Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology

  Happy New Year

I wish everyone a Happy New Year,
good health and lots of publishing contracts or whatever success you desire. :)



I'm not a specialist on runes; I've only taken the basic courses. Thus, what I will do here is to give some general information that is acknowledged in research, and leave most of the problems out.

The etymology of the word 'rune' derives from Old Germanic rúna and means something in the way of 'secret'. There is a number of theories about the origin of the runic letters but none of these theories have so far been universally acknowledged or give a sufficiently founded explanation (1). In Viking times it was believed that the runes were given to mankind by the god Odin who in his turn received them in a dream after a long period of fasting (Edda: Hávamál, 138).

The Letters

The oldest monuments (engraved on stones) are located in southern Sweden and Danmark and date from 250 AD onwards. Some of them display the entire alphabet containing 24 letters (sometimes grouped 8 x 3). The first six letters: f u þ a r k gave the the runic alphabets, or rune rows, as Düwel prefers to call them, the denomination futhark.

The system of 3 x 8 runes of the Older Futhark is proven by several inscriptions (2). This system could be used for a sort of encoding in secret runes, when not the actual letter was given but its position within the rune row. Occasionally, runes are written from the right to the left, and often they have one stave in common. So there are a lot of puzzles.

About 750 AD the alphabet changed and the number of letters was reduced. From 800 - 1150, the so called Viking period, we have the Younger Futhark with only 16 letters.

Imagine the deciphering problems of inscriptions with 16 letters to cover a range of 26 sounds. No wonder there are wars going on among the academics.

In the Younger Futhark some of the runes stand for several sounds:

u - u, y, o, ö, w
i - i, e, æ, j
a - a, æ
þ - þ, ð
k - k, g, ng
t - t, d
b - b, p
R - r, in Old Norse y
Some writers tried to solve the problem by using dotted runes, that is, they added a dot to distinguish f.e e from i. In the Mediaeval Ages (12th century onwards) the runes often were treated accordingly to the Latin alphabet and put into the same order.

Whereas the inscriptions of the Older Futhark show one form of language (Ancient Germanic) without dialectal differenciations, the Germanic language in the Viking time began to develop into different dialects and later into languages in their own right. (3). That influencd also the pronounciation of several runes. The rune that is transcribed R in the North- and West Germanic languages is a sound between r and z and changes to r proper, whereas in the South Germanic (including today's German) language it is transcribed by z and changes into s sharp. The rune for ei came out of use rather soon because of a process called monophthongization. The rune for j changes into an velar å because the word jâra changes into âr(a). The old a-rune has changed to o (*ansuz > ós). And in Old Norse the R stands for ý (ýr).

The Anglo-Saxon runes, on the other side, did not reduce the number of letters, but rather, added 4 more to the 24-Futhark to cover the additional vowels.

Rune Names

Because of their mythical origin of the runes they were in the Mediaeval Ages believed to have magical powers. The most well-known standardized list of reconstructed Ancient Germanic rune names is the following:

f - *fehu - livestock
u - *ûruz - aurochs
þ - *þurisaz - giant
a - *ansuz - Ase (old god)
r - *raidô - wagon, ride
k - *kaunan - ulcer, disease
g - *gebô - gift
w - *wunjô - pleasure
h - *haglaz - hail (destruction)
n - *naudiz - power of destiny
i - *îsaz - ice
j - *jêran - year
ei - *iwaz - yew
p - *perþô - (fruit bearing) tree
z / R - *algiz - moose
s - *sôwilô - sun
t - *tîwaz - Týr
b - *berkanan - birch tree
e - *ehwaz - horse
m - *mannaz - man
l - *laukaz - leek
ng - *ingwaz - god (of fertility ?)
d - *dagaz - day
o - *ôþalan - inherited property

There is no sufficient explanation for the rune names, and some of them remain unsure. The only thing they have in common is the fact that they belong to the realm of cult like gods, animals, plants, powers of nature. Sometimes it is difficult to decide whether the magical rune name or the letter value are meant. In case there is a single rune we can be sure that it had the magical component of the name, but otherwise there had been a tendency in pre-war research to stress the magical component whereas nowadays it is rather attempted to find a literal explanation of doubtful inscriptions.

