Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
21.09.27 Bertell et al. (eds.), Contacts and Networks in the Baltic Sea Region

21.09.27 Bertell et al. (eds.), Contacts and Networks in the Baltic Sea Region

For far too long the study of the Baltic Sea has been divided along modern geopolitical borders that center on single cultures, languages, and ethnicities. This edited volume, which stems from the symposia proceedings of the Austmarr Network, overcomes such linguistic and nationalistic barriers to present an integrated approach to the contacts and networks of the Circum-Baltic region. The result is a truly interdisciplinary volume that features approachable and accessible texts in English on language, mythology, and religious practice.

Austmarr, the title of the publication and network group, derives from the Old Norse term for the Baltic Sea, translated literally as "East Sea." Broad in its conceptual and temporal scope, the book excels in framing the Baltic as "an arena of cultural contacts and interaction" (9) from the Late Iron Age through the Late Middle Ages (ca. 500-1500 CE). This is in large part due to the book's introspective confrontation of past scholarship, which has been organized by specific fields and nationally oriented training. The concise introduction by the editors, Frog, Willson, and Bertell situates the reader to quickly grasp the stakes in studying the Baltic across fields that employ a variety of methods in order to analyze this region.

The volume is divided into four distinct sections, (1) "Mental Maps", (2) "Mobility", (3) "Language" and (4) "Myth and Religion Formation" to place emphasis on the shared contacts and cultures of the Baltic. The twelve chapters by philologists, linguists, onomasiologists, folklorists, and archaeologists move beyond the local to offer transdisciplinary insights on the dynamism of premodern cultures. Each chapter presents case-studies that highlight methods, historiography, and potential avenues for new research. Although the target audience of the book seems to cater to Baltic subject matter experts, the volume takes great strides in making this complex and vast region more accessible to non-specialists. For instance, all contributors provide English transliterations and translations, thereby overcoming the vast language barriers that have made a comprehensive study of the Baltic difficult, as well as helpful bibliographies at the end of each chapter.

"Mental Maps", defined as "social constructions providing shared frames of reference" (14), considers how the "Austmarr" was cognitively constructed in ancient geographic texts (Aleksandr Podossinov), medieval Scandinavian sagas (Tatjana Jackson) and as toponyms (Sirpa Aalto). These three chapters use textual sources and literary prose describing one's place in the world, which for the Baltic seems as complex then as it is today. Podossinov's "The Northern Part of the Ocean in the eyes of Ancient Geographers" situates the Baltic Sea within the long humanistic tradition of voyages. Jackson's "Austmarr on the Mental Map of Medieval Scandinavians" shows that words and phrases in Old Norse accommodate allocentric and egocentric concepts of spatial processing. Aalto's "The Connection between Geographical Space and Collective Memory inJómsvíkinga saga" examines one specific saga that takes place in Denmark and Norway to understand toponyms as a reflection of collective memory.

The second section, "Mobility", features three chapters that explore the migration of peoples through tracing the location of rune carvers (Laila Kitzler Åhfeldt), the routes of Polish nobility (Leszek Słupecki), and the female slave trade (Jukka Korpela). Åhfeldt in "Rune Carvers Traversing Austmarr?" looks at eleventh-century epigraphic rune stone carvings to argue for a change in contact patterns after the Viking period between Gotland and Sweden. Słupecki's chapter studies the possible Scandinavian origins of Polish noble families in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In so doing, Słupecki explicitly confronts the national bias of historiography--calling out subjects that are well known in Polish scholarship but relatively unstudied in Scandinavia. Korpela's "Medieval Trade in Female Slaves from the North along the Volga" interprets the role of baptism, mercantilism, and modern state-formation from the written sources on nemci slaves. These chapters offer a refreshing look beyond Hanseatic trade as a source for Baltic mobility, and moreover, analyze the long history of mobility that is not always documented in the written record.

The third section, "Language", underscores the linguistic challenges in studying the Baltic region, which is comprised of multiple languages belonging to the Indo-European and Uralic families. Kendra Willson's "Ahti on the Nydam strap-ring: On the Possibility of Finnic Elements in Runic Inscriptions" frames the methodological issues in interpreting runic inscriptions that identify a non-Germanic and -Latin language to reconsider the Germanic influence on Finnic and Sámi languages. Mikko Bentlin's "Low German and Finnish Revisited" returns to the leading question in his doctoral research, which reassessed Low German influence on Finnish. Both contributions by Willson and Bentlin demonstrate the importance of the Austmarr Network in drawing highly specialized knowledge of a single language to probe potential relationships between Baltic, Finnic, Germanic, Sámi, and Slavic languages across the Circum-Baltic arena.

The final section, "Myth and Religion Formation", explores the contact history between different cultural groups. The four chapters in this section encourage a pluralistic perspective to look beyond the limitations of "one language for one culture, one mythology, and one religion" (19). Lauri Harvilahti's "Mythic Logic and Meta-discursive Practices in the Scandinavian and Baltic Regions" examines the rituals and sacrifices in folk religions and Christianity; and Karolina Kouvola's "The Artificial Bride on Both Sides of the Gulf of Finland" focuses on the pre-Christian poem, The Golden Maiden, as a source of trans-Baltic contacts across Finnic and Scandinavian groups. Both chapters encourage readers evaluate communities on their own terms rather than through Christian paradigms. The final two chapters are written by two of the book's editors. Maths Bertell's "Local Sámi Bear Ceremonialism in a Circum-Baltic Perspective" surveys twenty-eight extant drums with pendants from southern and northern Sámi cultures to recast the regional study of Sámi material culture into a wider, pan-Baltic lens. Frog on "Mythologies in Transformation" nicely concludes the volume by emphasizing mythology's hybridity. Rather than studying different languages and cultures in isolation from each other, Frog claims that "instead what would be 'multiple mythologies' in a contact zone or contact network are reconceived as an expansive symbolic matrix comprised of socially accessible symbols" (282). As the final section, "Myth and Religion Formation"reinforces the book's larger aims that define the Baltic--not by ethnic, linguistic, or national boundaries--but by its constant contact and fluidity.

In tackling the wide geography of the Baltic, the volume would have benefited from new maps as an illustration of the Austmarr Network's goals to create a networked approach to the study of Baltic. Future publications by the Austmarr Network can hopefully incorporate maps of Finland, Karelia, Laplan, and the Scandinavian and Kola Peninsulas for readers unfamiliar with intricacies of the vast northern geography. It would also be productive to see contributions by art and visual cultural historians to further the transdisciplinary reach of the Austmarr group. Indeed, disciplines centered on the visual histories of Scandinavia and the Baltic region can contribute to the Austmarr Network's ongoing methodological discussions on the collation and reconciliation of textual and non-textual historical source material.

Nonetheless, the productive volume will no doubt facilitate future collaborative and transdisciplinary research on the Austmarr. Its individual chapter case-studies work in favor of the book's scope on the Baltic as comprised of diverse cultures, languages, and ethnic groups to ultimately demote unidirectional or unilateral models of interpretation. Contacts and Networks in the Baltic Sea Region proves that there cannot be an overarching, singular narrative of the Baltic.