The Medieval Review 11.02.01

Larsson, Inger. Pragmatic Literacy and the Medieval Use of the Vernacular: The Swedish Example. Turnhout: Brepols, 2009. Pp. xiv, 250. $130 ISBN 978-2-503-52747-5. .

Reviewed by:

Anna Adamska
Utrecht University

When in 2003 the Commission Internationale de Diplomatique organised a congress dealing, for the first time, in a comparative way with the subject of the language of charters in medieval Europe, one important area, Scandinavia, remained unstudied. [1] However, Inger Larsson's book, reviewed here, fills the space left empty in a more than satisfying way. Larsson's study concerns the development of the vernacular as a language of written records in medieval Sweden; she deals with the use of Swedish in the domain of pragmatic literacy. The starting point is the reign of king Knut Eriksson (1167-1195), which was marked by the consolidation of the central administration and by the introduction of writing in practical matters. By the end of the fourteenth century the Swedish language not only had come to dominate in the making administrative records, but it had also gained official legal protection from the crown. The law code produced in the name of the king Magnus Eriksson in the 1340s, declared that "all letters, whether from the king, lawman or district chieftain in all these matters as well as others, shall be written in Swedish" (43).

The sources discussed in the book consist of ca. 40.000 records, mostly charters and "deeds," concerning in large part the legal transfer of land and goods. Additional evidence comes from the series of collections of regional laws, put into writing in the vernacular already in the second half of the thirteenth century. In the author's view, the study of this material cannot neglect the special character of Scandinavian medieval literacy: the Latin alphabet and the Latin language did not occur in Sweden in a cultural vacuum, but met a well-established tradition of runic script in the vernacular, as well as a wide spectrum of oral forms of customary law.

The details and mechanisms of the emancipation of Swedish as an administrative language are discussed in two stages. The first part of the book presents the milieus of the promoters and users of vernacular written word: the royal chancery, functionaries in the local administrations, and individuals (especially women). An absolutely decisive role seems to have been played by the royal chancery, which developed as an organ of the country's central administration in the middle of the thirteenth century. Standards of literate behaviour, more in particular the putting into writing of legal actions, established by the king and expressed by his chancery, were taken over by the lower levels of the administrative apparatus and by individuals. They came to be applied in public and private matters alike. This development was accompanied from the late twelfth century onwards by the growing use of seals.

This picture corresponds quite closely with the situation known from other parts of medieval Europe. In the so-called "long thirteenth century," on the Iberian Peninsula, in the German lands, in Flanders, and in the fourteenth century also in France,[2] one can see central, often royal, chanceries carrying out a "linguistic policy" by passing from Latin to the vernacular and assisting in the formation of the rudiments of a "national" written language. However, the use of writing by the lower levels of the state administration and by lay individuals is a more complex matter. It touches the gradual replacement of oral procedures by written ones, and that is possible only if people judge writing to be efficient and trustworthy. The author indicates many ways in which members of the local elites could get in touch with the written word and become convinced of its value (through listening to a letter-patent read aloud during the Thing, the assembly; through witnessing a charter; through participating in the elaboration of written versions of provincial laws, etc.), Unfortunately, it remains unclear whether the fact of making records not in Latin, but in the vernacular language, added to the growth of trust in writing--and, as a consequence, was a factor in the growth in the numbers of documents produced.[3]

The second part of the book provides us with a detailed analysis of the different types of administrative records in the Swedish language, starting with the first document in the vernacular, produced in 1330. It seems that the most common surviving type (approximatively 60 percent) were records of ownership or of the use of landed property, deeds of sale or purchase, exchanges of gifts, dowries etc. The author is aware of the difference between the numbers of deeds that are preserved and those that must have been produced, but does not consider in detail the mechanisms of the preservation of the written word, even if they are usually regarded as an important component of the literate mentality.[4]

The detailed analysis of different types of vernacular records, and of some formulas (in chapters 8 and 9) shows the creative strength of the Swedish language, which was able to produce a new terminology, adequate for the needs of social and legal realities. It has to be said, however, that the structure of this part of the book is seriously flawed. In spite of the declaration made in the Introduction that the research has a primarily quantitative character (7), the precise numbers of the records produced during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and the visualisation of the dynamic of their production are presented only in the conclusion of the whole book--and that is far too late.