Geographical Distribution

Runes can be found on various artefacts which can be engraved, such as weapons, jewellery, bracelets, caskets and others. Those written on perishable materials like wood or bone are mostly lost forever.

The majority of runic inscriptions are made on stones. They can consist of a single word, a short notice, but also encompass entire poems and stories (4). The largest number of findings dates from the Viking time. The art of writing runes was distributed with the Viking expansion from Russia in the East to Ireland in the West, from Piräus/Athens in the South to Greenland in the North. In total we have about 5000 runic memorials. In Sweden there are about 3000, in Norway 1100, in Danemark 700, in Iceland and in England 60 each, and we find 30 in Germany as well as on the Orkneys or the Isle of Man: and still new ones are discovered.

Widespread are memorial stones. They usually begin with a formula "this stone was made by X in memory of Y", often including some additional information about Y. Since X and Y in a number of instances are historical persons, we can glimpse some useful information (5).

There is a 11th century memorial stone, made by one Tola in honour of her son, Harald, brother of Ingvar (who was the leader of a great expedition to the East). Part of the inscription is in poetic language, so called fornyrðislag, and reads (the translation is mine):

"þæiR foru drængiliga
fiarri at gulli
ok austarla
ærni gafu,
dou sunnarla
a Særklandi"

Like bold men they traveled
Far to get gold,
They fed the eagle
In the East,
They died in the South
Under Africas sun. (6)

In the early 1960ies diggings took place near the Tyska Bryggen in Bergen / Norway where an amazing find of ca 600 mostly wooden pieces with runic inscriptions was discovered, which had long been conserved in a favourable climate. They date back to the 12th - 14th centuries, and most of them have a very mundane character untypical for most of the runic engravings: business letters, bills, and love poems (7). Knowledge of the runes, in the beginings reduced to a small group of specialists, spread further, and in the 14th century, as the Bergen-findings show, had become quite common. Nevertheless, shortly after this time the use of runes fell into a final decline.

Klaus Düwel. Runenkunde. Stuttgart (Metzler), 2nd edition 1983
Wolfgang Kuhn. Runen. Berlin (de Gruyter), 1970
Additionally, I have used the papers and my notes of the "4th International Symposium on Runes and Runic Inscriptions" which was held in August 1995 in Göttingen.

(1) There is no Basque origin; that language is "the universal solution for all unsolved language problems", as one of my professors ironically put it. There is no connection to Ogham, either.
(2) The groups are represented on the bracteats of Vadstena and Motala, the oldest undistinguished row ist to be found on the stone of Kylver / Sweden.
(3) The Germanic languages - which form a part of a greater superfamily, the so-called Indoeuropean languages - are divided into three families, North Germanic (Icelandic, Norvegian, Swedish, Danish, Faroean), West Germanic (Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, Lower Saxon, Bavarian, Alemannic, Dutch, Flemish, Frisian) and East Germanic (Gothic, Burgundian).
(4) Short notes were often something like: "X made", "Y owns me", or formulas invoking heathen magic. The longest example, the famous stone of Rök, contains 750 runes. Longer inscriptions are written in Younger Futhark.
(5) One example is the great stone of Jellinge / Danemark (late 10th century): the inscription reads "haraltr kunukR baþ kaurua kubl þausi aft kurm faþur sin auk aft þaurui muþur sina sa haraltr ias saR uan tanmaurk ala auk nuruiak auk tani karþi kristna". Translation: "Harald ordered this memorial to be made after (= in memory of) Gorm, his father, and Thyre, his mother; the same Harald who conquered all Danemark and Norway, and made the Danes Christians." (Düwel, p. 60)
(6) My translation. The exact meaning of "Serkland" is not clear: It can mean the land of the Saracens, but also "land of silk", which would encompass the Muslim area round the Caspian Sea (Düwel, p. 66). I decided for Africa because of the alliteration.
(7) About this recently: Edith Marold. Bergen als literarischer Umschlagplatz. in: F. Paul (ed.) Arbeiten zur Skandinavistik - 13. Arbeitstagung der deutschsprachigen Skandinavistik 1997 in Oslo. Frankfurt (Lang) 2000, p. 189-201. She proves the continental influence on these poems. Amazingly, some were written in Latin language, but with runes.

