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23.05.15 Andersen et al. (eds.), Urban Literacy in the Nordic Middle Ages

23.05.15 Andersen et al. (eds.), Urban Literacy in the Nordic Middle Ages

This anthology is the main result of the research project Research Network of Urban Literacy (RUL), initiated by two of the editors, Kasper H. Andersen and Jeppe Büchert Netterstrøm, and conducted in cooperation with the other editors and Morten Søvsø, one of the contributors to the book. The anthology includes thirteen individual articles that discuss various aspects of urban literacy based on diverse material from different parts of Scandinavia. The book starts with a comprehensive and thorough introduction that accounts for and problematizes various issues related to the topic of urban literacy. These include (i) the definition of the term “literacy” and how it intersects with other adjacent concepts, such as orality; (ii) the variety in the degree of urbanization in various parts of Scandinavia, which in this book includes Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland; (iii) the languages (Latin and vernacular) and script systems (Runic and Latin alphabet) that were used for writing in these areas; (iv) the interdisciplinary nature of the sources related to literacy (parchment and paper; epigraphy on objects; archaeology); and (v) the social spheres where literacy of various genres was most significant, namely religion, administration and law, and trade. The articles in the book are well structured and written, they are highly informative of the rich and fascinating material and the great variety of source groups related to literacy, and last but not least, they convincingly move beyond the descriptive and use the data to illuminate clearly posed questions. This review will account for how the articles address three main topics--urbanization and urban- versus-rural literacy; literacy in conjunction to other related theoretical concepts; and the significance of interdisciplinarity when studying literacy--and it will suggest some further debates, inspired by this book.

Let’s start with the topic of urbanization and urban life in Scandinavia. The introduction and several of the individual articles account for the main lines of the development of urbanization in the region, which also clarify the differences that exist between various parts of Scandinavia, both regarding the timeframe as well as the density or degree of urbanization. The map on p. xv of the book illustrates the latter issue very well and is a valuable visual resource. Despite the different historical situations, the focus of the book may, nonetheless, be said to be somewhat skewed towards Denmark, as more than half of the articles (in fact seven and a half) focus on Danish material. Two articles focus on Norway; one and a half on Sweden; one on Turku. The two “halves” constitute Gitte Tarnow Ingvardson’s article on Viking coins from Sigtuna and Lund, which is one of two articles that compare material from different towns in Scandinavia more explicitly. The other article that is fully comparative is Johnny Grandjean Gøgsig Jakobsen’s article on the role of the Dominicans for the spread of literacy and knowledge in urban centers in Scandinavia. Of course, a book like this cannot cover the literacy produced and used in all urban centers in the medieval North equally, nor can each and every article be expected to engage in comparative discussions. However, the book as a whole inspires the discussion of further major questions that concern the development of literacy and urbanization in Scandinavia as a whole, seen in connection to the overall political and ecclesiastical development of the area. For example: how did the union between Norway and Sweden in 1319 influence the development of literacy in the towns in both areas? and similarly, how did the Kalmar union in 1397 influence the development of literacy and urban life in the various areas of Scandinavia?

One very interesting conclusion that several of the authors reach is that it does not always make sense to discuss urban as opposed to rural literacy. This concerns, for example, runic writing in both Denmark and Norway (Lisbeth M. Imer, Rikke Steenholt Olesen, Elise Kleivane, Kristel Zilmer), and it may be exemplified by the literacy education provided by the Dominicans, often in towns, but also to priests of rural churches (Jakobsen). Of course, other sources or concepts, such as the town scribe as discussed by Poulsen, are especially and exclusively urban, and are central for the discussion of the development of urban identity in Denmark at the end of the 1400s and on onwards. Nonetheless, the book demonstrates that the literacy in urban and rural contexts may be better understood as interrelated rather than highly distinctive from each other.

Related to this fluctuating distinction between rural and urban literacy, I wish to mention the choice of the editors not to include the rich literary culture of Iceland, based on the reasoning that there were no towns there. As legitimate and acceptable a reason as this may be, it would be very interesting, in future research, to have a comparative look at Icelandic literary culture, seen in juxtaposition to “urban” literacy. One argument that may support or explain this suggestion is that some of the main texts mentioned by Jakobsen in his study of Dominican literary production, such as for example Vincent of Beauvais’Speculum historiale, were important inspirations for texts written, copied, and translated in Iceland in the course of the Middle Ages, such as Stjórn, Amíkus saga ok Amilíus, and the Old Norse Konungs skuggsjá, among others. Legenda aurea by Jacobus de Voragine, another major Dominican text, was also translated into Old Norse in Iceland in the 1500s. These examples demonstrate that it may be productive and interesting to compare “urban literacy” to “rural literacy,” in order to get a deeper insight into the spread and function of literacy along the rural-urban continuum.

The second major topic that lies at the center of the whole book is the definition of literacy and its intersection with other theoretical concepts such as orality, runacy, or numeracy. In the introduction of the book the editors position their discussions in conjunction with the work of some of the forefathers of the debate on literacy and orality, such as Ong and Goody, Stock and Clanchy. This is absolutely relevant, but I think that the book can be seen within an even broader (and more updated) theoretical landscape that also incorporates other related concepts such as aurality/vocality, materiality and visuality, and not least, sociality.

