contributor.author: Margaret Clunies Ross

title.none: Sawyer, Viking-Age Rune-Stones (Margaret Clunies Ross)

identifier.other: baj9928.0209.005 02.09.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Margaret Clunies Ross, University of Sydney, mcr@english.usyd.edu.au

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Sawyer, Birgit. The Viking-Age Rune-Stones: Custom and Commemoration in Early Medieval Scandinavia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. xxi, 269. $95.00. ISBN: 0-19-820643-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.09.05

Sawyer, Birgit. The Viking-Age Rune-Stones: Custom and Commemoration in Early Medieval Scandinavia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. xxi, 269. $95.00. ISBN: 0-19-820643-7.

Reviewed by:

Margaret Clunies Ross
University of Sydney
mcr@english.usyd.edu.au

There is no doubt that in many ways this is a very good book, and one that will be useful to a variety of scholars in several fields, both for its original thesis and for the wealth of data that it makes available in tabular form in its extensive Appendices and Catalogue of inscriptions, which, between them, occupy pages 167-262. I think it would have been even more useful if it had also included an index (lack of an index in such a data-rich book is a serious flaw) and had given a transliterated text and normalised Old Norse version of the runic inscriptions discussed alongside the English translations that Birgit Sawyer has actually supplied. For those readers interested in the original texts, and all serious scholars of this subject must be, their absence will be a considerable loss. Readers will have to compare Sawyer^ñs translations with the texts published in existing editions or to be found in runic archives in various parts of Scandinavia. These are not always easy to come by.

To turn to Sawyer^ñs argument in this book: she first begs to differ from one of the oldest hypotheses advanced to explain what she calls the fashion for runic monuments in the late Viking Age, that is, the theory that they commemorated men who had taken part in Viking raids or trading enterprises abroad and who had died there, pointing out that the majority of the stones were erected in memory of those who died at home. Later, she makes the point that stones erected in memory of travellers were primarily concerned to assert or secure inheritance to their property at home. Her general view, which is consonant with much recent research, is that the sponsors of the runic memorials (who are always named first in the inscriptions, unlike later medieval Christian grave-stones) are as important, in some respects more important, than the dead who are also commemorated. Thus the most significant part of Sawyer^ñs research concerns the social functions served by the runic monuments, and a good part of the book is taken up with exploring the regional variations she is able to document from various parts of Scandinavia, particularly in regard to sponsorship patterns.

Her work on sponsorship patterns in what she identifies as the three major regions of Scandinavia, South/West, East and intermediate, is very detailed and her analysis breaks a lot of new ground. From it she is able to deduce a great deal about patterns of inheritance in Scandinavia in a period before the existence of other kinds of written records, such as law codes. Her primary claim is that the rune-stone inscriptions are "declarations of inheritance," in which every detail is significant: names of sponsors, their relationships to others named in the memorial, including the deceased, and so forth. Following this method of deduction, Sawyer draws a number of important inferences from her data, supporting the view that the Scandinavian kinship system was bilateral or cognatic (not clan-based, as some have argued), that most sponsors were close relatives of the deceased, most sponsors and deceased were men, but that the presence of women as sponsors is likely to indicate several things: the ability of women to act as sponsors and inherit where there were no male kin; the use of sponsorship strategies by women to assert a future inheritance claim, particularly by means of reverse inheritance (something Sawyer shows happened often, as one might expect in a society where mothers sometimes outlived both husbands and children), and the possibility that the introduction of Christianity in Scandinavia encouraged rights of disposal of property for both women and men. She also shows, in Ch. 5, that rune-stones were typically erected by families of high status in western Scandinavia, while in the East they were commissioned by and for landowners of lesser social class. In support of this view, she analyses some very interesting linguistic evidence from the inscriptions, mostly nouns and adjectives, indicating different levels of social status. Many of these terms have recently been subjected to much more incisive review by Judith Jesch, in her Ships and Men in the Late Viking Age (2001). Sawyer^ñs ability to nail down the meaning of these terms is not helped by the fact that she is inconsistent in her citation of the runic forms of the terms under discussion.

Chapters 4-6 (pp. 71-145) are occupied with further investigation of the extent to which the rune-stone inscriptions are able to confirm or deepen our knowledge of late Viking Age kinship and inheritance customs and strategies (Ch. 4), social status and stratigraphy (Ch. 5), and the Christian conversion period and its social effects (Ch. 6). In the last-named chapter Sawyer sets forth a number of the interesting themes that she has presented in previous publications, including the significance of bridge-building (accompanied by the erection of rune-stones) as a meritorious Christian act, which, she argues, was particularly popular among women in the early conversion period. Following the Conclusion, Sawyer has a short Excursus (pp. 158-66), "The Tug-of-War over Thyre," which argues against the standard view of the smaller of the two Jelling rune-stones, suggesting that this stone, supposed to have been raised by the Danish king Gormr in memory of his wife Thyre, was in fact raised by Gormr^ñs son Haraldr "in Gorm^ñs name in order to rewrite history and justify his claims" to Denmark. This ingenious piece raises as many new questions as it attempts to answer old ones.

Amidst a wealth of excellent material and scholarly insights in Birgit Sawyer^ñs book, one is sometimes brought up short by the author^ñs confident claims that are not really backed up by sufficient evidence. For example, after having given a reasoned account of what she claims as the differences between the gradual system of limited inheritance, characteristic of the West/South region, and the parentela system, found in the East, with its wider range of inheriting kin, Sawyer asserts (p. 84): "It is clear that when laws began to be written in Scandinavia inheritance rules were still a matter of dispute" (my italics). Her case is based upon the observation that the majority of the medieval Scandinavian legal codes follow the gradual system, but her inference is not necessarily supported by the evidence she adduces, which suggests a very gradual and often irregular set of changes or compromises between the two systems and possibly some others. There are also a few other curiously unsophisticated features of what is otherwise an incisive work of scholarship: a frequent failure to situate her argument fully within the context of recent scholarship on the subject, as with her discussion of Scandinavian kinship on p. 71, where she cites only one work that argues for it being bilateral, though in fact many researchers have supported this view. Again, setting out her analysis of gradual inheritance in Norway, she barely mentions odal law and land tenure, on which there is a large literature. And her discussion of the possible Christian interpretation of indigenous mythological and heroic motifs on runic monuments (pp. 125-9) is made without reference to much of the most significant literature on the subject, at least as far as textual evidence is concerned.