  Fröhliche Weihnachten

I wish everyone a Merry Christmas!

Pyramid and figurines German handcrafted work.
The pyramid is an heirloom from my great-grandmother, the figurines are a bit younger.

  Pre-Christmas Inundation

Tomorrow is Dec. 22 and I haven't bought a single present yet. Not that I need to buy many, but still...

The dust bunnies in my flat threaten to overpower the plot bunnies; and I'm not sure 'rat nest' is a fashionable way to wear my hair - I need a cut tomorrow. I've baked one badge of cookies so far, and no idea what to have for Christmas dinner.

Has anyone seen all the time I still had at the beginning of December?

More Christmas decorations.

Close-up, without flash again, but this time I managed to keep my hand steady.
The little trees are Erzgebirge craft again, the cradle is handmade from a Kibbuz in Israel.

And Scott has hooked me something good on Conan. Evil guy; there's two more volumes in the series and I'm out of money.

  A Glimpse of Christmas

Part of my Christmas decorations. The trees and the little snowman are handcrafted art from the Erzgebirge.

Close up of the snowman and trees.

Done without flash or tripod, therefore the pic is not perfectly sharp. But flashes tend to make photos look cold; and a tripod is something I still have to get.

  Guilty Pleasures

It's all Scott Oden's fault.

Since I like David Gemmell who in some ways is a legitimate heir of Robert E. Howard (his Druss. fe., is a typical epic hero who has his brother in Ajas from the Illiad rather than in the characters of a Guy Gavriel Kay or Tad Williams), and want some action and bloody fights, I thought Howard's books could be fun, despite the fact they're often (de)classed as Pulp Fiction. Thus I used some of my Christmas book money to buy books about Conan and Bran Mak Morn. Call me shallow; I can quote from the Illiad, War and Peace and Daniel Deronda any time to prove I'm not. *grin*

On a serious note, not only the Illiad but also Beowulf, the French epics and the Song of the Niblungs feature the same sort of larger than life heroes and bloody battles, and they're classified as Literature and ended up in the canon. It's all in the eyes of the beholder.

I'm sure Howard's books will prove the total opposite of Jacqueline Carey's alternate Kushiel-Europe. Which I found interesting as well. Or an interesting variant to the above named Guy Gavriel Kay's take.

The editions are well made and contain a lot of material besides the stories, like notes, first drafts, and illustrations. Worth the 12 € each, I think.

  Voyage de Charlemagne en Orient - A Most Unusual Pilgrimage

The Voyage de Charlemagne en Orient (also known as Le Pélérinage de Charlemagne) is a most unusual epic (chanson de geste). Featuring Charlemagne and the twelve pairs, it tells the story of a pilgrimage they did to Jerusalem and Constantinople (summary here). But everything, from the reason for this pilgrimage to the drunken brawls of the king and his men looks like a parody of texts like the Song of Roland. The only serious aspect ot the text is the translatio of some relics from Jerusalem to St.Denis near Paris in France, but even that is not historical.

Charlemagne never traveled to Jerusalem, but in the early 11th century a legend spread that connected relics in St.Denis to such a journey. For a long time, research has tried to find a serious subtext for the parody of the Voyage. One explanation is that it's based on a legend that shows how the strength of Charlemagne's faith aids him even in a situation into which he has brought himself by those drunken gabs. That doesn't work for me. Even if Mediaeval people did believe a prayer could have such an immediate result, they must have understood the comical elements as such, after all, there were other genres like the fabliaux heavy with humour all the way from funny boasts like in the Voyage to scorned lovers being thrown into a cesspit.

