20.04.15 Pollington, Runes

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Alessia Bauer

The Medieval Review 20.04.15

Pollington, Stephen. Runes: L'ecriture des Anciens Germains, Vol. 1: Origines & Developpement. Collection Islandica. Bayeux cedex, France: Heimdal, 2019. pp. 480. ISBN: 2-84048-492-7 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Alessia Bauer
Leibniz-Rechenzentrum, Universität München

Despite Lucien Musset's works on runology and, in more recent times, the contributions of François-Xavier Dillmann, this academic discipline has not yet found large popularity in France. For this reason, every work and study concerning runology and being published in French is welcome.

Stephen Pollington's work of runology "Runes, l'écriture des anciens germains: Origines et développement" represents--as the author affirms in the preface--a revised edition of a work originally written in English and published in 2016. The goal of the volume is to provide a deeper comprehension of the North Germanic heritage in general, as declared by the author.

A first glance at the bibliography shows that the author knows most of the relevant literature on different items in many different languages, and not only in English. This is, in my opinion, an important signal to all those who intend to engage in runological studies, making them aware of the 'instruments' they need, i.e. knowledge of the Scandinavian languages as well as German. Furthermore, the comprehensive list of references gives the opportunity to deepen one's own knowledge, should one wish to delve deeper themselves.

Title and subtitle, as well as the glossary contained at the very beginning and the arrangement of the content, suggest that the work is meant to be a sort of handbook. Yet, the subtitle ("Origines et développement") is slightly misleading: in terms of 'origins', the work fully meets the reader's expectations, treating in detail the different theories and diverse scenarios of the emergence of runic writing. Concerning the 'development', however, the expectations are disappointed: the development relates only to the Anglo-Saxon runic row and does not really take into consideration the emergence of the so-called Younger futhark in Northern-Europe. The French-speaking audience thus has to be patient and wait for the second volume to discover more.

The work is organized into five chapters with chapters 3, 4, and 5 as the central ones. A threefold appendix on secondary aspects, which could have been integrated or even omitted, completes the volume.

Chapters 1 and 2 constitute a mere introduction, being kept short and predominantly outlining the terminology, for instance the meaning of the word rune, the graphemes and allographs, and providing a definition of 'runic characters'. As it is meant to be an introduction, one should expect to find the Germanic runic row, the so-called Older futhark, displayed at the very beginning of the work, as is usual in all kinds of handbooks. However, this occurs quite late in the book, for the first time on p. 105 as part of the presentation of the first phase of runic literacy.

In the last decades, runologists have begun to stress the importance of the archaeological context and of the epigraphical nature of runic texts. Since then, verbal communication has increasingly lost its primacy, becoming one among several constitutive elements characterizing runic writing. Chapter 3, "Sources d'information," describes extensively (39-58) the aspect of materiality, presenting all kinds of materials (stones, metal, wood, leather, and manuscripts) as well as objects (weapons, pieces of jewellery, coins etc.) all used as texts' carrier.

The author seems to be very aware of the difference between the so-called 'desk runologists' and 'field runologists', and to understand the importance of the archaeological context as well as personal examination. Yet, despite this recognition, he has to admit that he has not really had the opportunity to analyse the inscriptions from close proximity and had to study them at best through the glass of museums' boxes (16: "Lorsque c'était possible, et lorsque les moyens le permettaient, j'ai étudié les textes runiques de première main, principalement à travers les vitres des musées"). Due to such 'amateurish' methods, the value of his observations can be doubted.

Chapter 4, "Le contexte germanique," contains the three main theories concerning the emergence of runic writing from a Mediterranean writing system, that is to say the Latin, the Greek, and the North-Italic one. Even if he is not persuaded, the author should have briefly mentioned the Phoenician theory by Prof. Theo Vennemann, which even if it has not found a great consensus, it has meanwhile become part of the discourse.

In addition to the presentation of the theories, the section has the merit to introduce a series of different scenarios about the circumstances where and when the cultural contacts between the Germans and other peoples could have taken place. I am convinced that this concrete approach is important in order to give the theories their so-called 'Sitz im Leben'.

In chapter 5, "Les phases d'utilisation runique," the author turns towards the objects which are subdivided in five phases depending on chronology: phase I concerns the inscriptions in the Older futhark, phase II the Anglo-Frisian runes and phase III the Anglo-Saxon ones.

Despite the mention of a phase IV, regarding the Younger futhark, and a phase V about the runic sticks from Iceland and Greenland (one wonders why the numerous Norwegian runic sticks from the Middle Ages have been forgotten!), these are not treated in this volume and one searches for them in vain in the volume.

While dealing with phase I of runic literacy, the author introduces the topic of the names of the runes, which is certainly the weakest part of the whole volume. In this subchapter, on the one hand, he does not mention relevant contributions, such as Réné Derolez' "Runica manuscripta," and on the other, he refers to older and less reliable literature. While some items in the book are treated in a scientific manner, in the section concerning the names of the runes, the author assumes a much more 'imaginative' attitude. To illustrate the point, it is sufficient to take the argumentation regarding the first name, i.e. Germanic *fehu, meaning 'cattle or wealth'. In order to justify the position as initial sign on the runic row, the author would like to relate the name of the rune to a mythological being, the cow Auðumbla of Nordic mythology, that he considers as a 'mother' (and for this reason suitable for of the first position). In doing so, he ignores the time-gap diving the emergence of runic writing and the transmission of Old Norse literature in the Middle Ages. In the same way, he declares some other meanings as accepted interpretations, which, in reality, are not, such as 'demon' and 'spirit of nature' for *þurisaz ('giant').

Considering the different sections, one perceives a disparity in the treatment of particular items: while the author dedicates many pages to the ca. hundred Old English inscriptions, the South-Germanic specimens--which have more or less an equal number--are treated in a very concise and superficial matter.

As far as the structure is concerned, we observe that the argumentation is not always straightforward. Not only because the runic row is not presented as a whole until the fifth section, but also because some items are scattered all over the volume; this is for instance the case of the manuscript-runes, presented at pp. 111f., then at pp. 179ff., and finally at p. 202.

The achievement of this work lies in the attempt to open the academic field of runology to a French-speaking audience. A close analysis of the volume reveals, however, that it is not suitable for an audience of absolute beginners. It could rather be consulted by an audience looking for specific items and being able to discern between the author's scientific and imaginative arguments.

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