14.06.09, Barnes, Runes: A Handbook

Main Article Content

E.J. Christie

The Medieval Review 14.06.09

Barnes, Michael P.. Runes: A Handbook. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2012. Pp. xvi, 240. ISBN: 9781843837787.

Reviewed by:
E.J. Christie
Georgia State University

Michael P. Barnes' Runes: A Handbook is an introductory textbook based on courses taught in the Department of Scandinavian Studies at University College, London. It consists of eighteen chapters that range from the origin of runes through their development in England, Frisia, and Scandinavia in the Viking Age. It contains devoted chapters on topics of special interest like runica manuscript, cryptic inscriptions, and techniques of runic carving. Later chapters follow the persistence of runes as an object of antiquarian interest in the later Middle Ages and on into the sixteenth century as well as tracings their imaginative uses in politics and literature from the Icelandic sagas themselves to modern political evocations. As the market supports countless books about the magical "secrets" of runes, obviously intended for an audience of new age mystics, teachers looking for a serious and systematic textbook of runology may finally breathe a sigh of relief. Though it may never be common to teach runology as a class in its own right, this book would provide a useful dimension to courses in the literature of northern Europe in the Middle Ages or the history of Germanic languages.

Although it is preceded in spirit by works like R.I. Page's An Introduction to English Runes (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydess Press, 1973) and R.W.V. Elliot's Runes: An Introduction (Mancester: Manchester Univeristy Press, 1959), this book is the first comprehensive introduction to runology. As Barnes' notes, until recently runology has not been taught as a subject in its own right but has throughout its history been studied as an adjunct discipline by linguists, historians, and archaeologists who were themselves largely self-taught (7). The benefit of this situation, Barnes suggests, that it has allowed scholars "considerable freedom to speculate," also has as a serious negative consequence that some have speculated too indulgently and thus spurred a "proliferation of ideas among the general public that his little or no basis in fact" (8). This textbook thus proceeds by establishing basic ideas about runes and takes great care to debunk their fanciful, esoteric associations. Barnes emphasizes repeatedly that runes are an alphabetic writing system derived from mediteranean alphabetical models, that they are a writing system not a language, that they are epigraphic and therefore tend to record "laconic" messages (2), and that though they have been associated with divinatory practices, there is little evidence that runes themselves were considered to be "imbued with magic powers" (8).

With the primitivism and mysticism of general readers and potential students thus allayed in the introduction, a second chapter considers the origins of the runes, concluding that there is little certainty about the place, time, or reason for the development of this system. Chapters Three and Four examine the older fu├żark, considering the shape of letters, rune names and order, and the precise nature of the language found in the earliest runic inscriptions. Chapter Four concludes that, "[r]unic writing in the period AD c.175-700 was marginal to society" (34). Chapters that follow on the evolution of runic writing in England, Frisia, and Scandinavia, all close with similarly sensibly minimalist conclusions about the use, status, and distribution of runic writing.

In my view, Barnes has succeeded in systematizing for students an elusive body of knowledge, and models--as he sets out to--a careful, logical approach to their apparent mystery. If I had any quibble it might be that the final chapters "A Brief History of Runology" and "Runes and the Imagination" might serve the book's purpose at least as well placed at the beginning. These chapters help to demonstrate the important reasons for Barnes' insistence on dispassionate examination of the evidence and rejection of speculation: speculation about runic origins and purposes has often been driven by "patriotic zeal" and ideological fantasy (194-195). The chapter on "Runes in the Imagination" in particular suggests a rich area of investigation for students with a culturally critical inclination, but this chapter is the only one to offer no further reading. This really may not be a flaw of the book, since there has in fact been surprisingly little critical literature about the imaginative reception of runes.

Technically the book is clear and finds readable ways to represent runes, inscriptions, phonological values. Like any good textbook, Runes: A Handbook includes useful apparatus to guide new students towards essential resources. It includes crisp modern maps of European areas in which runes have been found and is liberally illustrated with large, clear (albeit black and white) plates. Each chapter ends with a list of suggested readings, primarily from English-language scholarship, and the book closes with a glossary of terms and an index of inscriptions which aims to lead students to the standard editions.

Article Details

Author Biography

E.J. Christie

Georgia State University