One theory has it that the author was an Anglonorman poking fun at the relic cults on the continent, though I'm sure the English churches practised it as well (just read the first Cadfael book), and Aebischer sees it as an anti-clerical manifesto a few hundred years before the Reformation.

But a comparison of the Voyage to other epics shows that all the heroic motives are decon-structed to the point where the heroes of the Song of Roland who brave several hundreds of thousand Saracens fall on their faces because the palace moves. Even the interference to God who has to perform a miracle to get our heroes out of their self-caused predicament parodies the epic miracles of other chansons de geste (like the stopping of the sun so Charlemagne can reach the Saracen host and avenge Roland's death). And in Hugo and his court, the French heros meet the refined world of the Artus epics (romans cortois) of a Chretien de Troyes. Stumbling into it, literally.

Another suggestion is that a possible date and background for the Voyage could be Friedrich Barbarossa's attempt to canonise Charles the Great (it was never acknowledged because there were two popes at the time and Friedrich supported the wrong one) in 1166. It would then be a parody written by the French contesting the claim of Barbarossa as heir of Charlemagne, and Aachen (Aix en Chapelle) as Charles' main seat - albeit the historical correct one - contrary to the epic St.Denis of the French. After all, the House Capet also claimed Charlemagne as ancestor. But here lies the weakness of that argument - would the French parody their own, French epic tradition only to poke fun at Barbarossa and his Charlemagne cult?

I'll leave the question open. What is clear is that the Voyage is a parody, and that the most probably time it was written is between 1150-70, and not as early as the legends about the relics.

Cloister of the Osnabrück Cathedral.
Osnabrück, seat of a bishop, was founded by Charlemagne.

  A Most Unusual Pilgrimage - Retelling

A few days ago, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen asked for examples of humour in Mediaeval texts. That reminded me of a most unusal epic, the Voyage de Charlemagne en Orient, which I'm going to retell below. Some explanations can be found at here.

One day noble King Charlemagne was sitting among his twelve pairs, dressed up in all the royal stuff, crown, sceptre, big pointy sword. He was so splendid to behold that he got an even higher idea of himself than the bystanders and asked his equally dressed-up wife whether she thought there would be any other man in the world looking as great as he.

Well, the lady obviously had a really bad case of PMS because she answered, yes, she did.

Oh dear. The emperor nearly exploded with anger. He would stand up for comparison with everyone and if there was no one more splendid, his wife's head would come off.

Oieieie, the lady was sooo sorry about what she had said. She never meant it (do they ever?). She would submit to divine jugement by jumping from the highest tower in Paris. Charlemagne obviously didnd't trust neither his wife nor any divine judgement. No, but she was going to tell who might look greater than Charles the Great.

Well, she said timidly, there is the emperor Hugo in Constantinople.

So, off to Constantinople - via Jerusalem, to call it a pilgrimage. The twelve pairs and 80.000 knights to accompany him. Proably also a loong train of squires, cooks and whores, but the text doesn't mention these.

Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, Charlemagne and his peers had nothing better to do than to seat themselves on the chairs on which Jesus celebrated the Lord's Supper with his disciples, Charles in the high seat, of course. A Jew saw this and ran right off to the Patriarch to ask for baptizm, since he had seen Jesus. The Patriarch, less gullible, went to check who was really sitting on that chair. Hi, it's me, Charles of France, Charlemagne said. The Patriarch welcomed Charlemagne, said he was to be called Charles the Great now, and gave him several holy relics (pieces of the holy cross, martyr bones and drops of Virgin milk) the genuineness of which was immediately proven by some miraculous healings.

They continued their way to Constantinople. Outside the city they came upon a scenery right out of a miniature from the Manesse manuscript. Dressed up knights and ladies enjoying a time of leisure in the vast gardens, playing chess and other games. Nary a sword or helmet in sight. King Hugo was ploughing with a golden plough, just for fun. He received the guests and guided them to his palace. Charlemagne was amazed that he left the golden plough behind in the field. Oh there's no danger not to find it again, Hugo said. Well, in France you can be sure not to find it again, Guillaume, one of the pairs, replied.

