Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Third Grammatical Treatise and Ole Worm's Literatura Runica

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Third Grammatical Treatise and Ole Worm's Literatura Runica

Article excerpt

IN Runerne i den oldislandske Literatur (1883), the respected scholar Bjorn Magnusson Olsen wrote: "Fremdeles har jeg i de aeldste islandske skrifter og membraner ment at finde nogle spredte grafiske antydninger af, at man i den aeldste tid har benyttet runerne til skrift" (118) [Further, I think I have found, in the oldest Icelandic writings and manuscripts, certain scattered graphic indications that anciently people used runes for writing]. Olsen is here propounding a theory that runes were originally used for writing Icelandic manuscripts, but that later the Latin alphabet became the script of choice. Some time later, Sigurdur Nordal responded to this suggestion in his introduction to the facsimile of Codex Wormianus:

   Bjorn Magnusson Olsen, the distinguished authority on Icelandic
   grammatical literature, has advanced the hypothesis that all the
   earliest Icelandic records on parchment must have been written in
   runes. This hypothesis has found no adherents, nor does it probably
   deserve any. (8)

The view that all Icelandic manuscripts were originally written in runes did in fact have some earlier adherents although finding such an idea in the work of a late nineteenth-century scholar is surprising. The theory circulated in some form almost continuously up to the early nineteenth century. In this article, I will trace its origin and the early history of this as well as related theories and give an account of their supporting ideology.

The theory first appeared during the seventeenth century in a work By the Dane Ole Worm (Olaus Wormius, 1588-1654), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ORIGINAL SOURCE] [Runer] Seu Danica Literatura Antiqvissima (1636), usually referred to as Literatura Runica. It is one of the most significant early scholarly texts on medieval Scandinavia. Its influence was far-reaching, and it was used by scholars well into the eighteenth century, among them, Paul-Henri Mallet and Thomas Percy. Worm had studied various disciplines such as medicine and chemistry and had a particular interest in ancient languages. He was from 1613 professor of Latin in Copenhagen and then professor of Greek from 1615 (see Schepelern, "Ole Worm" 46-7). For some years before the publication of Literatura Runica, Worm had been interested in runes, collecting monuments, and documenting inscriptions. These focused on, but were not limited to, Danish material (Schepelern, "Ole Worm" 48).

The main body of Literatura Runica (1-174) is essentially a treatise on runology while its appendix (175-249, "Literarum Runicarum in Poesi usum uberius declarans") discusses Old Icelandic poetry and exemplifies it by means of a significant number of quotations with accompanying Latin translations. Both parts are important but for different reasons. The body of the work was responsible for introducing what became a popular theory about the use of runes in medieval Iceland and Scandinavia, namely that runes were used to record all the earliest literature in the region. There was considerable interest during the seventeenth century in old and unusual scripts, and this interest in some cases led people to the literature itself. The appendix made a more specific contribution to the study of Icelandic literature by introducing previously unknown works of Icelandic poetry such as Krakumal and Egill Skallagrimsson's "Hofudlausn" to a Latin-reading audience for the first time. With the inclusion of these poems, Literatura Runica may take some of the credit for the arousal of general interest in Icelandic literature. For this reason, recent studies of Literatura Runica have tended to concentrate on its appendix. Scholars have not yet examined the main part of the work for its relation to its medieval sources due, probably, to a relative lack of contemporary interest in early runology as compared to early literary studies. This absence of interest has meant that the sources of Worm's theory about runes have not previously been examined. …

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