one of the most famous archives in the world: the Archivio Segreto Vaticano (ASV), or the Vatican Secret Archives.

Below, I will discuss what is needed to make an archival visit to the ASV productive. I take each archive in turn, explaining how to get to both archives from the various modes of transit in Rome (bus, metro, walking), what is needed to access the archive, how to search for material, how to request that material, and other essential information needed for a successful research trip.

How to Get There (ASV) Cortile del Belvedere – 00120 Città del Vaticano

Public transit is the most affordable way to get around Rome and to the Vatican unless staying near the archive. A bus will get you the closest to the ASV, with buses 32, 81, and 590 dropping off at the Piazza del Risorgimento, the stop nearest the Porta Sant’Anna, the entry to Vatican City on its eastern side. If you would like to take the metro, the nearest metro stop is the A-line stop, Ottaviano. There are three metro lines in Rome, with lines A and B intersecting at Roma Termini, Rome’s train station, and lines A and C connecting at stop San Giovanni. A weekly public transit ticket (7 calendar days) costs 24 euros. I found this method the most convenient, as the ticket allows access to both buses and the metro.

The ASV website does not say by which gate a researcher to the archive is supposed to enter. As mentioned just above, the gate is the Porta Sant’Anna, which is the gate by which cars enter the Vatican. Once at the gate, you must pass through multiple lines of security, beginning with the Swiss Guard watching the gate. Prepare yourself for an awkward first exchange, as you will not have your research card your first time entering the archive. You must collect it at the archive itself. Do not expect the guard to know English and be ready with a few prepared sentences or a piece of paper explaining the situation. After the first visit, it is a much less stressful experience.

After you pass through security, head up the Via Sant’Anna into the Belvedere Courtyard, then take a right. The ASV overlooks the adjacent courtyard, the Cortile della Bibliotecha sitting next to the Sistine Salon.

What You Need to Access the Archive

Of all the archives I have personally visited, accessing the Vatican Secret Archives is certainly the most complicated. Before visiting the archive, one must first fill out an application online: http://www.archiviosegretovaticano.va/content/archiviosegretovaticano/en/consultazione/admission-request.html. Before filling out the application, the researcher must have a detailed research plan—what holdings one plans to consult and the length and dates of the planned visit to the archive must be known before approval is granted. The application itself contains a Collection Index by which you can identify the desired collection, however, for those not confident in their Italian, navigating it will perhaps be difficult. I would recommend consulting Francis X. Blouin’s Vatican Archives: An Inventory and Guide to Historical Documents of the Holy See as a supplement to the application process.[1] Finally, an affiliation with a university and a letter of introduction are also both required.

The approval process for access for an ASV card takes less than a week, and in my experience, was handled and approved on the same day.

Some Important Details of the ASV

After your research plan and topic have been approved, the ASV will prepare your card for pickup from the archival reception counter. The ASV does not send you your research card in the mail! You must first go to the archive to get the card, and subsequent visits pass much more smoothly. Additionally, while it is always nice to dress professionally while conducting archival research, there is an actual dress code for researchers in the Secret Archives and its subsidiaries. Dress clothes are required, and I personally wore a blazer, although it is not specifically mandated.

Be prepared for several barriers to effective archival research when working at the Vatican Secret Archives. First, you cannot take photos in the Secret Archive. While unsurprising considering the nature of the material, the ASV also does not allow consultation of more than 5 archival items per day (3 in the morning and 2 more in the afternoon). Furthermore, photocopies of archival material, digital or print, are extremely expensive. The archive charges a flat fee of 8 euros to scan any archival item. On top of this flat fee, the archive charges 2 euros per page for the first hundred pages scanned. After the first hundred pages, however, they cost .80 cents.  So, were I to request a single scanned page, it would cost me 10 euros. Two pages would cost me 12 euros, and so on. Scanning a page from two different archival units would cost 20 euros.

If applying for grants to research at the ASV, I strongly encourage you to factor in this cost into your grant applications.

As a final note, the ASV closes at the end of June and reopens in September, leaving no room for scholars or researchers planning to visit in the later summer months. This information is readily available, but it is still an important thing to consider in planning your trip.

Quality of Life

One of the nicest parts of conducting research in Rome is the abundance of good food and good coffee to be found almost anywhere in the center of the city. There are many little coffee shops and restaurants right next to the Porta Sant’Anna, although they are expensive and crowded. If you don’t mind a little walk, there are cheaper (but still good!) restaurants and coffee shops south of the Vatican, along the Via Aurelia and the Via di Porta Cavalleggeri.

Regarding places to stay, Air B&B and the like can be quite expensive in the center of Rome and near the Vatican, especially if you are traveling alone. A financially sensible alternative is to stay in one of the many monasteries located near the Vatican. Many of these are populated with practicing monks and nuns, providing a much different experience than a normal hotel or B&B. I stayed in the Santa Emilia De Vialar, about a 20-minute walk from the Vatican gates.

Sean Sapp
University of Notre Dame

[1] Francis X. Blouin, Vatican Archives: An Inventory and Guide to Historical Documents of the Holy See (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).