Runes and the perception of temporal distance

This week, I went to Oxford for the amazing “Gender and Medieval Studies” conference. It is a meeting of people from all across Medieval Studies and related fields to discuss all aspects of gender in our field, this time focusing on identity and iconography. I will write more about gender aspects in my own research later, but today I want to focus on one concept that struck me quite deeply during my time there: the perception of runes as part of a kind of “distant past”.

I was part of a panel on “Stones and Silence”, and the other two speakers talked about the lost tomb of Guinevre and Marie de France respectively while I focused on the mid-12th-century inscriptions in Maeshowe. A very 12th century panel – and yet, there is often this feeling that runes are somehow elements of a more distant past, early medieval or even pre-medieval. I have also seen them labelled as “ancient” and “prehistoric” (specifically the Maeshowe inscriptions at that) outside academic contexts. Nobody would call Marie de France anything other than high medieval and yet, her writing dates within decades of the Maeshowe inscriptions. It is also worth noting that the corpus of runic inscriptions in Maeshowe post-dates the foundation of St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney, the establishment of teaching in Oxford, where I talked about it, and belongs in the same century as Richard Lionheart. So why do we (and I consciously include myself in this) often get the feeling that these runic inscriptions belong to a more distant past than many other 12th-century figures, buildings or objects? Where does this perception of temporal distance come from?

In my mind, there are various reasons for it. One is that, obviously, there are inscriptions which are much older than the ones in Maeshowe. Runes were in use for over a millenium, and so there are indeed inscriptions that belong into the Iron Age. Maybe because we are not using runes as a writing system now any more, it is difficult to fathom that some inscriptions are removed from our present by no more than an almost equal amount of years than, say, Marie de France’s Lais. Perception of time is highly subjective, and anything we constantly and continuously use seems closer in time to us than something of which we have abandoned any use. Through the same mechanism, whatever we continue to use is constantly adapted, re-shaped and rejuvenated while whatever we abandon, such as runes as a writing system, seems to remain frozen in time in its past state and is thus easily recognisable as old or “ancient”.

Another aspect that plays into this is the difficulty in accessing runic inscriptions on many levels. Maeshowe is not the easiest place to get to, so physical access is one issue – but they are also more difficult to both read and make sense of than many other 12th century texts for which translations and commentaries are in university libraries or open access and which often form core content of undergraduate courses. The inscriptions are often short and can be cryptic and impossible to access without a lot of background knowledge, and this inaccessibility again contributes to the perception of them being somehow more “distant” from our present.

Most crucial, however, might be the fact that we do not know the carvers very well. In most cases they are anonymous, and even where they name themselves, we know almost nothing except for their names, the language they used and sometimes tiny little pieces of other information. This makes it difficult to see the human being behind the text. Therefore, the runecarvers can seem far more alien to us than other prominent 12th century figures whom we can picture in our minds with some more ease. Evoking a mental picture of a person belonging to a name makes them seem much closer to our own personhood. Many figures from the 12th centure are still, or again, prominent in popular culture. Everybody in Europe will at some point have seen a portrayal of Richard Lionheart, and a mention of this name will instantly evoke a mental image. For the Norse in 12th century Orkney, this is not the case. The mental image provoked by runes will presumably in most cases be that of a Viking, thanks to both 19th century Borealism and modern popular culture – but this image certainly does nothing to prevent alienation. Going into the whole issue of Viking portrayals would lead too far now, but I hope you get the idea.

On the whole, it does not come as a big surprise then that 12th-century runes can feel much older and more distant for us than their contemporaries, be it historical figures, literature or objects. Whether this is an advantage or disadvantage I cannot tell. You might think it enables us to approach these inscriptions with less contemporary bias – but I suspect that we only approach them with a different kind of bias.

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