Despite these and other qualms, this study is highly valuable. It guides us through source materials that are virtually unknown outside Scandinavia, and allows us to make the acquaintance of the achievements of Swedish medieval studies, usually difficult of access for linguistic reasons. A substantial amount of quotations from the sources is provided with careful translations, while the list of Swedish legal terms, the timeline of historical events, the maps and the photographs of selected charters facilitate "navigation" by readers unfamiliar with the region.

Some of the shortcomings of the publication have less to do with technical matters than with the concepts that are used. In several ways, the book touches on the most sensitive points in the discussions about the mechanisms of medieval literacy among historians taking place today. However, the author's voice remains that of a linguist. She applies with absolute trust the model of research established by Michael Clanchy's classic book on the passage from memory to written record in twelfth- and thirteenth-century England,[5] without reflecting on the concept of "pragmatic literacy".[6] The decision not to consider at all the subject of the personal literacy skills of the users of vernacular charters (and only incidentally those of their makers) does not help the analysis of the factors which stimulated the growth of charter production.

It is understandable that a linguist gets confused when using the results of a discipline dealing ex officio with documentary sources, i.e. diplomatic. This is most visible in chapter 6, when the author tries to establish traces of lingering orality in Swedish vernacular charters. Apart from valuable remarks on the place of the written word in living oral legal procedures, one finds here less than felicitous remarks on the "primarily oral character" of such formulas as Amen or Bene valete. It would have been sufficient to consult the rich literature on the development of the formulary of medieval charters to escape such embarrassment.[7] More serious is the fact that the author does not consider the rather obvious possibility that the formulary of Swedish charters followed generally known models of charters and writs in Latin. But in how far this occurred is of course another question.

Despite these shortcomings, the book under review nevertheless provides valuable materials for further discussions from a comparative perspective. Such issues as the crucial importance of the so-called "long thirteenth century" for the development of pragmatic literacy, the coexistence of oral and written legal procedures, and, finally, the dynamic of the relationships between several languages of written record (the book only mentions the growing importance of German) can be observed elsewhere in Europe as well. The importance of this book is therefore not restricted to students of medieval Sweden or Scandinavia. It is a more than welcome addition to the growing list of surveys of literate behaviour which, when studied together, is making us aware of the need to reconsider the matter of medieval literacy once again.



1.The edition of the papers from this conference is accessible only online:

2. See the reference in the previous footnote, and also: U. Schulze, Lateinisch-deutsche Parallelurkunden des 13. Jahrhunderts, München 1975; S. Lusignan, La langue des rois au Moyen Âge. Le franais en France et en Angleterre, Paris 2004.

3.Compare with: A. Nedkvitne, "Trusting Writing in Medieval Scandinavia," in: Strategies of Writing. Studies on Text and Trust in the Middle Ages, ed. P. Schulte et al. (Turnhout, 2008), pp. 337-53.

4. Cf. A. Adamska, "The Study of Medieval Literacy: Old Sources, New Ideas", in: The Development of Literate Mentalities in East Central Europe, ed. A. Adamska, M. Mostert (Turnhout, 2004), pp. 13-47, at pp. 37 ff.

5.M.T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record. England 1066-1307, 2nd. ed., (Oxford, 1994).

6.See the analysis of the concepts of "pragmatic literacy" and of "pragmatische Schriftlichkeit" in: M. Mostert, "New Approaches to Medieval Communication?," in : New Approaches to Medieval Communication, ed. M. Mostert (Turnhout, 1999), pp. 15-37, at p. 26.

7. Cf. Papsturkunden und europäisches Urkundenwesen, Köln-Weimar-Wien, 1999; Graphische Symbole in mittelalterlichen Urkunden, ed. P. Rück (Sigmaringen, 1996).