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Old English Runes and Their Continental Background.

Ed. by Alfred Bammesberger, Anglistische Forschungen, 217 (Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitatsverlag, 1991). 632 pp.; 14 plates. ISBN 3-533-04464-5; 3-533-04463-7. DM 100 (hard covers); DM 75 (p/b).

The majority of articles in this book originated in papers read at a conference on Old English runes and runic inscriptions held at the University of Eichstatt in 1989, with a few further articles added which contribute to the same subject. It is a sign of the success of Alfred Bammesberger's editorial policy that the volume emerges as a wide-ranging assessment of the current state of runic studies. It focuses on English runes and runic inscriptions, on their archaeological and historical contexts and on their graphemic and linguistic forms, without losing sight of their relationship with continental and Scandinavian runes, from which they seem to differ in some characteristic ways. Hence, a comparative dimension is pursued in many articles. From the fifth to the twelfth century, runes were used in Anglo-Saxon England for a variety of purposes -- for example, monumental, official, antiquatian -- and on a variety of materials -- in inscriptions, on coins, in manuscripts, on works of art, for instance. The many questions arising from the runic material are reflected in the number of individual topics addressed. Some issues, however, emerge as leitmotivs.

In the following, only a few articles can be mentioned specifically. Since no definitive corpus of Anglo-Saxon runes has yet been published, the presentation and analysis of specific corpora remains an important task. Here, the surveys of early Anglo-Saxon inscriptions, by John Hines, and of Anglo-Saxon and Frisian coins with runic inscriptions, by Mark Blackburn, will provide future research with useful frames of reference. Kjaus Duwel presents a functional analysis of continental runic inscriptions in terms of the use of runic and Latin script. Modern scientific methods may make it possible, at least for some objects, to decide with greater precision whether an inscription is genuine or fake, as is demonstrated by Tineke Looijenga and Peter Pieper. The reading and the philological and functional analysis of individual runic texts is, of course, a central theme throughout the book. The diverse opinions expressed on some controversial issues, for instance the reading of the Meldorf fibula, introduce the reader to current scholarly discussion. Two indexes help to establish such cross-references. The interpretation of the Franks Casket, with its interplay of runic and Latin inscriptions with pictures, exercises the ingenuity of two scholars, Marijane Osborn and Heiner Eichner. The parallels posited by Eichner between the narrative of the Franks Casket, Beowulf and the mediaeval Welsh tale Pwyll Pendeuic Dyuet will require further scrutiny, especially in view of his suggestion that the Franks Casket may help to date Beowulf. Another connecting theme throughout the volume is the discussion of the origins of runic script and of its development in time and space. An intriguing, though admittedly minor, point in Elmar Seebold's monograph-length treatment of English runes and their relationship with the other runic systems is his claim that mediaeval Irish scholars were instrumental in the compilation of manuscript tracts on runes and in the transmission of runes in alphabetic order -- although I wonder if he does not overestimate the Irish scholars' knowledge of Greek. A final leitmotiv is what may be termed the |mythology' of runes, the ideas and concepts associated with runes and with this specific system of writing in the minds of early mediaeval users, mediaeval antiquarians and modern scholars. Topics discussed are the names of the runes, the changing connotations of the word |rune', the myth of the invention of runic script, and the use of runes in manuscripts by mediaeval antiquarians.

This collection of essays is ample evidence of the vitality of contemporary runic studies. Furthermore, it highlights the fact that runes are more than an esoteric system of writing. An understanding of their functions will help appreciation of significant facets of the mediaeval mind; and this is perhaps the book's most important general message for the mediaevalist.
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Author:Poppe, Erich
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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