The palace left them speechless. Such a splendour of gold and marble, jewels and brocade tapestries. While the pairs - and the other 80.000 knights the author keeps forgetting about - stood and gaped, a storm came up. Moved by hidden mechanical devices, the palace span. Round and round. Trumpets blared. All our brave Frankish heroes fell flat on their faces, trembling with fear. Hugo, it's unfair; send them a few hundred thousand Saracens to fight, but don't play with physics.

When they had recovered, a splendid meal was served together with a lot of wine. During the dinner Olivier fell in love - or at least in lust - with the emperor's pretty daughter.

The party continued in the private guest rooms. Aiii, that wine from Greece! It makes the heads turn round like the palace before, and all common sense falls flat on its face. The most impressive tavern brawling started; gaber it was called in Old French.

I, Charlemagne said, will take my sword and cut a mounted knight in half, be he armoured with two helmets, full chain mail and plate mail and the horse bearing armour, too, and the sword will stick at least one metre deep in the earth (well, that is more or less epic standard). Roland said he would blow his horn Olifant so terribly that the walls of Constantinople would tumble down like those of Jericho. Oliver was drunken not only because of the wine but because of love, the latter he wanted to prove to the emperor's daughter one hundred times in one night. Archbishop Turpin discovered his circus blood and proposed a good jugglery number. Guillaume of Orange would take an iron ball that thirty people could not lift an throw it around. Bernard would fload the town. Ogier of Danemark would dislocate the main pillar of the palace so that it tumbled into pieces. I spare you the rest of the pairs, their ideas weren't any more sensible. Finally, our heroes fell asleep.

But Hugo had a spy hidden in the guest quarters (what sort of hospitality is this, I wonder). So the next morning our heroes were not only confronted with big nasty headaches, but with a somewhat sullen emperor, too. No, he was not happy about that sort of jokes, and they better showed him they could really do what they said.

What to do? The best idea, Charlemangne thought, was to look somewhat embarrassed and pray in front of those relics he brought from Jerusalem. Fortunatley, he had a good contact to the archangel Gabriel who duly descened from his cloud and told him God would help him out of the predicament. For this time, but don't do it again.

The first to be put to trial was Olivier. Hmmm, it made only thirty. But since the emperor's daughter was in love with Olivier, she told her father that he met her expectations (obviously there was no hidden spy this time). Guillaume of Orange succeeded in throwing a heavy ball around destroying part of the castle fortifications and Bernart guided the river into Constantinople and floaded the town.

Hugo, having fled upon the highest tower before the deluge, got enough of these heroes and said he didn't need any more proofs (the knight who was to stand up for Charlemagne's test surely was glad about it.)

So both kings made their peace and Hugo became the vasall of Charlemagne. Another big party. Both kings dressed up in their ceremonial attire and, how fortunate, Charlemagne proved to be taller in size. The king and his pairs (and the other 80.000 knights, squires, cooks and whores) traveled home again; Olivier had to disentagle himself from the embraces of Hugo's daughter who wanted to come with him to France (which makes one wonder what was going on between him and Roland that he didn't want her along). The relics were deposed in St.Denis, and Charlemagne forgave his wife. The book does not say if she took St.John's Wort against her PMS from that time on.

Picture above: Osnabrück Cathedral, cloister

This one was founded by Charlemagne so I thought it fits. It is not the original building but older than the Trier Cathedral. If you compare the two, you'll notice that the vaults of the Trier Cathedral are Gothic, higher and slighly pointed, the cloister filled with light, while the Osnabrück vaults are Romanic, rounded, lower, heavier, the cloister darker. The arcades are smaller and supported by heavy columns instead of pillars (though there are pillars in between, it's called Niedersächsischer Stützenwechsel - a mix of pillars and columns particular for Lower Saxony).

The Lost Fort is a blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and other places (like Flanders and the Baltic States), with essays on Roman and Mediaeval history illustrated with lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes. You may also find the odd essay about geology or Mediaeval literature.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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Location: Germany

I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)