Some of the individual articles do this explicitly and many of the others do this implicitly. The introduction and several of the individual articles have their own definitions of literacy, or clarify what aspects of literacy they will be discussing, for example civic, administrative, judicial, pragmatic, etc. Further, all the articles discussing runic material point out that “runacy” (originally introduced by Terje Spurkland) and “literacy” are relatively interchangeable phenomena as Latin and the vernacular languages were written down with both runes and Latin letters in various parts of Scandinavia. Besides, several of the authors point out that in certain social strata, such as among merchants and craftsmen, literacy could be closely related to numeracy. Thus, collectively, the articles show that literacy often entailed various related intellectual abilities, revealing the complexity of human cognition.

Even though the book focuses on literacy, several of the articles acknowledge that literacy could indicate very different degrees of reading and writing competence, and that oral communication was still the most primary mode of communication in many of the discussed contexts, even during the late Middle Ages (see for example Kasper H. Andersen). This is demonstrated in a very specific way by Pettersson who discusses the Minute Books (liber memorialis) of Stockholm from the late Middle Ages and onwards and concludes that the diversity in form and language in the Minute Books could be seen as representing the heterogeneous “voices of the urban community” (374). Such observations reveal the potential for discussing the connections between literacy and orality, vocality and aurality even further, based on much of the material presented in the book. Scholars who have been critical of “The Great Divide” paradigm, such as Joyce Coleman and Ruth Finnegan, have pointed out that medieval textual culture lies on a spectrum of orality, literacy, vocality, and aurality, and that the most constant characteristic of medieval (and actually any) culture is the interaction between these, though with changing dynamics. Recent research on literature and ecology, for example Terrance Cave’s book Live Artefacts (2022), reminds us also that texts and literature existed within an ecology consisting of people of flesh and blood, who interacted physically, talked, discussed, exchanged opinions, and who produced, consumed, and listened to texts together. Following such lines of thought, this book is a great starting point for discussing the way literacy and orality/ aurality/ vocality co-existed and depended on each other and how this dynamic changed with time and in different contexts.

Several of the articles underline another important aspect that conditions our understanding of medieval literacy, namely its materiality and visuality (Elise Kleivane and Kristel Zilmer on runes, Gitte Tarnow Ingvardson on coins). As promoted by the material turn within the humanities, the materiality, visuality, design, and form of literacy need to be deciphered and studied in conjunction with the textuality and language of a text, in order to understand its full meaning.

A final aspect of literacy addressed by many, if not all of the articles, is its sociality. Writing is produced by and for people and its social aspects--who it was written by, for whom, for what reason, and with what consequences--add to the layers of meaning that can be uncovered based on analysis of textual content and language. Sometimes this perspective elucidates the role of specific individuals such as the town scribe (Bjørn Poulsen). Other times we learn more about specific social groups such as administrators, bureaucrats, members of the town council; merchants; craftsmen; members of the Church or monastic orders, or the King and his proteges, all of which are mentioned in many of the articles. Yet other times, the articles reveal the literacy produced and used by the heterogeneous urban society in general (Theresia Pettersson). Andreas Manhag contributes to this debate by pointing out that one and the same individual or group could have different social roles and could thus use literacy differently on various occasions. He demonstrates how the members of the cathedral chapters at Lund cathedral used literacy not only in their professional lives, but also for everyday, non-ecclesiastical communication, based on the fascinating material found under the medieval choir stalls of Lund Cathedral, originally constructed in the 1360s.

The theoretical span of the book as a whole is thus much wider that what is explicitly accounted for in its introduction. The articles can be related to a wider variety of orality-literacy debates; to cognitive theory and debates on intellectual affordances; to the eco-critical paradigm that sees texts and literature as symbiotic parts of human ecology; to the material turn; and to various social theories. The lack of explicit references to some of these theories does not diminish in any way the qualities of the individual articles or the book as a whole; the theories are just mentioned here as they may easily function as bridges that may facilitate further and future comparative studies of other types of medieval literacies.

The last great quality of this book to be mentioned is its profound interdisciplinarity. For example, Kasper H. Andersen treats various types of sources (town laws, town privileges, municipal seals, town books and town archives) to say as much as possible about civic literacy in Danish towns and to trace the chronology of its development. Janne Harjula, Visa Immonen and Kirsi Salonen study a combination of documentary sources, ecclesiastical objects, and archaeological finds to demonstrate a rich variety of literacies in several languages (Latin, Swedish, Middle Low German and oral Finnish) and script systems (runes and Latin letters), and with different functions, in medieval Turku. The articles by Morten Søvsø (on literacy based on archaeological material from Ribe) and Jeppe Büchert Netterstrøm (on administrative and judicial literacy in Ribe) prove the point of the usefulness of and necessity for interdisciplinarity excellently, as they complement each other in demonstrating the great discrepancy between historical sources (laws, records, registers, contracts, documents, primarily used by the elite, i.e., the Church, tradesmen, aristocracy) and archaeological finds.

When a book is so rich, it is easy to desire even more: mye vil ha mer (much wants more), as is expressed in a popular Norwegian colloquial expression. What about literacies of other genres, such as literature and liturgy? What about depictions of literacy as well as of orality (speaking, words) on art? These suggestions, out of many other possible, are not attempts to point out gaps in the book’s content. Rather they should be seen as responses to the book’s inspirational powers that trigger at least this reader to think of further ways to expand on and contribute to this complex debate, based on other available medieval sources.