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.

Sample Blog Post Assignment #2

Important Update 7/26/18: The Medieval Institute recently merged the Medieval Undergraduate Research website with this one. All posts from the old site have been transferred here, and the  undergraduate content can now be found under the "Undergrad Wednesdays" category. The rest of the information in this post remains accurate and up-to-date.

The assignment below supports our ongoing efforts to promote instructors’ use of the Medieval Institute’s sites for pedagogical purposes. Maj-Britt Frenze graciously shared this sample from her course on Tolkien’s Mythologies and Monsters. The first sample assignment can be found here, and the original discussion of the Medieval Undergraduate Research page can be found here.

Extra Credit Blog Instructions:

For up to 5 points added to their final grade, students may compose a blog (c. 500 words) based on content from the course. Students may adapt an existing project from the course into blog formatting or compose entirely new material.

Students will receive 2 points on their final grade merely for completing the assignment, and up to 5 points for truly excellent work which can be published on the Notre Dame medievalist website for undergraduate research.

Blog content may be based solely on one or more medieval texts, may compare a medieval text with the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (or another fantasy author, if the student prefers), or may compare a medieval text with a modern film. [Potential questions to answer in your blog: How is this medieval text reimagined in a modern context? Why might any alterations have been made to the original story? What aspects of medieval works are still familiar and present in modern literature and film? Why are medieval themes so popular in story-telling today?]

The Blog posts will be graded on:

  1. Originality of Content: Did the student compose something new and exciting that delves deeply into a text/material?
  2. Careful and thorough use of source(s): Does the student incorporate a few short quotations from a medieval text? Does the student refer to movie scenes, etc, clearly so the audience can follow the student’s argument?
  3. Style: Does the student write in a clear manner? Has the student carefully proofread the piece?

Aesthetics: Did the student incorporate appropriate images and conform to any copyright restrictions? Does the design of the blog look appealing?

Maj-Britt Frenze
Ph.D. Candidate

Karrie Fuller, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame/St. Mary’s College

Sample Blog Post Assignment #1

Important Update 7/26/18: The Medieval Institute recently merged the Medieval Undergraduate Research website with this one. All posts from the old site have been transferred here, and the  undergraduate content can now be found under the "Undergrad Wednesdays" category. The rest of the information in this post remains accurate and up-to-date.

In light of my recent introduction to the Medieval Undergraduate Research site as a useful pedagogical tool here, I thought it might be helpful for some instructors to see a few additional sample assignments in current use. Pasted below is the prompt I am testing out this semester in my upper division Canterbury Tales course, which, based on the drafts I’ve seen so far, is likely to produce successful results. A second sample written by Maj-Britt Frenze and designed as an extra credit project will follow soon.

I intentionally wrote the assignment below to be easily adapted for many kinds of courses. Please feel free to borrow and/or modify it for your own use. This assignment could also work for graduate courses (see my rationale on how important it is for grad students to build online, public profiles here).

Blog Post Assignment

[Note: This assignment has two due dates, one for a draft, and another for a revised version. Because students’ work will be available online for anyone to see, I want them put out their best, carefully revised work.]

Length: 750-1000 words

  1. For this assignment, you will be writing in a digital genre for a real audience of academic and public readers. Your work will be published online at the Medieval Institute’s Medieval Undergraduate Research site (http://sites.nd.edu/medievalundergrads/).
  2. Your topic should introduce and interpret a text (or, alternatively, a manuscript of the text) from the course calendar. Choose one that you have not yet written about and that you do not plan to write about for your final essay. This is a short piece, you want your topic to be specific, i.e.—one character in a tale, a particular setting, theme, image, etc.
  3. The point of this assignment is to learn what can be accomplished in a particular digital genre as opposed to a traditional academic essay. The following requirements are intended to get you thinking about how to present your work effectively using a technological platform, or, rather, how to craft your ideas with a slightly different set of tools. Your blog post must, therefore: 
  • Make a connection between the medieval text and the modern world in a way that demonstrates its relevance to the modern reader (connections to pop culture, tv, film, books, social media, news, etc., all work well). Why should your readers care about what they might see as an old, dusty, out-of-touch narrative?
  • Use multimedia intentionally and thoughtfully. Don’t just plop some pictures in and move on. Any pictures, videos, memes, etc., need to be on topic, integrated into the post, and add real value to the point you are making. If you use manuscript images, be sure the images are not copyrighted, or else let me know so that we can request permissions to publish them. Include photo captions when necessary to identify subject matter and/or cite the source/owner of the image.
  • Close read and interpret carefully chosen passages from the text.
  • Address a wide audience that includes your colleagues and professors, but also your family, friends, and future employees (who will care about your ability to write well!). In other words, don’t assume that your audience has previous knowledge about the text, or that they know the specialized jargon of your discipline. Do write professionally, but accessibly.
  • Include a Works Cited in MLA format at the end and, if relevant, consider linking to online resources in the body of the post. One advantage of digital genres is that you can insert links to other online academic resources anywhere in your post. Be sure to carefully vet those sources for quality and relevance. Libraries and museums (e.g.––The British Library, The Getty Museum) often have excellent catalogs, blogs, online galleries, and more. Many academics and universities also work on fantastic projects: online editions, facsimiles and images of manuscripts, mapping projects, blogs, etc.
  • Include a list of 5 tags (keywords about your posts). Blog sites are organized by categories and tags. Your post will be categorized under our course title “Canterbury Tales,” but you will decide the tags for your post. Tags are keywords that identify the subject matter of your work, such as authors, themes, time periods, etc. A user might, for instance, want to click on the “Chaucer” tag to see a listing of all the posts about Chaucer on the site.
  • Interlink with one or two of your classmate’s posts (in your final draft). Interlinking between posts on a blog site is one way to increase traffic and to highlight the connections between the site’s various entries. These links constitute a form of citation that is not possible in print essays, and they allow you to explore how to use this digital citation method. Thus, when you turn in your first draft, we will workshop the blog posts, and you will be required to make a connection between your work and someone else’s with a link to their post. You can simply write in brackets and bold text [link to X’s post here]. Integrate this connection as smoothly as possible into your text. It should sound like it belongs there, not like you added it because your teacher made you do it.                                                         

Some Sample Student Posts from Spring 2018

Astin Ballard, “Emily’s Modes of Expression in the ‘Knight’s Tale’-A Precursor to the #MeToo Movement

Natalie Weber, “Teaching the Canterbury Tales in the Alt-Right Era

Megan Kollitz, “Islamaphobic Rhetoric in Chaucer: Not Just ‘A Thing of the Past’

Follow-up: This assignment was one of the most successful ones I've given in over ten years of teaching. Many students commented on it in their student evaluations, and students simply write better when they have the freedom to choose a topic they're interested in, make the material relevant to their lives, and work in a popular genre that appeals to them. Try it!

Karrie Fuller, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame/St. Mary’s College